Should America Be An Empire or Not?

August 7, 2008 at 11:31 pm | Posted in American politics | 13 Comments

Mother Jones got access to a Pentagon study done in 2002 on the lessons America could possibly learn from the great empires in history. This is a worthy question for a powerful nation like the United States to ask, particularly in terms of how America should behave towards the rest of the world. Should the United States stop being in denial that it acts like an empire? Should we stop the imperial actions and act as we believe we are, a benevolent power? Is there such a thing as a benevolent empire? At some point, someone will not like being dictated to by a distant power. We, the United States, for example, really didn’t care for England dictating our affairs without representation of some kind. We kicked the English out.

Today’s world is vastly different than any in the history of the world. Technology has brought the whole world to a point where nations and individuals are at a far more egalitarian point than ever before. A simple terrorist using a nation’s technology against itself can do far more damage than ever before (see 9/11 as the most successful example—on 9/11, 19 terrorists took control of jets belonging to us and used them as missiles to destroy various buildings. The only things they brought of themselves were their wit and box cutters. The rest of the damage was done with our technology). To attempt to study past imperial successes in a present scenario isn’t very effective, in my view at least, for at least four reasons that I can think of without much thinking.

1. Forces back then were much more brutal to local populations.
2. Local populations were less educated and more malleable.
3. Local populations had few if any avenues of recourse or rebellion.
4. Rebuilding and improving social conditions within the local population was easier and cheaper than today.

Technology has changed the face of the world. For one, a local population can turn against the occupying forces and through slash and burn guerrilla warfare cause death by a thousand cuts to the occupying force. The improved education and communication has made it more difficult for modern forces to be as brutal as in the past. A massacre of a local population can turn the tide of public opinion, even in the population of the occupying forces, making it vastly more difficult politically to maintain that occupation. Vietnam, for example, was a disaster because the American forces could not be as brutal as they probably needed to be to pacify the Vietnamese, and when they did attempt the more brutal actions, they proved to be severe trouble back at home politically. This was not taken into account by those who proposed the actions in the first place, or those who tried to continue them.

The purpose of the Pentagon’s 2002 study was to figure out how the United States could “win” in the Middle East. I’m glad that the Pentagon realized for a while that any attempts to control such a volatile area is highly risky and probably doomed to fail in the long term. It goes to show though, that much of the thinking in the Pentagon is that the United States is to stay deeply involved in the Middle East for the foreseeable future. This is somewhat sad, because most of the pains we have had to deal with relate directly with our meddling in the Middle East with our military. Bin Laden stated that the reason he declared war on us was because of our military presence in his home country of Saudi Arabia.

World War II radically changed our country, our psyche, our identity, our ideals. We were, and I hate to say it this way, but we were traumatized by the Nazis. I don’t think we were necessarily overly horrified by what they had done. What horrified us was the scale on which it was done. Genocide had been done before numerous times. It was not a new phenomenon. What was new was the scale. Germany was the most powerful nation on the planet in 1939. They had the will, the means, the capability, and enough political support to actuate a genocide on a scale like no other. We vowed “never again” will we allow such an event to occur. Of course, events like those are highly rare (seeing that it happened only once), but that did not stop us from radically altering our behavior. Every minor threat, every two bit dictator was viewed in the Hitler prism. We became stuck in 1939 rather than move forward with the rest of the world. We kept bases in Germany and Japan and placed other bases in numerous other places. We created the CIA with the instructions, first, to be a spy agency, and then secondly to become a covert operation group. We would dabble in the affairs of local populations. We would sow the seeds of chaos to disallow certain individuals we didn’t like from getting into power, regardless of popular will of the local population. Henry Kissinger stood best for this mindset when he said:

“I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”

The fear of that “never again” becoming an “again” was of greater importance to the United States than the will of the locals in Chile. Nevermind, of course, that Chile would not, and certainly could not ever attain the strength and power of Nazi Germany. But it could be a link in a stronger chain tied to the Soviet Union, which was, at that point, our “never again.” The Soviets under Stalin had killed over 20 million of its own during the 1940s. Very very repressive. Very bad regime and ideology. This fear, however, was not very realistic. It was overhyped. The Soviet Union was bankrupting itself in its attempts to keep up with the real threats it faced from the United States. It was, inevitably, a matter of time when they would face reality that they had to stop (which they did in the late 1980s). Ironically, the Soviet Union’s fall came quicker thanks to their failed attempt at increasing their empire through its invasion of Afghanistan. The locals however, fueled by the United States, turned against the occupying force, and caused a death by thousand cuts, forcing the Soviet Union into an embarrassing, ignominious withdrawal of Afghanistan.

