Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Colonel W. Patrick Lang, a former analyst on the Mideast and now a sharp character on the internet, recently put forward an excellent example of a genre of thinking I like to call the " empire argument". It is a school of thought, a critical one, that prevails on the paleoconservative Right and the anti-war Left, the the two variants use some markedly different assumptions in framing their argument but arrive at a similar conclusion.

Like the historian, Paul Schroeder, Lang eschews much of the hysterical, romanticized, rhetoric that typify the "American empire" writers and sticks to a much more thoughtful, realpolitik interpretation.

"Jefferson might not agree.." Peter Principle"

"I'm afraid I have to side with Britannicus (and Livia, the murderous old hag) on this one. It is in the nature of things for republics, if successful enough, to evolve into empires. It is certainly unrealistic to expect a global superpower like the United States, with worldwide political and economic interests requiring the worldwide projection of military power, to remain one indefinitely. The framers, with their horror of standing armies and European militarism, would probably be surprised to learn it has lasted as long as it has, despite more than 60 years of permanent wartime moblization.

There was a time (like the 1950s) when those who thought about such things could hope that the enormous powers of modern bureaucratic institutions -- corporations, unions, the Pentagon, big media, the organs of state security -- could and would be counterveiling, allowing a system designed for the less gargantuan 18th century to survive into the 21st. But instead those institutions are either in terminal decline (the unions) or are integrating and evolving into a more perfected form of imperial control and self-control. Meanwhile, dissent and opposition (terms that already sound almost archaic) are increasingly channeled to the essentially neutered arena of the fringe parties and the Internet.

I'm not sure how much mourning is called for here. Two hundred and thirty some years is a pretty good run, as constitutions go. The framers built well, but no structure lasts forever. We can pine for a lost republic (which, like it's Roman predecessor, was never as golden as it appeared in hindsight) or we can accept reality and see what can be done to make our new empire more humane and rational than it is at the moment."

I disagree, first of all that America has moved into an " empire" state, though I would agree that aspects of our political system are working poorly and that our bipartisan elite are more timorous, self-centered and corrupt than we have seen in some time. That may be, in part, a generational effect of the current Boomer domination of government and the media and could pass as they move off center stage ( unwillingly, kicking and screaming, no doubt). We will have to wait and see if the Boomer legacy is an institutionalization of their cultural narcicism or a reaction against it.

I also do not believe that "imperial control" is the objective of the cultural shift away from hierarchies toward networked structures, as Lang alludes, so much as that globalization and information technology have made hierarchical modes of organization less efficient than in any time since the rise of the state and the industrial revolution. These are fundamental, global, structural and economic shifts that are going to occurr with or without regard to U.S. foreign policy decisions.

Lang however, still posits an interesting argument regarding the health of the republic. Is it remaining in form, while slowly ebbing in spirit like Rome did in the first century B.C. which was increasingly dominated by strong men, polarized politics and civil war ? I think Colonel Lang's view is overly pessimistic and that the Roman analogy has to be taken in context with the very significant differences between the mindsets and culture of ancient Romans and modern Americans. We aren't them. George W. Bush is no Caesar or Sulla much as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are not Cicero or Cato. Our times, Iraq included, are not nearly as bad as the troubles that ripped Roman society apart.

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How many more citizens will be deprived of their rights like Jose Padilla? How much longer will Americans employ a passive attitude to the necessities of war while even bothering to want to hold leadership accountable? How much longer will we dawdle around and not face up to the challenges of new competitors and new strains on our systems?

The lack of substantial popular or elite outcry, action or initiative on these key issues is worrying for a democracy. I can realistically envision a future where the republic fades and something similar to a corporate-state (like Singapore or Putin's Russia) takes its place. The challenges will eventually become too steep for an easily divided and distracted representative government to handle.

Also, the lessons officers in the military may be taking from the past 16 years may lead them down a tempting path to seizing power from a weak government in the mid to long term future.
Hi eddie,

I have long favored speedy trials by military tribunal for illegal combatants, rather than drawn-out indefinite detention and legal shell-games. The Bush administration is not interested in trying anyone, I have concluded.

A citizenry bombarded by the media and educational institutions on how " evil" our history is, with no comparison, proportion or context is bound to be less amenable to a draft, political participation in the democratic system or a healthy interest in civic virtue ( which was the intent of the Gramiscian cultural New Left/deconstructionist intellectuals). Without patriotism, cyncicism spreads easily. Half the population has opted out. The interested half is bitterly divided.

Professionalization of the military is a separate issue on its own merits.
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