- The Washington Times - Monday, November 22, 2004


By Ivan Eland

Independent Institute, $24.95, 304 pages

Is the United States an empire? Yes, writes Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute. Although not in a traditional sense, like ancient Rome. Instead, “America’s empire is a subtler, more informal version, along the lines of Ancient Sparta,” he writes.

Washington dominates the affairs of many allied and client states without occupying them. This wasn’t the vision of America’s Founders. But World Wars I and II and the Cold War transformed Washington’s international role. Observes Mr. Eland: “[T]he U.S. urge to fill the power vacuum in key regions, before the Soviets did, became even more intense.” Yet if containing the Soviet menace was the only justification for Pax Americana,Washington would have demobilized after the USSR dissolved. Instead, U.S. policymakers developed new justifications for old commitments. The latest is fighting terrorism.

As Mr. Eland argues in a book bound to irritate and even enrage, today’s expansive foreign policy is not just unnecessarily expensive — think of hundreds of thousands of troops stationed overseas to protect wealthy allies — but dangerous. Unfortunately, argues Mr. Eland, Americans have become the targets of terrorists less because others are jealous of their freedoms, as contended by President George W. Bush, among others, and more because of the U.S. government’s actions.

Mr. Eland first challenges conservatives to oppose empire. He writes: “A free society, both economically and politically, is a superior form of social organization; but using force to export economic and political freedoms means adopting harsh methods similar to those of the now exhausted international communist movement.”

More important, Mr. Eland points out that war routinely leads to the growth of government spending and power and inhibits economic growth. Moreover, war saps the strength of even the strongest power. “Great conflicts tend to destroy empires, sometimes even if the empire wins the war,” he explains. Potential new rivals will benefit from a policy of overextension which has left Washington ill-equipped to maintain an adequate garrison in Iraq.

Mr. Eland offers equally compelling reasons for liberals to resist an imperial foreign policy. So-called humanitarian intervention rarely is either idealistic or effective. He goes on to challenge the morality of such expeditions. “While Western publics are unwilling to give up much for humanitarian interventions in faraway countries about which they know little, advocates of humanitarian military interventions are willing to sacrifice lives and money — others’ rather than their own.”

The worst impact from a liberal perspective may be on domestic civil liberties. Warns Mr. Eland, “Throughout history, wars that were usually unnecessary for the security of the American public have eroded the liberties that make the United States unique among nations.” Of the Patriot Act, he writes, the desire to protect America is not at issue.” Little consideration, however, was given to whether the proposed measures were actually needed or would be effective in preventing a future catastrophic terrorist attack.”

Mr. Eland adds a chapter on why “all Americans,” irrespective of ideology, should oppose empire. His most important argument is that an interventionist stance makes Americans less secure. Some people hate American culture, freedoms, and values, but that’s not enough to spark terrorism. “Terrorists do not give up their lives and fortunes and travel halfway around the world to launch suicide attacks unless they have some compelling reasons to do so (regardless of whether or not Americans agree with those reasons or the terrorists’ heinous practices),” he writes.

The issue has generated heated debate at home. But Mr. Eland is persuasive: It is the coercive actions of the U.S. government rather than the voluntary actions of U.S. citizens that most foster terrorism. There’s no justification for killing innocents, and one might believe the particular policies — backing for varied Arab dictatorships, past sanctions on Iraq, aid for Israel — to be necessary.

But one should not ignore the consequences of such actions. “The U.S. interventionist foreign policy that is designed to maintain the informal American empire is the main reason the United States has a much greater problem with terrorism than other industrialized nations,” he writes.

His answer is to return to the more noninterventionist approach of the Founders. This means being an offshore balancer, watching for potential hegemonic threats but dropping outdated alliances. “No empire has been retrospectively deemed as successful. In the long term, the U.S. empire, in contrast to the American republic, is unlikely to have any better luck,” observes Mr. Eland.

Mr. Eland’s argument is not a prescription for putting one’s head in the sand. Rather, he recommends that America look before it leaps. Maintaining and expanding a modern empire by inadvertence almost guarantees ultimate failure. There may be no more important lesson for policymakers in today’s often bloody and uncertain world.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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