How should our military behave in the world today, and particularly in the Middle East?

1. Continue building close relations and good communications with other militaries. Keeping in constant communication makes it harder to misinterpret what an opponent does. As Sun Tzu counseled, “know thy enemy.”

2. Have a good understanding of the ranking and lines of commands of belligerent militaries. The incident at the Strait of Hormuz back in January 2008 was very close to starting a shooting war between the Iranians and the Americans that really didn’t need to happen. Surprisingly from what I read about that incident, the Americans had no communication with their counterparts within the Iranian military. Why not? An American general gets on the phone with an Iranian general and learns that there was a mixup down the ladder and the Iranian general recalls the boats apologizing to the American general. Problem solved. No damage done.

The rest of the things that need to be done are political and must be done by politicians.

The thing to realize right now is that we are trying to control the world, to get it to do things as we wish them to do things. We think we’ve got life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness down and that other philosophies don’t work like ours does. We are arrogant but don’t seem to care. While it is true that our general philosophy on life has produced strong results, we have not figured everything out. Our system is not perfect and has many defects. This is not to say we should dismiss what we have for other alternatives. I think our general philosophy works the best, but it needs some improvements.

I lean on not trying to control the world. We cannot stop every threat to our nation. We cannot stop every “never again” moments. Heck, we failed with Rwanda. We’re failing with Darfur (which is, sadly, still going on). These two incidents, sadly, were not “never again” moments because they really were not a threat to us, were in very remote areas, not strategically located, and had no chance of spreading out like Nazi Germany or Communist Russia. The less we use our military as a political tool, the more long term success we will have. Our real power is soft. We are liked by most of the world because we produce so many things that benefit people, that bring happiness, or massive consumption. We have inspired creativity and innovation. I am amazed to see what other places in the world have done as inspired by what we have done.

What we should do with our military is strengthen its defense capabilities, rather than its offense capabilities. Let our enemies come to us, if they dare. The more we stretch out toward other lands, the less powerful we become. That is one of the greatest lessons of the Roman Empire, ironically, the example that the Pentagon picked as the one to follow. As Edward Gibbon said:

“But the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long.”

The Pentagon has looked to the wrong examples when questioning what path America should take in its survival as a superior force for the future. It should look at the enduring examples of nations that did NOT attempt to control the world around it. Let me name two examples that come to mind: China and India. To my knowledge, and I admit not to be an expert (what blogger is) on this, China and India were never considered expansive imperial powers. Their histories are not replete with examples of attempts to conquer lands around them. (In fact, in the case of China, they had built a massive Great Wall in order to keep OUT foreign invaders—certainly not something you would do if you were planning on heading OUT to conquer). They endured thousands of years.

How long had the conquering empires lasted? Napoleon’s France lasted not more than a few years. The Roman Empire lasted about 1000 years, but for the most of that history, they did NOT go conquering. They built up their power and influence for a few hundred years and then a conquering they went. Alexander the Great’s Macedonian empire lasted only as long as he was alive. Because of squabbling among his sons, it came crashing down. Why would anyone look at that example for what to do? I don’t get it.

If we want America to endure, we must stop trying to force others to “bend to our views” as some Americans want. America is at its best when it doesn’t force. America is at its worst when it does force because we, well, to put plainly, suck at it. We are not good at being brutal. It goes against the principles we believe in, and when we do it, it reflects badly on everything else we do. We proclaim high standards to the world around us, demanding they treat everyone respectfully. Thus because we believe those principles, we are conflicted when faced with a situation requiring brutality for success. We just can’t do it right. In fact, it makes matters worse when we act brutally than if we hadn’t acted at all. And that is my point. It is better, in the long run, for the United States to not be brutal, and to not take the paths that lead to brutality. We know where those paths are in any given situation. They are not mysterious. Invading Iraq, as one example, was clearly going to lead America into a brutal situation. This is not to say that military action should not ever be taken. What it is saying is that military action should be taken judiciously and not rushed. All the evidence, in the case of Iraq, shows a rush to judgment and a lack of thought.

