“Empires are not built in fits of absent-mindedness.”

—Charles A. Beard

Described by the author as a “venture in contemporary history,” American Empire is also an in-depth study of the post-Cold War foreign policies of the last three presidential administrations, all of which Andrew Bacevich believes sought to preserve and extend an American empire.  Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University, has written an insightful book, full of revealing quotations and wholly devoid of cant and naiveté.  He has no patience with those who deny the reality of empire.  “Like it or not,” he observes, “America today is Rome.”

Holding sway in not one but several regions of pivotal geopolitical importance, disdaining the legitimacy of political economic principles other than its own, declaring the existing order to be sacrosanct, asserting unquestioned military supremacy with a globally deployed force configured not for self-defense but for coercion: these are the actions of a nation engaged in the governance of empire.

Bacevich recognizes five components of American imperialism.  First, its leaders believe that the United States represents the model society of the future, to which all of mankind is destined to conform, as well as the essential instrument by which this transformation will be effected.  America is the “indispensable nation,” without whose leadership and military power the world would fall into dis-order and fail to achieve its historical destiny.  Vigorous American leadership in all spheres of human activity must remake the world’s nations in the image of the United States—democratic, capitalist, multiethnic, and culturally diverse—and thus bring about the consummation of history, which they envision as a global civilization without national boundaries or ethnic distinctions, in which war, poverty, fear, terror, and evil itself have ceased to exist.  The contradiction between the assumed inevitability of this historical process and the perceived indispensability of American leadership in achieving it, though unrecognized, is glaring.

Bacevich correctly discerns both the Marxist-Leninist and the Wilsonian contributions to the thinking of the American foreign-policy elite.  Its beliefs that history has an inevitable utopian destination, that one government and its military constitute history’s vanguard, and that our government must and should promote world revolution derive from Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky, respectively.  George W. Bush’s political messianism is the essence of Wilsonianism.  Perhaps more than any other president since Woodrow Wilson, Bush sees himself as God’s instrument for world redemption.

Bacevich is no theologian, and so he fails to emphasize the heresy and danger in these pseudo-Christian religious conceits.  The notions that any nation is “indispensable”; that certain political leaders have a divine mission; that God’s kingdom is of this world; and that war, poverty, and evil can be extirpated from the earth all directly contradict the Word of God.  These heresies, nevertheless, are part of the world-view of the two Bushes and, to a lesser extent, of Bill Clinton, all three of whom regard opposition to America’s world-historical mission as evil.  For instance, speak-ing in Honolulu on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, George H.W. Bush charged that “isolationism flew escort for the very bombers that attacked our men 50 years ago”—thus establishing moral equivalency between American isolationism and Japanese militarism.  (Given Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policy of provocation and his foreknowledge of the Japanese carrier strike, Bush’s statement is as mendacious as it is sickening.)  George W. Bush’s doctrine—“either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”—renders discussion, dissent, and even neutrality treasonous.

The second component of American post-Cold War strategy is the promotion of “openness,” defined by Bacevich as “the removal of barriers to the movement of goods, capital, people, and ideas.”  Of course, it is this very “openness” (specifically with regard to borders) that made September 11 possible and thus “facilitated an act of mass murder on American soil.”  Although they rarely acknowledge it, the elites recognize that a liberal immigration policy renders the country more vulnerable to terrorist attack as well as to drug smuggling and internationally organized crime.  They have, however, no intention of making the country safer by curbing Islamic immigration or deporting dangerous aliens—even those who are here illegally or who hail from countries known to be prime recruiting grounds for terrorists.  Bacevich does not explain why the people responsible for the nation’s security refuse to abandon such an obviously suicidal policy.  Unwilling to prevent terrorists, potential terrorists, and terrorist supporters from entering the country, the elites have chosen instead to attempt to eliminate terrorism and evil from the entire planet.  In the meantime, Americans will surely suffer the steady erosion of their few remaining freedoms.  Bacevich does not make this point as forcefully as he should: The logic of open borders ends in a universal empire abroad and a police state at home.

