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Wednesday, October 13, 2004

 

a poor empire, part one


niall ferguson's latest tome was an intriguing read, even if much of what he says about the american empire isn't exactly new to me. his fine research and the perspective of a historian of the british empire endows the book with a thoroughness that makes it solid reading, even if i disagree with his assessment of the potential of even a well-managed american empire because of our cultural deterioration.

one of the weaknesses ferguson examines -- and, indeed, as an advocate of imperial governance, laments and would correct -- is evident among isolationist old-line conservatives most prominently, and that is the need to get the hell out. buchanan's american conservative magazine ran a cover article titled "Seven Habits of Highly Effective Imperialists" in an effort to show where things have been going wrong in iraq and afghanistan under the direction of "dilettantes" like douglas feith.

unfortunately, point 6 -- Leave quickly and set up a puppet government -- while being what any american conservative would want, is exactly the opposite of what successful imperialists do, in ferguson's convincing analysis. the british in iraq, having invaded in 1914, promised to leave no less than 66 times subsequently -- but tellingly stayed, machinated, enforced and de facto ruled as an open secret. not until 1958 did they go, forced out.

america, on the other hand, is always looking for the door. as ferguson noted in this exchange with david kennedy:
Unfortunately what they positively do is to impose a model--a political model on the world which is disastrous. And that's the model of self-determination, of independent nation-states. That's what creates the instability that requires another World War to settle it.
yet so deeply ingrained is the need for american imperial armies to stay out of the field to hide from ourselves the fact that we are, in fact, an empire of global span and massive significance, that short deployment is the bylaw of american military operation. we need to establish these ostensibly free-acting states because we cannot maintain the will to fight. (in this respect, when bin laden calls the united states a paper tiger, he is not wrong.)

the "deep ambivalence", in ferguson's words, of the american population toward an overseas empire is a function of the penetration of our ideology -- essentially individualist rousseauian plebiscitarianism -- into the mythology of the united states. indeed, most americans conflate what i describe as a colonial tax revolt with the much more powerful french revolution because our history has been so effectively revised by a rousseauian viewpoint. (the british, having a deep parliamentary tradition championed by burke to lean on, were much more resistant to such populism in their imperial age). having put the people in power, as opposed to the aristocracy that we began with and which dominated britain for all of their run at the top, i think we have effectively made impossible the sort of imperial construction that britain (and rome, for that matter) was able to undertake with the oversight of the aristocrats.

this isn't something that can be fixed, any more than americans would willingly give up any of their freedoms to "the rich" or "the special interests". the only manner, in fact, in which one can get the american proletariat to put aside their compunctions for any length of time is making them very afraid. this was the manner in which all the major post-ww1 american military engagements came into being, and it is how these came into being. once that fear and anger wears away, however, the resolution evaporates and we all start asking about exit strategies.

as i've examined before, there are some (the neocon cabal) who believe that this selfish attention-deficit disorder can be remedied by resorting to the propaganda of mythological nationalism -- turning the united states from a self-conscious, self-obsessed, distracted nation of wafflers into a state with the sort of unipolar, unstoppable political will that germany exhibited in the 1930s -- essentially using plebiscitarianism against itself. is this sort of solicitation of the mass hysterias of jingoism and fear really an enduring solution? i think probably not.

there's more to this story, of course -- the fiscal conditions that accompany the current state of affairs in america is a yet more devastating achilles heel, one that ferguson does not ignore. i'll save that for another post.


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