EMPIRE IS EVIL
It is Time to Dismantle Ours
by Caleb Rossiter
June 23, 2004
In 1983 President Reagan used the phrase "evil empire" to describe the Soviet Union. He picked an appropriate venue in which to be Manichean, the annual convention of the National Association of Evangelicals. As with most of his speeches on national security in that period, Reagan's purpose was to blunt the unexpected popularity of the nuclear freeze movement. In the speech, he accused Americans who were calling for a freeze in the production of nuclear weapons by both the Soviet Union and the United States of ignoring "the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire."
We in the freeze movement argued with Reagan's logic, since building thousands more U.S. nuclear weapons would have been unlikely to provide any greater deterrent to Soviet misbehavior than the 50,000 we already had. What we couldn't argue with was his description of the Soviet Union. Reagan's wordsmiths were right to call the Soviet Union an evil empire. On reflection, though, we should have recognized that they were being redundant by using the adjective "evil." Empire, any empire, Roman or Greek, Mogul or Mongolian, Chinese or Japanese, Zulu or British, Soviet or American, is evil in both conception and practice. To use language that would resonate with Reagan's audience in 1983, our nation's failure to understand that is our greatest sin.
Empire is evil in conception because its intent is the domination of one people by another. We know by all our teachings and preachings and in fact deep in our bones from the moment of birth that domination is unjust. Empire is evil in practice because its effect is to degrade both ruler and ruled by codifying armed theft, and not justice, as the primary purpose of society.
Empire's acts of theft enrich some, and at times many, of the population of the dominator, and impoverish some, and at times many, of the population of the dominated. These various proportions, though, are irrelevant. An Indian graduate student of mine replied after an American student called the British Empire a "net plus" for the subcontinent because it built a solid railroad system, "We beg to differ." Also begging to differ, Ho Chi Minh rejected Lyndon Johnson's lachrymose offer to build a Mekong Delta Authority that would bring the two impoverished Vietnams electric power and hope for the future as the Tennessee Valley Authority had for impoverished Appalachia. It is a measure of the power of the human spirit that conquered people want independence, not social services. The peace of mind brought by freedom from foreign rule simply cannot be bought.
Refusing to dominate, or to assist in the domination of, other people is a virtue, and a good definition of a just person. The primary task of both the citizens and the subjects of today's global American empire is to dismantle this latest version of the ancient evil of foreign domination.
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What is the American empire? There are three elements of any empire: the physical, the financial, and the cultural. Primacy goes to the physical element, because empire relies in the final analysis on organized violence, which is state military power. Without the threat of violence, there is no unequal discussion between dominator and dominated, which is the discussion of American diplomacy today, be it country to country or at multilateral negotiations. In our case, state military power is comprised of: our nuclear and latest-generation conventional weapons; a global network of ships and ports; the well-trained and paid troops and operatives who work in or on virtually every country; the sophisticated communications and intelligence-gathering machinery; assistance to cooperative forces of other nations; and the flood of logistics and consultants who maintain it all. This all cost the Departments of Defense, Energy, State, and Veterans Affairs, and the Central Intelligence and National Security Agencies over $500 billion this year, a sum greater than the military budgets of all developing nations combined, and also greater than those of all of Europe, from Russia to Portugal, combined.
The next necessary element of empire is the financial. The governmental resources marshaled from, and to support, empire come from taxing the growth it creates. Without these revenues, there is no state violence with which to threaten others, and so no empire. In addition, the private interests who ride on the back of empire, be they the investors in the British East India Company in the 18th century or the stockholders in American multinational corporations in the 21st century, pump their profits back into their national economy, raising everybody's boats, albeit some more than others. Empire requires a series of institutions with civil servants to regulate the economic system that supports the imperial government and its citizens. Today these institutions include the U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization, and U.S. entities such as the Agency for International Development and the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, State, and Treasury, as well as the contractors and universities who collaborate with them.
The final element of empire is the cultural. For an empire to be justified, it must construct a celebratory myth of firmness and benevolence, because even cynicism acknowledges the innate appeal of justice. The construction of the lie that empire is benevolent allows its citizens to accept empire as normal. As Bob Dylan sang, "in ceremonies of the horseman, even the pawn must hold a grudge." Although empire benefits little the average citizen in physical or psychological terms, the song of patriotism has encouraged the pawns to prepare the horsemen's steeds for millennia. Even many of the horsemen in the American empire disdain the empire for its costs, since it is only a select few who can see the direct benefits of dominance, while the rest must bear its costly military budgets. Still, all horsemen and pawns alike benefit indirectly, as the economy is pumped by our currency's special role as international specie and our creation of a favorable system of international trade and investment, both of which, it must be stressed, result from our near-monopoly over the international means of violence.