To conclude, I believe America will endure as the most powerful and influential country in the world by projecting its soft power patiently and employing military power judiciously. We must elect leaders who respect this pattern. We won’t be liked by everyone, and we don’t want that anyways. We must be tried, we must be kept in check or our own power will go to our heads and we will lose the balance we carefully nurture. It is easy to fall prey to the temptation to use military might. It is easy to kill someone. It is hard to have that person stay alive and eventually come around to your view. The one has short term benefits, the other has long term benefits. I prefer the long term benefits for the endurance of my nation.

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  1. As a brand new, green missionary in France, on my very first day out tracting, at the very first door, a man who was obviously annoyed at having to answer the door and talk with us, I received the shock of my young American life when he proudly announced in front of me and my two missionary companions (it was trade-off day, otherwise known as “P-day”, so it was 2 Elders and a Sister tracting together) and God and all His Holy Angels that he, by golly, was a Communist with a capital C. Of course, I was completely dumbfounded that a human being would openly admit to being a Communist. Well, I eventually learned that the Communist Party is a legitimate political party in France, and I would no doubt come across a few more Communists with a capital C before I was to return home 22 months later.

    I’m surprised, given Henry Kissinger’s outlook, that we’ve never bombed the heck out of France for giving aid and comfort to so many Communists.

  2. Mark,

    That’s an interesting experience. In Romania I was a counsellor in one branch to a retired Communist military officer who had converted. Interesting guy. I don’t know how much of a testimony he actually had, but he was fairly decent at being a branch president.

  3. The empire needs to go. Everything that our empire stands for is against the laws of God and good moral sense. Our empire exists now to enrich the few and our military is employed in protecting our plundering and pillaging of the world’s riches. I agree that our troops should be brought home to defend our borders, to be used defensively only and not in offense as it is used 100% of the time now. Our support of brutal dictators (a policy that is relatively on the decline) needs to end. Our policy of regime overthrow of governments such as the above mentioned Chilean government (hardly communist, but better described as socialist-democrat) and our current efforts to overthrow Iran and Venezuela’s governments… these are all part of the reach of our empire. The assassinations, the support of paramilitaries, the black ops, the full weight of Satan’s use of secret combinations, are all part of our empire.

  4. Whoa! Let me get this straight, we are only allowed to look at history to see how imperial states failed???? Sounds like you look back at history with a pretty heavy agenda. Why can’t we look at how they succeded? Cause the reasons you give suck… We aren’t as brutal as they were back then? Thats why the Holocaust happened last century, and why we dropped a nuke on Japan, and bombed the crap out of Europe. Those are much more civilized huh? Please! But you do realize that the ancient empires success was not always based on their brutality. Just look at the Babylonian Empire. They conqurered the Greek land on Turkey, and when the Ionian Greeks rebelled, the rebellion was put down, after which Xerxes asked the Greeks why they revolted, he heard their requests and reformed his policy to accomodate their needs. Hardly what I would call “brutal” tactics. I would also say that is a great lesson to learn from ancient imperialism! Their cultures were hardly more malleable. They had just as much if not more cultural identity as we do now. And you think they had no recourse for rebellion???? Are you serious? The Ottoman Empire had ONE army. ONE. They had no railroads, no cars. Do you know how big their empire was. If you wanted to rebell, you practically had a year to do it before any enforcement would arrive. And your last point that rebuilding and improving social conditions was easier back then????? what, are you crazy. Technology has changed the face of the world… Everywhere there is improved education and technology, which does not exactly make rebuilding more difficult, and education is hardly degrading to social conditions.

    So while you use historical examples to show how to maintain a stong country, which by the way are completely incorrect so I appreciate your acknowledgment of that. Historical examples can also be used to study impreialism.

