For some time, I have been suggesting that the aim of Republican strategy has been a Republican Party that permanently runs the United States and a United States that permanently runs the world. The two aims have been driven by a common purpose: to steadily and irreversibly increase and consolidate power in Republican hands, leading in the direction of a one-party state at home and a global American empire abroad. The most critical question has been whether American democracy, severely eroded but still breathing, would bring down the Republican machine, or whether the Republican machine — call it the budding one-party global empire — would bring down American democracy. This week, it looks as if democracy, after years of decline, has gained the upper hand.
The choice was and remains: empire or republic? Just a few years ago, the “sole superpower,” the new Rome, master of the “unipolar” world, seemed to many to be bestriding the world. Some, like columnist Charles Krauthammer, were reveling in the triumph of “the American hegemon.” “History has given you an empire, if you will keep it” he said, traducing Benjamin Franklin, who had said at the Constitutional Convention that the United States was a republic if you can keep it.
Others, like writer Michael Ignatieff, in a more somber mood, were preparing to shoulder the empire’s inescapable global “burdens,” which meant “enforcing such order as there is in the world and doing so in the American interest.” Still others, like journalist Robert Kaplan, were touring the empire’s far-flung garrisons, lionizing the “imperial grunts” and counseling that America’s civil leaders should yield to military direction. Indeed, he said that “the very distinction between our military and operations overseas is eroding.” The model for the future, he thought, should be the United States’ long history of military intervention in Latin America.
But where is the American empire now, where the new Rome? Where are its subject peoples, its provinces, its Macedonias and Carthages and Egypts, its victorious armies and triumphal parades? Where, for that matter, are its arts and letters, its Colossus of Rhodes, its pyramids? Where is its Virgil? Would that be Bill O’Reilly, fountain of abusive misinformation, or Dan Bartlett, the White House Misspokesman? Can someone give me a tour of this realm? We might begin in Iraq. But perhaps we had better not. The tour would have to be cut short in the Green Zone, the American compound in downtown Iraq and the only “secure” territory in the country. Last week, more than 200 Iraqis were killed in attacks by suicide bombers (horrors scarcely mentioned in the debate in this country). As for the Iraqi “government,” these quislings are unable to follow imperial orders — they are deficient even as puppets. Their main accomplishment has been to open a torture center, perhaps in imitation of our own Abu Ghraib, or perhaps following the model of Saddam Hussein.
Will Afghanistan be the next stop on our imperial tour? This will be the high point, for the pervasive rule by war- and drug-lords in that country is mitigated, at least in the capital city, by the administration of Hamid Karzai. Shall we go, as the President did recently, to Latin America, which Kaplan recommended as a dress rehearsal for imperial rule? We’ll find that the United States is despised there, leading to the rise of left-wing leaders from Venezuela to Argentina. Or should we follow the President to Asia, where, in defiance of his will, North Korea has built a nuclear arsenal and China, with its $252 billion in U.S. treasury bills, has emerged as the financier of the exploding American deficit?
The imperial dreams are in ruins. But the ruins, strangely, are not of things that were built and then collapsed; they are of fantasies. We are not dealing here with the decline of a new Rome. It is not that a great power has been brought down — although the casualties of the war, American and Iraqi, have been tragically real — but that a world of fancy and fraud has been exploded by facts.
And the one-party state at home? It was not the mirage that the empire was. The structure of the American state and, to a lesser extent, the economy, really has been deeply altered. Real hundreds of millions of dollars have poured into the coffers of the GOP while real hundreds of billions poured into the pockets of the rich. Real laws were passed that tore gaping holes in the Bill of Rights. A real shift of the judiciary toward the radical right was set in motion. An unprecedented concentration of power — fusing government, corporations, the military, portions of the media, and a hugely expanded secret police apparatus — was created. And yet this structure, too, has been shaken by recent events.
As happened in the Vietnam era, the war came home. The administration’s disrespect for law led to law-breaking. Somehow, the law enforcement system in and around the Justice Department has retained enough independence to serve as a check on abuses of executive power. Indictments have been brought, and others are likely to follow. The mechanisms whereby the foreign debacle has led to the domestic setbacks for the Administration are complex but the broad outlines are already clear: The failed empire, in the shape of its failed war, has driven down the President’s support to the point at which others, cowed until now, feel free to attack him. The institutions of government and the economy, drawn like iron filings into the magnetic field of power, failed at first to check the administration. But the public, represented by opinion polls, has stepped in, and the institutions are following. Not since the Soviet Union fell fourteen years ago have we witnessed a greater reversal of fortune.
Unmaking the conglomeration of unaccountable power built up around the Republican Party in recent years will hardly be the work of a week, and the outcome is anything but certain. But if the effort succeeds, historians may one day write that the fake American empire was the Achilles heel of the real one-party state.
Copyright 2005 Jonathan Schell
This column will appear in the upcoming issue of The Nation Magazine. It first appeared online at Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture.