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The Falling American Empire

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American Empire before the Fall
by Bruce Fein (Campaign for Liberty, 2010); 219 pages.

The very notion that America has an empire is most taboo. No matter the party in power, pointing out the reality of U.S. imperialism rarely wins political points. Our country, land of the free, won independence from the British Empire, defeated the Nazi empire, and stared down the Soviet empire. Our public schools present the barbarity of ancient empires as antiquated and alien curiosities. Our movies feature fictional empires as unambiguously evil: in Star Wars, the anti-imperialist rebels are the heroes. America categorically can’t be an empire, our popular culture would imply.

Railing against the “American empire” is widely seen as, at best, juvenile hyperbole — most properly reserved to the communist Left. Perhaps libertarians and some very quirky rightwingers invoke the “E” word, but they too are seldom regarded as respectable arbiters of political reality. Ron Paul’s explicit opposition to American empire has helped bring the critique into the mainstream but has also been used as an example of his alleged lack of seriousness.

It is wonderful, then, that Bruce Fein, an unusually principled but respected legal expert, an official under Ronald Reagan, and a player in movement conservatism, has penned American Empire before the Fall, an all-out takedown of U.S. foreign policy, drawing on history, economic reasoning, ethical considerations, law, and knowledge of world affairs to strike at the very core of the ideology of American imperialism. Fein notes that for most Americans, the notions he espouses may seem out of left field and explains why:

We, the current citizens of the United States, have all been raised to embrace the American Empire without questioning its premises, just as British subjects more than a century ago viscerally cherished and celebrated the British Empire. The justifications of Empires are characteristically unexamined to conceal an unflattering truth: they are all fueled by a base, animalistic craving to dominate other nations and people for the sake of domination.

The imperial mindset, Fein explains, has had sweeping negative ramifications for American society — and is unfortunately deeply entrenched in American culture. While many critics of U.S. foreign policy begin their skeptical analysis at the end of the Cold War, or maybe its beginning, Fein discovers horrifying precedents from antebellum America. He also offers a scathing evaluation of U.S. foreign policy in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama years, identifying its particular absurdity given current events, and warning that, without dramatic reform, Washington’s wars will spell tremendous disaster for the American people.

The corruption of American culture and governance

An important theme throughout American Empire before the Fall is how this imperial policy is a rot at the core of America’s national culture, one that corrupts her political institutions, destroys the rule of law, betrays her greatest traditions, fosters social degeneration, upholds vulgar egalitarianism, and otherwise nurtures depraved values.

As a conservative legal expert, Fein is perhaps most compelling in focusing on attacks on the rule of law. He trenchantly notes the necessary connection between war and an erosion of law, since “war makes legal what is customarily murder.” But things are especially bad now. Concerning detention policy, “Osama bin Laden’s driver has been prosecuted by a military commission. Adolf Hitler’s chauffer, in contrast, was not tried for war crimes at Nuremberg.” As for the Obama administration’s supposed dedication to civilian justice in attempting to bring some Guantanámo prisoners to the domestic court system, “If they are acquitted … the innocent return to Guantanámo Bay for permanent incarceration as enemy combatants. Heads I win, tails you lose.”

Fein condemns post–9/11 warrantless surveillance (which, a CIA Inspector General report has found, “failed to thwart a single terrorist incident”) and the compiling of thousands of telephone records; the use of water-boarding and other forms of torture; military commissions and extraordinary renditioning; the novel designation of the provision of legal services to suspected terrorists as a crime; and the newly declared presidential authority to execute American citizens. And even if such policies did prevent terrorism, a risk of terrorism would thus be “necessary for freedom to breathe. The alternative is a police state.”

Above all, the author mourns the transfer of all war-making power to the naturally belligerent executive branch. International treaties and U.S. wars have eroded the Founders’ original design. If anything is clear from the founding generation, it is that they wanted the war power vested in Congress, not the presidency. The modern era has become one of presidential wars. “The Korean War was flagrantly unconstitutional,” as was the Vietnam war, and “Congress was abjectly subservient to President [George W.] Bush in passing the Iraq War Resolution.”