The third component of American strategy is an insistence upon American “global leadership,” which Bacevich regards as a euphemism for imperial dominance of the world’s most important regions: North America, Europe, the Middle East, East Asia, and South America.  According to the Wolfowitz doctrine—enunciated first in 1992 and serving as un-official American foreign policy since then—the United States will not tolerate the emergence even of a regional power that aspires to leadership and challenges American domination in any of these five regions.  (Bacevich terms Wolfowitz’s document “a blueprint for permanent American global hegemony.”)

The fourth component is the maintenance of worldwide American military supremacy, defined as the capability of defeating any possible combination of hostile powers that might join forces to overthrow American hegemony.  In 1998, three years before September 11, the U.S. military budget was $266 billion—only three billion dollars short of the combined military budgets of Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Israel, Japan, Russia, and China.  In 2000, the U.S. Marine Corps alone (169,300 troops) was larger than the entire British (115,000), the Italian (153,000), or the French army (169,300).  Today, total military spending approaches $400 billion.

The fifth and last component of American global strategy is what Bacevich describes as “the militarization of US foreign policy,” or the deliberate use of military force as an instrument of policy.  Rather than welcoming the collapse of the Soviet Union as an opportunity to reduce the size of the military and bring troops home, the Bush and Clinton administrations used it to employ force without fear of precipitating World War III.  Similarly, September 11 created a national psychology receptive to higher military spending and more force deployments abroad.  Bacevich argues that the United States promotes democracy, human rights, and self-determination only when it is expedient to do so—that is, when it serves the concrete economic, political, or military interests of the American empire.  Idealistic or humanitarian language serves merely to provide moral and ideological cover, as it has done since the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Bacevich’s observations on the state of American culture and nationality read as if they were excerpted from back issues of Chronicles.  Bacevich questions whether the United States remains a nation in any meaningful sense, having become a “society in which citizens were joined to one another by little except a fetish for shopping, professional sports, and celebrities, along with a ravenous appetite for pop culture.”  He does suggest, however, that, despite public celebrations of diversity as a source of strength, the elites are beginning to recognize ever-expanding ethnic and cultural pluralism as a growing problem and to realize that, in the absence of those ties that once held the country together, maintaining “prosperity” has become “a precondition for preserving domestic harmony.”  Specifically, he cites a 1999 U.S. government study that warns that “multicultural fragmentation,” “shifts in generational attitudes,” and “the decline in overt manifestations of national identification” are “undermining American identity and national will.”  That there is some awareness of the situation at the higher levels of government explains why, despite the apocalyptic rhetoric of the current administration and its insistence that we are in a war that will decide the fate of “civilization,” President Bush has refrained from imposing war taxes or calling for a draft.  “Political rhetoric,” Bacevich writes,

might still swell with stirring Wilsonian allusions to democracy, peace, and freedom, but these amounted to little more than window dressing.  They were not words entailing any obligation to act.

To have summoned Americans to sacrifice would have interfered with the “closest thing to a national purpose”—the hurried quest for “ever more material comforts and pleasures, with ever fewer restraints on the sovereign self.”  In other words, Bush’s advisors believe that Americans will support the “war on terror” only so long as they do not have to pay or fight for it.

Bacevich notes an important paradox.  On the one hand, pride in U.S. military power has become “a central element in what little remained of an American national identity.”  Although he might have pointed to Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, Pearl Harbor, JAG, and the endless World War II documentaries on the History Channel, he instead cites polls revealing that, even before September 11, Americans wanted no reductions in military spending.  The percentage of Americans who believed that the United States spent too much on the military declined steadily from 50 percent in 1990 to 20 percent in 2000, while the percentage of those who believed we spent too little grew steadily, from nine percent in 1990 to 40 percent in 2000.  By 2000, there was no public support whatever for scaling back America’s worldwide military deployments.

