America, look into the mirror

By Robert Jensen

Published in The Hindu · June, 2004

[Also distributed as “It’s not just the emperor who is naked, but the whole empire” on ZNet Commentary, May 30, 2004, and posted on Common Dreams, Global Policy Forum, Dissident Voice, May 24, 2004.]

Republican politicians took potshots at House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi last week after she called President Bush “incompetent” and criticized his judgment and leadership. Her conclusion — “the emperor has no clothes” — understandably made Republicans angry, because it is so obviously accurate.

Pelosi’s remarks deserve scrutiny, but not because she was too harsh on the president. The lies and distortions that Bush and his top officials used to promote the U.S. invasion of Iraq were exposed long ago, and day-by-day the disastrous consequences of the occupation are obvious to all but the most fanatical of the Leader’s faithful.

But the problem is not just that the EMPEROR is bare, but that the U.S. EMPIRE has no clothes, and in that respect mainstream Democrats stand before the world as naked as the most reactionary Republicans.

It is understandable that many think of Bush administration policies as a radical departure from past U.S. foreign policy, and certainly the doctrine of preemption (which is so far untested, because Iraq posed no threat to the United States; the U.S. invasion, therefore, didn’t preempt anything but was instead a simple crime against peace) and the open call for world domination have taken the country — and the world — down a particularly dangerous path. But Bush is hardly the first president to engage in empire building.

A few years ago, anyone who described the United States as an empire was branded part of the loony left. But since 9/11, even conservative pundits talk of empire, albeit in perversely positive terms, exhorting U.S. leaders to seize the opportunity to remake the world.

But that project didn’t begin with 9/11. Whatever point in U.S. history one claims as the beginning of the imperial project (the genocide of indigenous people in North America? the Monroe Doctrine? the conquest of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War?), there is no doubt that U.S. empire building went into high gear after World War II. The fact that the United States doesn’t acquire colonies in the same fashion as past empires, preferring instead to install compliant governments that will do its bidding, doesn’t make us less an empire. The modalities of control change, but the game remains the same; set the terms for the world economy and derail the possibility of independent development by any means necessary, with a gargantuan military on call when violence is required.

Nor do the differences in style and tactics make Democratic administrations any less imperial than Republicans. The Cold-War liberals of the Democratic Party had no greater qualms than Republicans about using the military to extend U.S. power in the Third World. The blood of millions of dead Vietnamese is on the hands of liberal darling John F. Kennedy and conservative curmudgeon Richard Nixon alike. Whatever the differences in domestic policy in the postwar period between Republicans and Democrats, in international relations the consensus on each side of the aisle was firmly in favor of militarism to project U.S. power around the world. The only admirable people in either party were the few dissidents (such as Democrats Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening, the only two senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that justified expansion of the Vietnam War, or Republican Rep. Pete McCloskey, who challenged Nixon).

That pattern continues up to this day. We should not forget that for all the talk of Bill Clinton’s “multilateralism,” he launched an illegal attack on Iraq in 1998 and insisted on maintaining the harshest economic embargo in modern history on that country for eight years, which killed as many as 1 million Iraqis — policies that had virtually no support in the world. In short, Clinton killed more Iraqis than Bush as he ignored international law and world opinion. I doubt the fact that Clinton is smarter and more rhetorically gifted than Bush makes much difference to the dead in Iraq.

And while Bush bears primary responsibility for the Iraq War, he couldn’t have done it without the help of some Democrats (such as John Kerry, who voted for it) and the inaction of others (such as Pelosi, who voted against the war but expended no political capital to mount a serious campaign to stop it and added to the case for war with false statements such as “Saddam Hussein certainly has chemical and biological weapons” as late as November 2002).

There’s no indication that any of the current strategists in the Democratic Party have learned anything from all this. Kerry is not calling for an end to the illegal and immoral occupation but instead advocates a continued U.S. presence with an international fig leaf.

Neither Republicans nor mainstream Democrats seem capable of admitting that the invasion of Iraq was never about weapons of mass destruction, terrorist ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda, or creating democracy; it was simply an intensification of the longstanding U.S. project of controlling the strategically crucial energy resources of the Middle East. That project has gone on under Democratic and Republican presidents alike, taking different forms but always with that same goal of expanding U.S. power.

It’s not just the Iraq War that is immoral. The whole rotten project of empire building is immoral — and every bit as much a Democratic as a Republican project. When politicians from both parties offer platitudes about America’s benevolent intentions as they argue about the most appropriate strategies for running the world, we should remember this trenchant comment after World War I from W.E.B. DuBois: “It is curious to see America, the United States, looking on herself, first, as a sort of natural peacemaker, then as a moral protagonist in this terrible time. No nation is less fitted for this role.”

This analysis doesn’t mean voters can’t judge one particular empire-building politician more dangerous than another. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t sometimes make strategic choices to vote for one over the other. It simply means we should make such choices with eyes open and no illusions.

Here, I borrow phrases from Pelosi’s condemnation of Bush: “When are people going to face reality? Pull the curtain back.”

Indeed, Rep. Pelosi, pull the curtain back. You will see naked emperors, Republican and Democratic. You will see the cowardly legislators who chose to step aside before the war, when spirited opposition in Congress might have helped derail the disaster that is playing out in Iraq.

Pull the curtain back, and step in front of the mirror.