There must be a mood of empire on the part of its citizens, an acceptance of it as not immoral, not banal, not evil, but positively saintly and good for the world. This is achieved by the denunciation of opponents and "others" and the celebration of the justice of the imperial agenda and its agents. Back into the mists of history, soldiers and government and business leaders of empire have claimed to believe that they bring freedom and hope. To justify this belief to themselves they build sports fields, schools, and banks as they level whatever supposedly archaic structures and systems existed before their arrival. In the Soviet Union, officials were paid to generate the lie of benevolent empire at the local level, but the wonder of empire is that the lie can usually be generated voluntarily in any system.
Nobody paid the mayor of my little town to gather the enslaved draftees for a breakfast honoring freedom before shipping them off to die in Vietnam. Nobody sends down edicts from Washington requiring that soldiers and flags be prominent at basketball games and holiday parades. Nobody told the media to report breathlessly on the series of nonsensical claims by the Bush administration about Iraq's weapons and links to September 11 in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Yet such self-congratulatory or self-interested cultural underpinnings of continued support for empire, for treating it as normal and decent, are firmly entrenched in American life.
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Empire is evil, and consists of institutions that are evil because they are designed to maintain it, such as U.S. departments and agencies and the international financial institutions, the universities and consulting and security firms who provide them advice and services, the media and the cheerleading think-tanks who celebrate the American empire or treat it as normal by ignoring it. Are the people in those institutions evil as well? And what of those local officials who encourage young people to join the "service" (as if it were a humanitarian act) by intoning patriotic thoughts about that "service" at local events? Here we must, remembering our search for justice and humanity, distinguish actively between the crime and the criminal. Or, as Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, hate the sin, not the sinner.
Since justice for people should be our goal, an anti-imperial movement must be one of respect for all people, and respect for the fact that others see the choices differently. We can, indeed must, sit down and talk with people whose words and deeds we excoriate in public. Given the murderous abuse that the recent presidents of South Africa and the Czech Republic, Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel, their families, and their nations suffered at the hands of empires, nobody could have been more justified in governing with hatred, vengeance, and demagoguery. While never moderating their firm beliefs in the evil done by their persecutors, these two men reached out to them, even those who refused to admit their errors, and created a more just society. Again quoting King, hate is too heavy a burden to be carried by a people on the path to freedom.
Looking far into the past from our modern set of values, it surprises us to see that during slavery, monarchy, feudalism, colonialism, segregation, and apartheid, most thoughtful people rejected the counsel of their prescient peers and failed to see outside the confines of the context in which they lived. They failed to break through the wrappings of daily life inside an evil system. Looking at the present, it is just as hard for the typical busy citizen to see the light about our empire. As was the case in those historical examples, the evil of today's empire is cloaked in intellectual, patriotic, and religious appeals, and dissenters are ostracized. We are told repeatedly by our rulers and their court sycophants that we are no empire, for we seek no territory -- as if empire's purpose had ever been land rather than control of the fruits of the land. The machinery of imperial justification is ever-present, and ever-appealing. We cannot despise those whom it has captured. It is our job to join them in thinking the arguments of empire through again.
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So how are we to proceed? I have been struggling with that question, looking for the right strategy and tactics with which to recruit and rally our troops and engage the imperial enemy, since at 18 I called for draft resistance in a 1970 newspaper ad in my little home town that was titled, "Sons of American, Don't Accept their Lies." From doing research in the 1990s for a book I wrote on the anti-war movement, I know that there were millions of little acts of individual protest like this, and that movement strategists tried to organize their authors' energies into a variety of channels. These channels ranged along a continuum from acceptance to rejection of the social rules, from electoral politics to marches, sit-ins, and violent revolt.
