By Ivan Eland
- The United States maintains more than 700 military bases worldwide, spanning an area that dwarfs the great empires of world history. Although many conservative and liberal leaders today support a policy of foreign interventionism, extensive military engagement around the world is a policy deeply at odds with principles of the republics foundersand deeply at odds with the economic, political, and security interests of the American people.
- The United States has military dominance but no longer has the economic dominance to match; it accounts for nearly 40 percent of the worlds military spending but only about 30 percent of global GDP. The United States is so dominant today only because other empires declined as a result of losing wars (Germany and Japan) or becoming overextended overseas relative to their frail economies (Britain, France, and the Soviet Union). If the U.S. empire stays the course, Americas economic dominance and political influence will likely decline.
- Why is the United States disproportionately attacked by terrorists? Although in America the president, other high-level policymakers, the foreign-policy elite, the media, and even large segments of the public are in a state of denial, the key factor is obvious to the rest of the world: the interventionist U.S. foreign policy in support of the informal American global empire. The United States has received unfavorable ratings from people in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries around the world, not because of its political and economic freedoms or its culture, but because of its policiesparticularly toward the Middle East.
- Islamic radical terrorists, such as Osama bin Laden, blame the United States for supporting corrupt governments in the Muslim world and for stationing troops on Muslim soil. Ensuring stability in the Muslim world has little to do with U.S. security and more to do with propping up despotic client regimes of the U.S. empire.
- Instead of fighting only al Qaeda, the Bush administration used the public fear and outrage after the September 11 attacks to obtain support for an expansive, preemptive global war on terror and rogue states. Imperial designs and pressure by various special-interest groups probably were key motives behind the wider war.
- Small government conservatives who favor military adventurism should check their history and rethink their assumptions. Increases in nondefense spending have been lower during administrations in which warfare was sporadic or nonexistent (Carter, Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton) than during the three administrations in which major long-term wars were being fought. Like prior wars, Bush IIs War on Terror has led to increases in both defense spending and nondefense spending (which has increased more during the wartime presidency of George W. Bush than during any comparable period since the wartime administration of Lyndon Johnson).
- President Bill Clinton invoked a humanitarian rationale for interventions in Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Somalia. In the first three instances, that rationale was dubious; the fourth episode was an abysmal failure. Despite the idealistic rhetoric often used to justify U.S. military actions, in the last hundred years the only truly humanitarian mission in which American forces have died was that of Somalia in 1992 and 1993.
- Knowing that popular support for military actions unrelated to American security is fragile, U.S. policymakers resort to war on the cheap. Unfortunately, this strategy has resulted in the use of military tactics that increase casualties among civilians in the nation being helped. The use of heavy U.S. air and ground firepower results in the moral equivalent of killing people to save them. Thus, military interventions for humanitarian purposes usually achieve the opposite result and are morally questionable.
- Heavy-handed U.S. military intervention to facilitate social work almost always fails because of the onset of mission creep (e.g., in Lebanon and Somalia), the creation of enemies as a result of taking sides in local disputes or using excessive force (e.g., in Lebanon, Somalia, and Iraq), the exacerbation of original problems (e.g., ethnic cleansing in Kosovo), or the loss of public support at home (e.g., Lebanon, Somalia, and Iraq).
- In a postCold War world, taking into account only the security of American citizens, their property, and U.S. territory, the benefits of an interventionist foreign policy have declined and the costs have escalated dramatically. Americans continue to pay excessive taxes to defend countries that are rich enough to defend themselves or to occupy conquered countries in the worlds backwaters (e.g., Iraq and Afghanistan). Their sons and daughters are killed on remote foreign battlefields for reasons even more remote from U.S. vital interests.
