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America undressed
The Empire Has No Clothes: US Foreign Policy Exposed by Ivan Eland

Reviewed by David Isenberg

Now that George W Bush has been re-elected president of the United States, neo-conservatives and war hawks, both pundits and policymakers, will likely feel vindicated and even emboldened to continue on their course of enlarging the American empire, all under the rubric of fighting the global "war on terror". As one of the new political slogans puts it, "four more years, four more wars".

But, as it turns out, wanting a US empire and benefiting from one are markedly different things. This is something not well appreciated in many of the recent books analyzing the American empire. Most of them assume, regardless of the overall morality of the undertaking, that the US has only to snap its militarized fingers and the deed is done, rather like the slogan "resistance is futile" of the Borg in the Star Trek television series, leaving the rest for historians to debate.

Of course, in reality that never happens. All empires, from the Roman to the British, come to an end sooner or later. But the costs are considerable, both to the lands and people absorbed, as well as economically, socially and politically to the imperial country itself.

But in a sound-bite age, few people have the time or inclination to ponder the sweep of history. What is needed then is a primer on the subject, a sort of "Empire for Dummies", laying out in detail the follies of America's current course of action, which is taking it steadily further away from its historical roots as a republic.

Fortunately, we have just such a work in The Empire Has No Clothes. It is a worthy tome written by Ivan Eland, who is senior fellow and director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California.

Eland deserves more than a little credit for writing this book. Not just any author can detail the similarities between ancient Sparta and the US-dominated North Atlantic Treaty Organization, for example, but he manages to pull it off quite nicely.

Eland was previously director of defense policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, DC, and as such, has observed imperialistic interventions by both right- and left-wing administrations - from George H W Bush, through Bill Clinton to George W Bush himself. His jaundice about their rhetoric and actions is both well documented and well deserved.

He is obviously familiar with all the current proponents of American empire - from imports such as British historian Niall Ferguson, to home-grown pith-helmet and jodhpur-wearing wannabes Robert Kagan and Wall Street Journal essayist Max Boot - and their arguments and smoothly picks them apart. One of his favorite targets by the way is Boot; he can't resist pointing out his contradictions, as in this passage:
Even Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations, a staunch proponent of military intervention for spreading democracy and free markets, admits that imposing liberal democracies by force in the developing world has been less than successful (yet he still advocates attempting to do so).
Observations like these are fairly frequent and quite entertaining, and it's worth buying the book for these alone. The layout of the book is straightforward. The first chapter is a relatively brief survey of the American empire. It plows familiar ground, but sets the stage for analyzing the current stage of American military interventionism.

The second chapter is devoted to answering the question - as if there is really any debate here - of whether the US truly has an empire. After conclusively demonstrating that yes, Virginia, there really is an empire, he moves on to a discussion of the more useful question as to why it has one; ie, security, domestic causes, democratic peace theory, that is, democracies don't fight each other, a proposition that was proved false in World War I.

He then explains how the current American empire is, in fact, worse than its predecessors in that it has none of the benefits and all the disadvantages of traditional empires, such as nationalism, as the US is now facing in Iraq.

But the next two chapters are the heart of the book. They are why conservatives and liberals, respectively, should be against empire. Those who appreciate irony will find lots to amuse them here. For example, how is it that a Republican Party that once sincerely believed in not just limited, but minimal, government, has become an unabashed supporter of continued, massive military mobilization, the greatest enlarger of government bureaucracies known to humanity? As Eland writes, "American societal mobilization to fight World War II surpassed even the massive effort during World War I. The US government's tentacles slithered ever deeper into civil society."

Increased government growth and spending, the corresponding damage caused to economic growth and the economic costs of paying for successive wars are neatly summarized here as well.

Another target for Eland is the concept of using military force to spread "free markets"; what can be called the neo-mercantilist argument. Evidently there are those who really believe that capitalism and democracy can be spread at the point of a bayonet. If it sounds ridiculous, it is only because it is, and Eland has a fun time demolishing the argument.

The chapter on why liberals should oppose empire is equally, if not more, informative and entertaining. After reading this section nobody will ever be able to utter the words Woodrow Wilson and liberal with a straight face. In Eland's view this is the old left, but one that resonates to this day, just under new names, such as the "engagement and enlargement" of the Clinton years, or what the former president's secretary of state Madeleine Albright euphemistically called "assertive multilateralism".

Interestingly, in light of the reported contributions that Christian evangelicals made to Bush's re-election, Eland notes that Wilsonianism preceded Wilson and was rooted in the desire of Christian missionaries to save savage and inferior peoples and vanquish evildoers. Fast-forward 90 years and find the "axis of evil". Coincidence? I don't think so.

The final chapter dwells on what is an appropriate policy for the current age. Like the first chapter, much of this is familiar and represents the usual solutions offered up by the anti-empire crowd, such as conducting an offshore balancing strategy, abandoning outdated alliances, focusing on key regions, letting rich allies defend themselves, using a narrower definition of "protection of trade" and "vital interests", and stopping worries about maintaining access to cheap oil.

Left unsaid, however, is that very few, if any, of these options are likely to be adopted during the next four years of the Bush administration. Perhaps the costs of maintaining the American empire will have to become even more evident before American can return to a more traditional foreign policy.

The Empire Has No Clothes: US Foreign Policy Exposed by Ivan Eland. The Independent Institute, Oakland, California, 2004. ISBN: 0-945999-98-4. Price US$24.95, 304 pages.

David Isenberg, a senior analyst with the Washington-based British American Security Information Council (BASIC), has a wide background in arms control and national security issues. The views expressed are his own.

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Nov 13, 2004
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