Beyond Right: The Temptations of Empire

Why the ant-war movement should listen to the ‘real right’s’ patriotic arguments against invading Iraq.

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The U.S. military has made it clear it doesn’t relish the thought of policing an empire, and this has thrown the administration and its flunkies in the media for a loop. But we can’t rely on our men and women in uniform to stop the chickenhawk civilians in the higher reaches of the Defense Department from rampaging over half the earth. We need an effective and credible movement that can counter the arguments of the War Party in the court of public opinion. We need, in short, a movement whose patriotism is beyond reproach — not “patriotic” in the knee-jerk, unthinking manner of the neoconservatives, who equate dissent with treason, but in the sense that there are Americans from all points of the political spectrum who recall the warnings of the Founding Fathers against succumbing to the temptations of Empire.

A patriotic peace movement would make the argument that this is not a war for American interests. Yes, the world is full of petty dictators, but to overthrow them all would mean perpetual war — at a cost in blood, treasure, and injury to our republican institutions that is too high to pay. Leave the Wilsonian moralizing to the President’s speechwriters, and let us turn to our American heritage — the heritage of the founders of this country, who warned against entangling alliances and greatly feared the rise of empire.

In his recent piece urging the antiwar movement to “get real,” Todd Gitlin cites Marc Cooper’s call for a “smart” peace movement:

“If the left is not for war against Hussein and is also opposed to economic sanctions, what is it for? If the left is for containment instead of invasion, then isn’t it the U. S. armed forces that must do the containing? … If, at the end of the day, Hussein does foil weapons inspections, what is to be done then?”

I cannot speak for “the left,” but I can speak for many libertarians and conservatives who hate the thought of this rotten war: What we’re for is a policy of non-interventionism, which will leave the Saddam Husseins and the Ariel Sharons to stew in their own juices, and leave us well out of it. Let the oil companies hire private armies to guard their oil concessions: this is one form of corporate bail-out that we can’t afford — because the price is paid in human lives

In his Farewell Address, George Washington inveighed against “permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments for others.” Today we are going to war because the Bush administration has ignored both elements of Washington’s sage advice. Our passionate attachment to Israel — or, rather, the Christian Coalition’s passionate attachment — has combined with a growing antipathy to all things Arabic among a powerful faction in our government. The result is bound to be a civilizational war, pitting us against one-billion-plus Muslims worldwide. The war-hawks have proclaimed a shoot first strategy that masquerades as a “preemptive defense” — and can only mean a policy of perpetual wars of conquest.

While Americans don’t look on themselves as conquerors, they do like to picture themselves in the role of “liberators.” Both the liberal left and the right have been seduced by this conceit before, and roped into supporting wars to “make the world safe for democracy,” even when those wars were fought for little more than the preservation and expansion of empires. So long as wars of conquest are draped in the garments of political correctness, an alarming number of left-libs will be corralled into a “progressive” cheering section, while the neoconservatives, of course, will sign on to practically any war.

But to fight a war for the ‘liberation” of Afghan women, or the cause of free speech in Iraq, is a universalist snare and a delusion. If the war in Afghanistan was really fought to empower that unfortunate country’s women, then it has been an abject failure. So it will be with the Iraq war, and all the Middle Eastern wars to come. But I’ll tell you who and what has been empoweredÉ.

“War,” as the turn of the 19th century liberal Randolph Bourne put it, “is the health of the State.” Historically, it is the great engine that drives the growth of the federal Leviathan and consolidates its power. Opposition to confiscatory taxation at such a time is greeted with indignant cries of “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” — and promptly quashed. Civil liberties are also held hostage to the exigencies of the conflict, in the name of the national “emergency,” and what the late libertarian theorist Murray N. Rothbard called the “welfare-warfare state” fastens its grip on the people and their livelihood.

These incursions on the rights of Americans are resented all across the political spectrum. From Rep. Ron Paul, who represents a solidly Republican district of conservative farmers in East Texas, to Senator Paul Wellstone, the great left-lib hope of the Democratic party, and all points in between, the elements of a broad antiwar coalition exist. But the organized antiwar movement seems uninterested in mobilizing that coalition. Instead of focusing on what Paul and Wellstone have in common, they distract themselves and us by muddying the message with leftist posturing.

The antiwar movement must have a coherent analysis of this war that goes beyond the leftist bromides and timeworn shibboleths of the Old Left. There are tens of thousands of conservatives and libertarians who oppose this war, but would never think of becoming active in the movement as presently constituted. Why oh why, they wonder, do we have to have so many patently unrelated issues (such as the incarceration of convicted murderer Mumia Abu Jamal) thrown in our faces at each and every antiwar rally? And what’s up with every Trotskyoid sect with two dozen members dominating the list of speakers, while antiwar activists of the Right and Center are completely ignored?

If we go to war, it will be a fateful turn, a giant step away from the heritage of our forefathers. Will we keep our old republic, or go down the well-tread road to empire? These are the real stakes in this war over the war. Shortly after Congress gave the President a blank check war resolution, Brookings Institute fellow Michael O’Hanlon announced: “We have to be prepared for a military occupation that could start at 150,000 total international forces and could stay above 100,000 for several years.”

We have to be prepared for years of “nation-building,” hundreds of billions in expenditures, and a perpetual war for perpetual “peace.” We have to be prepared for economic hard times — markets don’t like wars — and the young people of the nation have to be prepared for a military draft. We have to be prepared to give up the last vestiges of constitutionalism, and hand over the foreign policy of the nation to the imperial presidency. We have to be prepared to follow the British, the Soviets, the Byzantines, and the Romans into the imperial bone-yard.

Will any of that “play in Peoria”? I seriously doubt it.

The anti-war movement must mobilize the antiwar “silent majority” — and it won’t accomplish that with leftist jargon. Nor will “can’t we all get along?” pacifism, or appeals to “multilateralism” and the United Nations suffice. The UN, after all, authorized the first Gulf war — and their imprimatur didn’t justify that one, either.

There is, however, a third way: we must appeal to the American public’s instinctive revulsion at the idea of international meddling or bullying. We must show the American people that this war will hurt and not advance our national interests. We can build a movement that represents the antiwar majority if we ask people to join not because America is inherently evil, but because it’s the patriotic thing to do.

So, let’s get rid of the arcane slogans, and the appeals to free Mumia, and let’s get out the American flags. Or, if the stars-and-stripes are too prosaic, those who really want to make a political fashion statement might take a look at the flags of the American Revolution. I suggest the Gadsen flag, with its coiled snake and the motto “Don’t tread on m!” It’s the perfect answer to the War Party’s continuing assault on the Constitution — and to phony neoconservative “patriots” like Bill Bennett and David Horowitz who seek to stigmatize all opposition to this war as a “fifth column.”

The neocons are the neo-royalists the American revolutionaries warned us against. Worried that the rise of a military caste would give rise to a class of Prussian-style Junkers, our forefathers fiercely resisted even the idea of a standing army — but they weren’t pacifists, as the British twice discovered to their sorrow. Our rising, now, to oppose a war-mad cabal that has seized power and trampled the Constitution, would be a living tribute to them.

By embracing the symbols of our revolutionary heritage, the peace movement can reclaim the patriotic mantle and reaffirm the indissoluble link between love of country and opposition to imperialism. Only then will the antiwar movement pull itself up and out of the political margins, and start talking to the American people, rather than to itself. But time is short. Can the anti-war movement get real and ready for prime time quickly enough to meet the challenge? In the next few weeks it must do so — or else resign itself to impotence in the face of mass death.


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