- Contrary to red herrings offered by the interventionists, an offshore balancer need not be militarily weak or an appeaser of threatening enemies. Truly vital national interests should be declared and vigorously defended. Other countries see that the United States will take action to safeguard critical interests in a limited number of cases. Instead of profligate and often vague security commitments spanning the globe (e.g., Americas nebulous commitment to Taiwan if attacked by China), the U.S. needs a narrow, clearly defined set of paramount interests that will be staunchly defended.
Most Americans dont think of their government as an empire, but in fact the United States has been steadily expanding its control of overseas territories since the turn of the twentieth century. Nor do most Americans think that the global U.S. military presence threatens their security or economic interests or that it hinders the democratic aspirations of citizens of other countries; many Americans consider U.S. interventionism progressive or, at worst, benign.
Unfortunately, a great chasm lies between common perception and reality, according to defense policy expert Ivan Eland (senior fellow and director of the Independent Institutes Center on Peace & Liberty). In The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, Dr. Eland argues against both conservative and liberal proponents of American empire, methodically making the case that U.S. military interventionism harms the interests of Americans politically, economically, and militarily. His thesisthat the United States and probably the world would be more free, secure and prosperous if the U.S. government reduced its military involvement overseas, much as the nations founders had urgedis certain to garner intense interest from those who recognize the need for a thoroughgoing examination of U.S. foreign policy and national security policy.
The Origins and Nature of the U.S. Empire
Although U.S. imperial stirrings began with a colonial foray in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and in the Caribbean and Central America in the early 1900s, the global American empire did not explode onto the world scene until 1950, Eland explains. Only during the Cold War did America finally abandon its traditional foreign policy of acting as an offshore balancer of power in favor of Pax Americanaa worldwide network of alliances, forward-deployed military forces at bases scattered around the globe, and a policy of direct and indirect intervention in the affairs of many other nations. If the purpose of Pax Americana were simply to fight the spread of communism, it would have been dismantled after the demise of the Soviet Union. Instead, the American empire grew larger after the Cold War ended.
Unlike the Roman and British empires, the American empire for the most part is not one of territorial conquest (although the U.S. occupation of foreign territories is happening with increasing frequency). Americas empire is a subtler, more informal version along the lines of Ancient Sparta. The United States exerts more control over its allies foreign policy than over their domestic affairs, although it probably would not allow major allies to become authoritarian or totalitarian states. Furthermore, the empires of old gained resources and plunder, captive markets for their exports, and tax revenue from their territories. The United States gets none of those things from its allies and client states. (U.S. allies even refuse to fully open their markets to U.S. exports and investment.) Instead, it gets a billin blood and treasurefor the defense of nations that are now rich enough to defend themselves.
Why Conservatives Should Be Against Empire
Eland argues that the concept of empire is contrary to the principles of both liberals and conservatives. Conservatives should oppose an American empire, because war is the primary cause of Big Governmentincluding the growth of nondefense spendingwhich in turn requires increased taxes. Hostile relations with other nations also breed protectionism and controls on financial flows, thus undermining the principles of free trade. Bloated government, high taxes, and restricted international commerce slow economic growth, undermining the prosperity and well-being of American society. Over time, lower U.S. economic growth rates could cause the United States to fall into relative decline, as happed to the overextended, overtaxed British Empire in the last century.
Conservatives worry about the nations security, but the United States does not need an empire to ensure it; America has two great oceans as moats, weak and friendly neighbors, and the most potent nuclear arsenal on the planet.
Why Liberals Should Be Against Empire
Liberals should oppose an empire, Eland argues, because many of the so-called humanitarian military interventions of the United States often have unhumanitarian consequences. The abysmal track record of attempts to bring democracy and free markets to countries coercively shows that such interventions usually fail to restructure fractured and violent societies. In the long term, violations of nations sovereigntieseven for humanitarian endsundermine international norms against cross-border aggression and encourage separatist groups to revolt. Over time, therefore, more people are likely to be killed than saved by U.S. interventions into failed states. Instead of placing the lives of U.S. soldiers between two opposing sides not yet ready to make peace, the international community should focus on helping nations in which all parties to a conflict are exhausted by war and are ready to stop fighting.