    But this is nearly entirely pointless to discuss, becuase the pentagon did not issue the “study” to figure out how to win in the Middle East, as you suggest. Your Mother Jones says “to draw lessons about how the United States “should think about maintaining military advantage in the 21st century.” Maintaining military advantage does not equate to imperialism. Nor does it equate to brutality, “And that is my point. It is better, in the long run, for the United States to not be brutal, and to not take the paths that lead to brutality.” Having a military advantage just helps to ensure our survival. It does not mean we will be brutal, and so we most defenitely can and will learn how to do this from history 🙂 As such your entire discourse about WWII and the holocaust feuling our imperialism seems irrellevant. Not to mention ridiculous.

  5. Joe,

    Whoa! Let me get this straight, we are only allowed to look at history to see how imperial states failed???? Sounds like you look back at history with a pretty heavy agenda. Why can’t we look at how they succeded?

    Name me an imperial state that has survived intact with its power. If we are to consider America an “empire” then most definitely we should study WHY all previous empires failed, because they all did eventually fail. True indeed they were successful at conquering nearly half the world, but it was not enduring. If we want the United States to endure, we should look at examples of nations that did NOT go conquering. One example is China.

    We aren’t as brutal as they were back then? Thats why the Holocaust happened last century, and why we dropped a nuke on Japan, and bombed the crap out of Europe. Those are much more civilized huh? Please!

    True, we were quite brutal in World War II. But World War II was not an attempt by us to control the world. It was pushing back against two nations that attempted to do what we are doing now. Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany were hell bent on dominating the world through military power. But, like previous empires, they failed and got spanked by the rest of the world.

    Just look at the Babylonian Empire. They conqurered the Greek land on Turkey, and when the Ionian Greeks rebelled, the rebellion was put down, after which Xerxes asked the Greeks why they revolted, he heard their requests and reformed his policy to accomodate their needs. Hardly what I would call “brutal” tactics.

    Huh, I read in your example there “the rebellion was put down.” I wonder how brutal that “put down” was… Xerxes was not known for being nice with those who he subjugated. At least when the subjugation occurred. He may have been nice afterwards, but taking them required brutality. Furthermore, Xerxes overreached, spread himself thin, and eventually failed. Yet another example of a failed empire.

    Your last paragraph is full of jumbled mumbo jumbo. You bet the article was on how the United States can retain its military power, take lessons from previous imperial powers who tried to control the world through military power. That is indeed an empire. Why would we look to examples of empires to study how we should manage our military power today if we we weren’t an empire ourselves? That just doesn’t make sense. We are an empire. We use our military to control other nations rather than defend ourselves. We may call it a “defense of our interests” but when our “interests” are imperial in nature, that “defense” is part of the package of being an empire.

  6. Joe,

    Please be more respectful in your comments.

  7. “Name me an imperial state that has survived intact with its power.” I can’t but neither can you name a single country that has survived intact. China is no such thing. They have been raped, plundered, divided, conquered, and turned communist. Not exactly what I would go to looking for an historical example.

    For every 1 empire that has existed, there were multiple passive countries that were conquered to create that empire. Therefore for every example you give me of imperialism failing, I will give you ten examples of pacifism failing 🙂

    In my book being brutal does equate to defeating an army.

    “Why would we look to examples of empires to study how we should manage our military power today if we we weren’t an empire ourselves?” Daninel, who had the best military power in history? Was it the empires, or the countries they conquered? Hmmm, that’s some tough mumbo jumbo to understand!!! As students of history, when seeking knowledge in building military power, the best examples are used. The Empires were the best at doing this. They have, what some might call, a proven track record.

    Let me go back to your original post for a minute, you said, “Alexander the Great’s Macedonian empire lasted only as long as he was alive. Because of squabbling among his sons, it came crashing down. Why would anyone look at that example for what to do? I don’t get it.” The Macedonian empire is used because they ARE NOT LOOKING AT EMPIRE BUILDING. The study was specifically done to examine how to maintain military advantage. Alexander conquered a heck of a lot of people using what do you think? Yes that is right, military advantage. So we study him because he was good at it. Now of course if we were to study “enduring imperialism” we would not use Alexander, because like you said, it did not last long. So thanks for proving my point for me. The study is NOT about imperialism. It is a study in how to maintain our military advantage.