America as a whole has suffered from not examining the causes of the Vietnam War, which arose from the foreign policy of empire that brought us into it. So has the anti-imperial movement suffered from not knowing our own history and choices. There will be neither direct analogies nor immediate answers, but there is a richness in our history of protest that can inform us about how to proceed. My conclusion from studying the history of protest against the empire's effort in Vietnam is that while the movement succeeded in helping America make its halting exit from Vietnam, it failed in not undermining the uncritical base of support for the Vietnam foreign policy, the policy of empire that led inexorably (not, as liberals argued, mistakenly) to the war.
We finally connected with a broad base of Americans to end the war in Vietnam, but failed to convince them to oppose the imperial policy that was its cause. We called for U.S. troops and assistance be brought home from Vietnam, but we didn't call as clearly for such a withdrawal from the rest of the developing world. As we challenge the empire now over its illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq, we must seek do better and set our sights higher than merely ending one imperial misadventure and waiting for the next one. We must try to win an overarching intellectual battle before we can hope to win the war against empire, and that intellectual battle is to discredit the very idea of empire. If we don't directly engage that idea, we can never truly win, and only rarely even fight to a temporary stalemate, in the broader war that must come.
In this intellectual battle we should no longer rely on arguments about how empire hurts the average American, or how empire benefits primarily a small class of Americans. Working in and around Congress, I have often taken this tack, arguing (like a Belgian legislator in 1885 refusing to take on the Congo for King Leopold) that our support for foreign dictators who are collaborators in our empire leads to costs for most Americans. Dictatorships we support do lead to war, which kills young Americans, costs tax dollars for military operations and post-conflict aid, and reduces economic growth for other countries and us. Compare Somalia and Botswana. Somalia was a U.S. backed dictatorship in the 1980s, when the dictator Siad Barre gave Presidents Carter and Reagan military bases for operations in the Middle East. When Somalia descended into civil war, U.S. soldiers died, U.S. relief aid was spent, and U.S. exports dropped to nothing. Botswana was a democracy that took no U.S. lives and little U.S. aid and bought lots of U.S.exports.
So, it is true that an end to the American empire would bring us a world of more Botswanas and less Somalias, to the benefit of all Americans except military contractors. But we can never win the war against empire with that reasoning, since it implies that if there were cases, and there are, where many Americans benefited from empire, then it would be all right. It is these cases that explain why we see traditionally progressive politicians like Representative Dick Gephardt (of Missouri and its F-15 fighter factories) and Senator Chris Dodd (of Connecticut and its Blackhawk helicopter factories) linking arms with progressive labor unions to promote corporate-driven, as opposed to strategically-logical, arms sales to repressive regimes.
These politicians build coalitions to support the sales, pledging help for other politicians when they wish to promote similar sales based in their districts. The rest of America pays for these sales in lost jobs, as when Middle East oil revenues are pledged to pay for weapons and not the other U.S. exports that would otherwise result, and in the foreign aid needed to help other U.S. allies, such as Israel and Egypt, keep up in a spiraling regional arms race. Only the executives and workers who make campaign contributions and who vote make out like bandits.
With this problem of self-interest in empire in mind, we must focus almost exclusively in our arguments on the evil done by empire, and ask people not to take part and profit. We must be able to say to the executives and workers: your profit is immoral. We must be able to say to the politicians: your pandering is immoral. We must ask them to renounce the benefits of empire. Of course, we must also ask ourselves to do the same. Our movement should identify ways in which we and our favored communities and institutions benefit from and collaborate with the empire, and renounce them, painful as it will be.
For example, I recently worked with a group of students and professors at American University in Washington, D.C., to oppose a contract that some professors had taken to help U.S. occupation authorities in Iraq train school principals, turning our School of International Service into a School of Imperial Service. Communities could campaign to keep military recruiters and ROTC out of junior and senior high schools, and organize debates on empire, globalization, and war. Unions could refuse to invest pensions in corporations directly supporting the empire. Citizens could march and work for candidates for office who make specific promises to oppose the methods of empire, such as renouncing our veto power at the World Bank and the U.N. Security Council, and abiding by international laws we have pointedly rejected, such as the Geneva Conventions, the International Criminal Court and the landmines ban. The choice of tactics is purely local. What matters is that we work with others to identify a way that an institution that touches our lives supports the empire, and to pressure it, publicly of course, to build a consensus against its inherent evil.
