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The Commercial Appeal

Is Empire Really What We Want?


February 14, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

The Christmas card from Vice President and Mrs. Cheney read: "And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can arise without His aid?"

The first part of their greeting is based on the Bible (Matthew 10:29). The second part seems to come from those in Washington who view our latest international adventures, including the war in Iraq, as the rising of the American empire.

Although President Bush, in his State of the Union address, said that America has "no ambitions for empire," history and recent events suggest otherwise.

IN THE MONROE Doctrine in 1823, the United States warned European powers not to intervene in the Americas. We were subsequently able to treat Central and South America as "our continent," the way the Romans treated the Mediterranean as mare nostrum, "our sea."

After the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States took over the Philippines - which we gave back to its own people 50 years later - and Puerto Rico, which we kept as a territory. After defeating Japan in 1945, we took over Palau - which we gave back to its own people 50 years later - and Guam, which we kept.

Although we shy away from calling Puerto Rico and Guam our colonies (the preferred term is "outlying areas"), Guam's tourist bureau promotes the Pacific island as "where America's day begins."

Some of our other territories we bought: Alaska from Russia in 1867, and the U.S. Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1917. We "annexed" Hawaii in 1898 after U.S. companies moved in for the sugar and pineapples, long before we made it our 50th state in 1959.

In Iraq the United States has toppled a dictator and now is attempting to run the country a long way into the foreseeable future, with the infrastructure rebuilding in the hands, for the most part, of American corporations. The United States wants to control Iraq for its oil and because of its strategic location to facilitate our influence throughout the Middle East.

Two centuries ago, Adam Smith, in his "Wealth of Nations," wrote that founding a great empire is a project "extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers" (today read: "free trade capitalists"). "Such statesmen, and such statesmen only," Smith continued, "are capable of fancying that they will find some advantage in employing the blood and treasure of their fellow citizens to found such an empire."

THE UNITED States has employed considerable blood and treasure of its citizens over the years to enlarge and defend far-flung areas of control. In doing so our country has followed in the footsteps of other empires of shopkeepers, notably the British and the French.

The British, on whose empire the sun never set (until it finally did, once and for all), controlled the subcontinent of India as well as large territories in Africa and the Middle East, including Iraq for a while after World War I. The French, a century after Napoleon's short-lived imperialistic adventures, vied with Britain for most of the rest of Africa and the Middle East. They also controlled southeast Asia, where the United States moved in after France pulled out, to our eventual dismay.

TO DEFEND the emerging U.S. empire, we've long needed the best weapons our money and talent could produce, including our own weapons of mass destruction. We've justified our WMDs as necessary for defense, while repudiating the same justification for other countries. The process of empire has been wrapped in the flag and packaged as national security.

And it's riddled with fear. If we're not strong and powerful, people in other countries might want to take us over, we're told. That fear now extends to internal suspicion, resulting in personal profiling and monitoring of communications and travel.

The word empire comes from the Latin imperium, which my dictionary says means "absolute authority." Any empire involves absolute authority, absolute power over enemies at home and abroad. The current label for such enemies of the U.S. is terrorists. We're in a seemingly endless "war against terror."

WE WOULD DO well not to forget the British historian Lord Acton's dictum: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

The Vice President and others in the inner circle in Washington may affirm it, but I don't believe that empire, with its endless war and its corrupting power, is what the majority of the American people wants.

*Guest columnist Gerard Vanderhaar is professor emeritus of religion and peace studies at Christian Brothers College.

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