Yet Americans revealed no disposition to join the fighting in the mountains of Afghanistan or to storm the ramparts of Baghdad.  The number of Armed Forces recruits did not increase after September 11.  The public reaction to the debacle in Mogadishu in 1993, in which 18 elite Army Rangers were killed and 78 were wounded, demonstrated that Americans would not tolerate significant casualties in the brush wars of empire.  The Clinton administration took note and thenceforth relied exclusively on “gunboats” (cruise missiles, high-altitude bombing) and “gurkhas” (native soldiers trained and equipped by American advisors) to wage its wars.  An expanding population has allowed Washington to maintain global military supremacy without resorting to a draft.  Bacevich notes that, in 2000, the proportion of Americans on active duty (fewer than one in 200) was less than it had been in 1940.

In the year after September 11, Americans revealed

a curious patriotism—doubtless heartfelt, but arguably wider than it was deep.  As the United States embarked upon its global war against terror, political leaders carefully refrained from demanding much of individual Americans.  Apart from expressions of national unity . . . not very much was offered . . . The primary responsibility of the average citizen for the duration of the emergency remained what it had been in more peaceful times: to be an engine of consumption.  The Bush administration called on Americans to get out and spend, energetically, for the sake of the nation’s economic well-being.  “Get on board,” urged the president.  “Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots.  Get down to Disney World in Florida.  Take your families and enjoy life.”

Fight the terrorists by going on vacation?  Given the apocalyptic rhetoric of the Bush administration with regard to the seriousness of this “war,” such an appeal is preposterous.  It does offer evidence, however, for Bacevich’s suspicion that the elite suspects the chief vulnerability of the empire to be internal divisions in a “nation” of self-seeking individuals and special-interest groups.

Bacevich acknowledges that American global belligerency and hegemonic dictation are generating resentment, resistance, and reprisals all over the world.  He outlines four opponents—among them, the particularist who “persist[s] in believing that identity is sacred, indelible, and rooted in place, that ownership of a particular plot of land remains as in ancient times a cause worth fighting and even dying for.”  While he has in mind the Palestinians, Bacevich’s description applies to French and Austrian patriots, as well as to old-stock Americans who resent the invasion of their homeland.  Ominously, Bacevich writes,

To cope with this resistance—expressed either as instability or as a refusal to abide by the norms governing an open world—American policymakers, even as they proclaim their peaceful intentions, will resort to force.

He does not, however, expect the American people—most of whom do not seem even to be aware of the United States’ global military presence—to seek to restrain their rulers.  While the severity and frequency of terrorist reprisals on American targets have increased in recent years, there is no indication that Americans have the slightest understanding of the cause-and-effect relationship involved.  Rather, they seem to have accepted at face value President Bush’s oft-repeated canard that we were attacked because we are “free.”  The myth of American innocence remains a cherished tenet of the American civil religion.

Bacevich ignores the more sinister aspects of the U.S. global strategy.  For instance, he accepts without question that the 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was accidental and that a Serb mortar was responsible for the 1995 Sarajevo marketplace massacre that provided a pretext for U.S. and NATO forces to begin bombing the Bosnian Serbs.  (The explosion was actually generated by ground explosives set by Bosnian Muslims, who were assisted by the CIA.)  He also neglects to point out that U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been pro-Islamic everywhere in the world, except in the West Bank.  Washington has maintained close ties to the anti-Christian regime in Saudi Arabia; has threatened Austria when that country voted for the Freedom Party; has twice intervened to bring about Muslim military victories in the Balkans; has supported the establishment of an Islamic state in Kosovo; and is now pressuring Europe to admit Turkey to the European Union.  Though Andrew Bacevich does not reach this conclusion, the most dangerous anti-Western power in the world may be the United States of America.


[American Empire, by Andrew Bacevich (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press) 295 pp., $29.95]