Frederick Douglass advised that when in doubt about strategy, agitate, agitate, agitate. Little, local campaigns can blossom, as the Montgomery Improvement Association found out when it simply sought a predictable seat on the bus, not even one in the front. A few protestors were arrested for refusing to leave the South African embassy in 1984, sparking a movement that led to the enactment, over President Reagan's veto, of the financial sanctions bill that helped bring an end to apartheid. The protestors had no master plan, and no idea that this particular protest would work, but they felt the need, out of desperation from Reagan's crushing re-election victory, to agitate. If you play, you may not win, but if you don't play, you certainly can't win. As King said, time is neutral. Just because our empire is evil doesn't mean that it will crumble without our help.
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Imperialism is a disease that is borne purposely by political elites. Has it also fatally infected the American body politic? It may not have, since the elites still feel the need to justify their imperialism not in its own terms of power and economic advantage, but in jingoistic, mawkish terms of humanitarianism and democracy, and in fraudulent terms of threat. Only by discrediting empire broadly can we start to reverse the infection in the elites.
As we create anti-imperialist campaigns, we will eventually run into government opposition. Do we want to run candidates for government, to build support there? And in what party should they run? Both major parties have had strong anti-war histories at times. Ogden Reid and Mark Hatfield were Republican leaders against the Vietnam War, as were Don Edwards and George McGovern for the Democrats. Yet anti-imperialists were virtually eliminated in the Republican Party, after its capture by the Christian Right and the neo-conservatives of the Committee for the Present Danger in the 1980s, anti-intellectual movements that rejected the traditional conservatism that characterized the Republican Party of Dewey, Eisenhower, and Rockefeller. For example, opponents of aid to the Nicaraguan "contras" were pressured into being supporters through credible threats that they would otherwise lose their leadership positions and their local appropriations.
Anti-imperialists have been always been hamstrung in the Democratic Party by the party's inclusion of a conservative wing that supported the Vietnam and Central American Wars and now supports the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. The Green Party has the most obvious anti-imperialist core, so perhaps it should be the focus of our organizing. Or perhaps we should build a party based primarily on anti-imperialism, the way the Republican Party was built on the lowest common denominator of opposing the extension of slavery to western territories.
I think that the question of party is moot for now, since successful political organization can only follow a victory over the idea of empire. The gerrymandered, PAC-chasing souls of the two main parties do not lend themselves to a competition of ideas about empire in local elections. These elections are about benefiting the local electorate, and until the evil of imperialism becomes a popular concern at the local level, so that it can compete as an election issue with the tangible benefits of empire to the local electorate, there will be little chance for the two main parties to adopt anti-imperial positions.
Once the public mood starts swinging toward rejection of imperialism, then the anti-imperialists who are in the majority in the Democratic Party might begin to capture it. Anti-globalization activists might be willing to join such an effort, and long-standing anti-imperialist groups like Pledge of Resistance and Peace Action have not eschewed electoral politics. But this can all come later, or a bit at a time, as the conditions become ripe through public rejection of imperialism. For now, the anti-imperialist center of the Democratic Caucus is not prepared to risk disciplining its Dixie wing the way that the imperialist center of the Republican Party has been able to discipline its anti-imperial wing.
In addition, both main parties are locked in moral limbo by their fixation on not offending campaign contributors who support anything an Israeli government does. The parties' blanket pledge to maintain aid to Israel above all other goals must be openly criticized, especially by American Jews and those others of us who are strong supporters of Israel's right to exist. We cannot expect political parties to become both pro-American and anti-imperial if they cannot become both pro-Israel and anti-occupation.
Over the past 35 years I have written hundreds of works on U.S. foreign and military policy - pamphlets, articles, speeches, reports, books. Whether on Vietnam, South Africa, Central America, the World Bank, arms sales to dictators, or landmines, I find on reviewing them that they all contain within them that one simple argument: our policies are contrary to the interests of the vast majority of Americans. That approach has seemed to work at times in the short term, in that it reaches out to others to build coalitions that win skirmishes and sometimes even battles, but it has failed in the long term to build coalitions that win the war against empire. We must stress a new theme, that our empire is evil and we have a duty to dismantle it. We must figure out ways to help Americans locally and nationally to see the immorality of empire and the fraudulence of patriotic appeals to it. Any fool can take a fortress, said General Kutuzov in Tolstoy's War and Peace as he planned how to defeat Napoleon's empire that has come to Moscow in 1812, but winning a campaign, now that takes patience and time. We've been patient. Now it is time to take on another empire, evil like all the rest.
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