Between the two world wars, Robinson Jeffers watched as the old American Republic settled into empire. Jeffers was an honest man, a patriotic Democrat who knew that the extension of American hegemony into Europe and Asia could only mean an “empire.” Since candor has never been an American virtue, American imperialists prefer kinder, gentler expressions, like “saving the world for democracy” or “protecting human rights.” The prize for the most impudent euphemism goes to the Weekly Standard for proposing to substitute the original Latin imperium for a downright English derivative that means what it says.

I would like to assume that the Standard‘s KKK of foreign policy—Kristol-Kagan-Kaplan—know enough Latin to be deliberately dishonest, but in the unlikely event they are sincere, they might pause to consider the history of imperium/”empire.” The Latin term means something like sovereign authority, and imperium was the sovereign power of the Roman commonwealth as exercised by the magistrates. A republican proconsular general could wield that same power outside Roman territory, and although from an outsider’s perspective—that of a Gaul or a Jew—imperium would obviously represent an alien force trying to occupy his country, the word did not specify even the form of government, much less a particular foreign policy. {Imperium was, however, used even by Romans as a metaphor for the area they ruled.)

This benign use of empire survived into English. “All empire is no more than power in trust,” was the sage Dryden’s observation. A hundred years later, however, when Burke uses “empire,” he is more likely to mean the British colonial dominions. Then which of these two basic meanings does the Standard have in mind, when it commends imperium as the goal of American foreign policy? Not, surely, the primary Latin sense of sovereign authority, because no one challenges the fact that the American government exercises sovereign authority within its territory. The only alternative explanation is that they want to misuse imperium to mean empire in its later, colonial sense, but that they lack the courage of the British imperialists whom they so much admire.

In this duplicity, the neoconservatives are at one with the hypocritical President they only pretend to criticize. Their rumored trips to Texas to visit the governor and fill his head with their uninformed and incoherent musings on foreign policy should be a cause for alarm among the Republican conservatives who insist that a Bush II presidency will represent a real change from the Clinton years.