In an entire chapter on the “nation’s charter documents,” Fein aptly demonstrates the contrast between the foreign-policy principles of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and John Quincy Adams and those America has come to adopt. And as we can see, the problems go back long before Obama and Bush.

Historical wars

When did all the trouble begin? Fein celebrates the era “before the United States began to trade its safe Republic for an unsafe Empire under the mindless banner of Manifest Destiny in the 1846–1848 Mexican-American War.” Citing James K. Polk’s disingenuous accusations of Mexican initiation of hostilities, Fein says the war was “the first time … the President would deceive Congress and the American people to justify belligerency…. In truth, the Mexican military killed American soldiers in Mexican territory after the United States waged a campaign of belligerency against Mexico.”

Fein also condemns the Spanish-American War and the propaganda that advanced it; the U.S. annexation of the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico; U.S. intervention in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic; and U.S. entry into World War I. Fein is particularly critical of the last, as “the war proved the antechamber for Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin, and Stalin.” It also forever transformed the American political economy and was advanced by a dishonest president using disingenuous propaganda. Franklin Roosevelt is also taken to task for some of his deceit on the eve of U.S. entry into World War II. His successor, Harry Truman, is especially condemned for his UN war in Korea. As for Vietnam, it was a “farce” sold to the public and Congress through presidential lies, as America “lost more than 55,000 courageous soldiers … to propitiate the puerile craving of the American Empire to dominate the world.”

Fein critically addresses Nixon’s secret war in Cambodia and Clinton’s adventures in the Balkans and discusses the domestic effects on liberty of past wars, including the effects uncovered by the “‘Church Committee’ hearings which disclosed massive civil liberties abuses during 40 years of unchecked spying by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, and National Security Agency.”

The absurdity of modern U.S. foreign policy

But Fein would very likely agree that U.S. foreign policy is especially absurd and arrogant today. “The United States claims unique legal power to violate the sovereignty of every foreign country with predator drones, missile strikes, or foot soldiers in seeking to capture or kill an Al Qaeda suspect.” And for what purpose? To fight a rather measly enemy. “The threat posed by the Taliban and Al Qaeda to United States sovereignty is trivial.” The Taliban, as of 2007, boasted “less than three thousand … full-time insurgents. The number of Al Qaeda [in Afghanistan] is a microscopic 100.”

In addition to the horrible absurdity of the Afghanistan war, the war based on lies in Iraq, and the general folly of the war on terror, Fein takes on the underlying myths of American imperialism: the idea that the United States, for its own safety and economic well-being, must spread democracy and freedom by force.

The democratic peace theory is an especially dangerous doctrine. The author notes with irony that “the Revolutionary War was fought against the most democratic nation in the world.” Great Britain was also America’s enemy in 1812, and its “wars of expansion and colonialism grew under an elected Parliament and Prime Minister” — Britain’s Afghan wars, Boer War, excursions into Burma and China, and conflicts with Ireland and Egypt demonstrate that.

More modern examples also contradict the idea that democratic countries are peaceful:

Democratic India conquered Goa in 1961 and the Kingdom of Sikkim in 1975. The Republic of Georgia initiated war with Russia and South Ossetia, although Georgia’s democratic credentials are superior to those of Russia. Popularly elected Hamas regularly initiates war against Israel, while the less popular Palestinian Authority remains at peace…. [Experience] teaches that spreading democracy does not necessarily make the United States safer from attack.

Fein further backs up his argument with many examples from the history of U.S. hypocrisy toward democracies and nonde mocracies, where aiding democracies has shown no clear benefit to U.S. security. The author moreover argues, convincingly, that Russia, India, China, and many other bogeymen present nothing close to the effective threat to American interests that is often claimed.