Humanitarian military interventionism, Eland argues, also faces strong moral objections: If a military intervention is unnecessary, then killing innocent civilians even accidentally is immoral. Furthermore, foreign wars erode civil liberties at home. Finally, many vested interestsincluding the arms industryturn war fervor into corporate welfare. Humanitarian rationales for military intervention are often employed to cloak motives of realpolitik.
Why All Americans Should Be Against Empire
Perhaps the most compelling reason for all Americans to oppose a U.S. empire, according to Eland, is that the empire is destroying the republic. An imperial foreign policy has led to an imperial presidency that is much more powerful than the founders intended. In recent years, the overextended American empire has threatened the American homeland and the civil liberties of Americansboth through blowback (the dangerous backlash against prior policies) and the enormous expansion of domestic federal power, including broader police surveillance and detention powers.
As much as some would like to use U.S. military power to restructure failed states, this is likely to be an unsuccessful and dangerous undertaking. Bitter civil warsethnic and otherwisebreed terrorism. The United States is hated worldwide for its interference in the affairs of other nations and peoples, and the attacks on September 11 were only the most obvious instances of blowback from U.S. foreign policy. Because intelligence is imperfect and Americathe largest truly open society in the worldis very vulnerable to terrorism, improved homeland security can go only so far in protecting Americans from future catastrophic terrorist attacks. A better solution is to whiteout the bulls-eye painted on America by dismantling its empire and scrapping its interventionist foreign policy.
With the demise of Americas chief rival, the Soviet Union, the benefits of Pax Americana and profligate military interventions worldwide have declined dramatically. With the advent of catastrophic terrorism, the costs of such an activist foreign policy have increased precipitously. Thus, the quest for empire is a foreign policy but not a security policy.
An Appropriate Foreign Policy for the Modern Age
The republics founders realized that Americas geographical remoteness vis-à-vis other nation-states allowed the luxury of distancing itself from entangling alliances and foreign quarrels, defining its vital interests narrowly, and adopting a policy of military restraint. In an age of catastrophic terrorism, the founders original foreign policy is more relevant than ever. Profligate intervention overseas is not needed for security against other nation-states and only leads to blowback from the one threat that is difficult to deterterrorism. In short, the U.S. empire lessens American prosperity, power, security and moral standing. It also erodes the founding principles of the American Constitution.
Americans have ignored the economic, political and security costs of the burgeoning empire at great peril. As Eland writes in the books introduction, The fuzzy criteria that the U.S. government uses to determine whether American forces should intervene indicate that the American foreign policy is askew. Unlike the empires of old, which limited their military interventions to certain parts of the world, the United States is trying to police the entire globe. This book offers an alternative vision of a more restrained U.S. foreign policy that is more focused, more achievable, less costly, and a lot less dangerous.
Public debate about the U.S. role in the world has finally begun in earnest, and The Empire Has No Clothes delivers a penetrating argument to that debate, exposing the imperial motives behind an interventionist foreign policy, questioning the historical assumptions on which it is based, and advocating a return to the founders vision of military restraint overseas.
About the Author
IVAN ELAND is recognized as one of the leading experts in U.S. defense and foreign policy. He is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute.
He received his M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office, and Investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Eland is the author of Putting Defense Back into U.S. Defense Policy and The Efficacy of Economic Sanctions as a Foreign Policy Tool, a contributor to numerous volumes, and the author of forty-five in-depth studies on national security issues. His articles have appeared in Arms Control Today, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Mediterranean Quarterly, and Middle East and International Review, and his popular writings have appeared in such publications as the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Post, Newsday, Chicago Sun-Times, and Defense News. He has appeared on ABC, NPR, PBS, Fox News, CNBC, CNN, C-SPAN, MSNBC, Radio Free Europe, and BBC.
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