    Cheers to history 🙂

  8. Joe,

    Therefore for every example you give me of imperialism failing, I will give you ten examples of pacifism failing

    You think I advocate pacifism? Did you even read what I wrote or is this the hard-wired automatic response out of conservatives these days? Let me quote again from my last paragraph:

    To conclude, I believe America will endure as the most powerful and influential country in the world by projecting its soft power patiently and employing military power judiciously.

    The Pentagon was looking at the wrong examples, but they were looking at those examples because the Pentagon wishes to attempt to control more of the world under an American empire. I counter that that is self-destructive. America’s greatest strength is not her military. It is her soft power. America will endure as the greatest country in the world by NOT projecting her military power outward to every corner of the earth. We are being reckless rather than judicious with our military power, and it is weakening our position. This is not smart. And it will not endure.

    In my book being brutal does equate to defeating an army.

    I never talked about “defeating an army.” I talked about defeating a nation, a people. To defeat a people, you have to be brutal. Take for example the Russians right now with Georgia. Georgia will lose, badly, and will be defeated. The Russians will be brutal, but they will win.

    Daninel, who had the best military power in history? Was it the empires, or the countries they conquered?

    Empires had the best military power for a short time until enough competitors arose to defeat them. And that’s my point. They do not endure. It is not a safe direction for our nation to go.

    As students of history, when seeking knowledge in building military power, the best examples are used. The Empires were the best at doing this. They have, what some might call, a proven track record.

    No they don’t, because they could not effectively “hold” the positions they took.

  9. pacifism – I had a bad choice of words there. My intent was “countries without expansive foreign policies.” I just did not have a word to describe it.

    ha ha ha. You seriously think that the Pentagon is going to study how to create an enduring empire by studying one that immediately failed? Please, you may think they are unintelligent, but no one purposefully builds an argument to fail. Yet that is what you are suggesting. You try then to hide this ridiculous suggestion of yours by switching to the superfluous question of whether our greatest strength is our military. The study is about the military. It was done to”draw lessons about how the United States should think about maintaining military advantage in the 21st century.” It is beyond the topic of the study to determine what effect a military advantage will have. But nice job trying to avoid the embarrasment of not thinking through your argument.

    I shared with you my definition of brutality because you claimed that Xerxes was brutal in the “put down” of the rebellion. I was simply clarifying that defeating armies in combat is not “brutality”. Taking the Ionian Greeks, did not require brutality. It wasdone using military advantage and unbrutal tactics.

    “Empires had the best military power for a short time until enough competitors arose to defeat them.”

    Bysantine Empire 1000+ years, Islamic Empire 1000+ years, Roman empire 500+ years, Ottoman empire 500+ years, Holy Roman Empire 500+ years, Persian Empire almost 500 years, British Empire almost 500 years, Spanish empire almost 500 years, Han China almost 500 years, Middle kingdom of India almost 500 years, Egyptian Empire 500+ years.

    You call those short lived? You call that not effectively holding positions they take? Wake up and smell the roses.

  10. Joe,

    You seriously think that the Pentagon is going to study how to create an enduring empire by studying one that immediately failed?

    Indeed. They studied Macedonia which lasted only as long as Alexander did.

    Taking the Ionian Greeks, did not require brutality. It wasdone using military advantage and unbrutal tactics.

    So you are saying that Xerxes didn’t kill any civilians in putting down that rebellion…

  11. Daniel,

    I think you’ve completely missed the boat on this. Our emipre is not military–it’s economic. And we are NOT squeemish about economic brutality, because of our ignorant confusion of the “free market” with “capitalism.”

    The U.S. does not believe in a “free market;” it just uses that euphemism to justify its imperial economic policies.

    Militarily, our 823 international military “installations” (NOT counting Iraq or Afghanistan) are only there to protect ecoomic interests. They are not there to subjegate peoples, enforce laws, etc. They are only there to be a constant reminder of who “owns” the world.

    Unfortunately (or fortunately, I can’t tell yet), our “leaders” have borrowed more than we can (or are willing to) cover. Since war hasn’t humbled us, maybe we’ll get hit where it really counts–our wallets (Alma 32:15 & D&C 19:15).

  12. Dave,

    But, as you even admit, we use our military to “defend” that economic empire. If we didn’t use our military to defend our economic interests then you would have a good point.

  13. Just keep repeating that lie to yourself then.

    Are you saying xerxes did kill civilians?


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