Then there is the question of economic security — whether the United States needs an empire to protect its economic interests. As Fein argues, American prosperity is not dependent on the rest of the world’s governments’ being friendly to Washington, D.C. For instance, America prospered well on the eve of World War I, and “Iran, archenemy of the United States, increased American imports tenfold during President George W. Bush’s presidency.”

Fein sums up the absurdity: “United States military spending climbs despite the disappearance of all foreign dangers to United States sovereignty.” Worse yet, U.S. interventionism, war, and torture have made Americans an even greater target for terrorists. What’s more, Americans have died to “liberate” nations whose U.S. puppet regimes are gruesomely authoritarian (e.g., “the Afghan Parliament in 2009 passed a law, signed by President Hamid Karzai, which obligates wives to submit to the sexual demands of their husbands and to obtain spousal consent to travel outside the home”).

Obama has simply continued the policies of his predecessor, without even many superficial changes. Fein is especially critical of Obama who, with his constitutional law experience, should know better.

Expedience is Obama’s North Star. He was against the state secrets privilege … until he was in favor of it. He was in favor of whistle-blower legislation … until he was against it. He was against presidential power to hold American citizens or residents as enemy combatants indefinitely … until he was in favor of it.

An important conservative critique

Fein’s critique is radical. He is unafraid to quote Nazi official Hermann Goering in arguing that totalitarianism can, in fact, happen here. His blistering treatment of a Henry Kissinger column in chapter eight demonstrates Fein’s willingness to call out venerated members of the national-security community and heroes on the mainstream Right. He takes on the “American Empire’s countless economic parasites” who have a vested interest in continuing destructive and immoral wars.

His policy proposals are mostly excellent. “The American Republic will be at hand when every American soldier stationed abroad is returned to the United States … when every American voter insists on the impeachments and removals from office of every President, Cabinet member, or Member of Congress who flouts the Constitution … [and] when unilateral presidential wars are criminalized.” There are many other reforms he suggests, almost all of which would move America in the right direction.

But the book is a conservative critique, albeit a sharp and principled one, rather than a libertarian treatment. Fein defends the constitutionally suspect Louisiana Purchase and the arguably unnecessary War of 1812, has a seeming fondness for Lincoln, and does not examine the imperial and despotic nature of the Civil War. He calls the 19th-century presidents after Jackson and other than Lincoln “a stream of mediocrities” — although libertarians would very likely find among those men most of the least harmful executives ever to occupy the White House.

Fein also defends the deliberate bombing of civilians, insisting that the United States should “threaten destruction worse than Hiroshima or Nagasaki to any country that attacks or begins an attack against the American people.” That is clearly inconsistent with libertarian ethics. If the government of Iraq had been behind 9/11, would nuking the whole country have been justified? Taking Fein’s logic to its extreme, since the U.S. government has waged aggressive wars — as Fein more than concedes — aggrieved foreigners would be justified in nuking American civilians. Such a principle of boundless, collective retaliation is impossible to square with individual ethics and practicality, as it could justify total world war and terrorism in all directions.

Also disturbing, Fein calls for a universal peacetime draft, arguing that it would make war less likely and that it helped end the Vietnam War. Maybe it did, but only after tens of thousands of conscripts perished in a war that had already escalated beyond what a voluntary military could have maintained. And even if mass conscription did deter war, no libertarian could endorse it for that or any other utilitarian reason.

Nevertheless, American Empire before the Fall is well written, accessible, far-reaching, and a more than welcome addition to the post–9/11 literature critiquing American foreign policy. As a respected conservative, Fein adds much mainstream credibility to the anti-imperial cause. There are many gems in here and it’s a solid reminder that issues of foreign policy, empire, civil liberties, and national security are as important as ever.

This article originally appeared in the December 2010 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    Anthony Gregory is research fellow at the Independent Institute, a policy adviser to the Future of Freedom Foundation, author of The Power of Habeas Corpus in America (Cambridge University Press, 2013), and a history graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley.