The Radical Left, The Intercept, and Perceptions of the American Empire

There is some debate as to whether or not America has an empire. Intellectuals, commentators, politicians, and journalists on the left and the right both claim that an American Empire exists, but have diametrically opposed views on whether or not it is a good thing.

Neoconservatives proudly proclaim that there is an American Empire and that it maintains free trade, keeps order, and promotes democracy and good governance across the globe. The political center (or at least the foreign policy center) acknowledges that the United States is the most powerful country on Earth and that America stands for “Western” principles and democracy, but shuns the Imperial language and the idea that the United States controls the world. The left, and especially the far left, also embraces the phrase, “American Empire,” but believes it stands for oppression, state-sanctioned violence, and secrecy.

The differing perceptions of American power are remarkably similar to domestic British opinion of the British Empire. That entity was brimming with contradictions. It was certainly and Empire, in the literal sense with colonies directly under the control of the British government, or surrogates of the British government, and it was built on the use and threat of ruthless and brutal violence. The Empire relied on subjugation and economic exploitation. But in many places the British, in essence, created local governments and nations where there had been none before. Britain advanced globalization, free  trade, and efficient bureaucracy based on the rule of law wherever they went. In many ways the British Empire sowed the seeds of their own destruction by creating nations that would eventually seek their independence. A revisionist historian, moving away from the vibrant pains and horrors of colonialism, with the perspective of time, may see the British Empire as an overall positive influence on the world, much in the same way that the Mongols are now seen to have spread trade and rejuvenation in the wake of their apocalyptic destruction of Asia and Eastern Europe.

When we look at the American Empire from this perspective it is possible to see how both the left and the right are correct. If America has an Empire, it has certainly placed its clients under a mild yoke. There is no direct control or oppression of citizens of foreign nations, just heavy influence. Our allies (who are also the primary victims of our bullying and cajoling) enjoy the protection of the United States military and can be sure that their economic interests will be pursued as long as they align with the American vision of free trade and the standardization of law. Our allies have often not had to get their hands dirty as the United States generally leads military and diplomatic endeavors that have benefits for the states under our influence. In all this the United States generally spreads an ideology and vision for the world which is, on the whole, better for the citizens of nations in terms of their personal and economic liberty than most of the United States’ rivals.

None of these positive things should erase the negative aspects of American Empire. The biggest problem here is the one of perception. Americans in general and the far right and center tend to have a blind spot where the negative actions of our nation in the world are concerned. This is where a publication like The Intercept comes into play. I believe a news outlet like The Intercept best exemplifies the radical left’s view of the American Empire. It is obsessed with the secrecy of the government, with the hypocrisy of the difference between our nation’s professed ideals and our status as the world’s foremost arms dealer. It exposes the tendency to discount or ignore the pain and suffering that our military actions cause. I believe that while this perspective is sometimes skewed and slightly paranoid, especially in the sense that they think any action taken by the government is sinister or driven by selfish, exploitative elites, it is a necessary counterbalance to the comfortable view of the status quo.

America’s influence will certainly endure on a global stage for generations, but public perception of the American Empire will determine, to a degree which seems surprising, the path that the United States takes on global affairs. The lesson of the British Empire is that it collapsed from without and from within by shifts in British opinion of their Empire. That’s why publications which espouse the negative and contrary view of the American Empire have an outsized inportance. If the negative view becomes the dominant one, the United States could very well retreat much sooner from the world stage than would otherwise be the case.

Obama vs. Eisenhower

President Truman had many difficult tasks that faced him at the end of World War II, and he handled them ably, for the most part. The most intractable problem he dealt with in foreign policy was the worsening relations and oppositional stance that he faced in the Soviet Union. In order to stop Communist expansion he was willing to go to war. In Korea the United States engaged in a tremendous blood bath.

When Eisenhower became president he was concerned about the death of American soldiers in a war that they could not win without massive escalation. He ended the Korean War and throughout his two terms he refused to get the United States entangled and military conflicts. Eisenhower had a dilemma:  he had to confront and actively oppose Communism and he desperately wanted to avoid direct armed conflict. So he turned to technology and covert activity. The CIA was given free reign during his tenure and the value of having a distinct technological advantage was realized. An unintended effect of the prolonged arms race was to institutionalize the military programs that were put in place during the Korean War.

Now to Obama, if there are circumstances that could be said to provide a direct analogy from one presidency to another, Eisenhower’s could not be more fitting. The Bush Doctrine necessitated military intervention with combat troops invading countries and overthrowing regimes. This costly and largely failed approach informed much of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.

If there is one thing that truly separates their views on foreign policy it is that Obama has wielded the fear of terrorism less effectively than Eisenhower wielded the fear of Communism. Eisenhower used that fear as a bludgeon to bolster his domestic agenda. It may be dishonest but it was effective in building infrastructure for the American economy, advancing education, and balancing the budget. Obama has not used the fear of terrorism in an effective manner on the domestic front. It is possible that he could have better used American’s fears to advance infrastructure projects or other worthy domestic projects.

The salient features of Obama’s policy toward confronting terrorism are a heavy reliance on drone strikes, which are shrouded in a veil of national security secrecy, and the institutionalization of legal justifications for attacking terrorists and the maintanace of NSA dragnets, covert military operations, and domestic security measures. These are the largely negative consequences of Obama’s policy of confrontation without war. A permanent Cold War-style apparatus has been called into existence to oppose an intractable political, economic, and religious problem. In the new world of crumbling borders and technology it remains to be seen whether or not this will be an effective strategy for defeating terrorism, but it certainly is an oppressive weight on the American government and military and it diminishes the dominance of the law in restraining the impulse to tamp down rights and use force.

Bowe Bergdahl and Mercy

How horrified are we by canniballism? One of the most profound taboos in our society is eating another person. So can that act be forgiven? There is a famous court case in the mid-1880’s in Britain dealing with the survivors of a shipwreck. In this case some surviving members of the crew, adrift on a lifeboat killed a terminally ill member of the crew to eat him and drink his blood. They were convicted of murder, but there sentences were commuted from execution to a short term of imprisonment. The idea was that in unusual and extreme circumstances the survivors had to do something generally considered horrible, but that in any case they had already been punished by their horrific ordeal.

Bowe Bergdahl did something incredibly stupid when he ran away from his base and was captured by the Taliban. I understand the anger of his comrades who were exposed to increased danger but it seems clear that he should not be punished further. While not a perfect analogy, Bowe Bergdahl did something terrible but he also suffered terribly at the hands of his captors. It would be proper in his case to say, “He has already suffered enough.”

On the Legitimacy of NSA Spying

Over the last three years the almost unbelievable level of communications interception by the NSA has been revealed largely through the Snowden leaks. They have revealed many threats to the principles of limited government, notably in domestic eavesdropping and in collusion with other domestic policing agencies (see DEA and “parallel construction”). While these are grave matters that have gotten ahead of the law’s ability to regulate and present novel and particularly frightening invasions of privacy and deserve to have a national conversation exploring them, not all of the activities of the NSA are illegitimate.

Spying on foreign leaders, especially those of our allies, has been excoriated in our press and in foreign countries. But this is truly an activity within the scope of the NSA’s mission. While it can be argued that it is foolish and a waste of resources, I believe it is legitimate as long as the information is not passed to private companies for commercial gain. The myth of a brotherhood of nations is a dangerous fairy tale. The US has strong allies, but even those allies don’t have interests that strictly align with ours all the time. While foreign policy should not be conducted in a completely ruthless and amoral manner, it should be conducted with a level of self-interest. Spying is therefore a critical task that every nation which is capable engages in, even on their allies.

Fear and Terror

How many Americans have been killed in the last 5 years by Islamic Extremist terrorism? Our government’s approximately $20 billion anti-terror budget would leave you thinking that we are under siege from radical Muslim terrorists. But the truth is that 4 times the number of people were killed by being struck by lightning. Now, some of the discrepancy is almost certainly due to vigilance by our intelligence and counterterrorism apparatuses, but what it truly highlights is how successful a terrorist attack September 11th was. If the goal of the attacks were truly to inspire fear in the American people than they succeeded tremendously. The attacks were horrific and devastating, and are permanently seared into the memories of our generation. And the attacks forced change, much of it effective and necessary. But with the benefit of hindsight it is clear that the United States overreacted to the threat of Islamic terrorism. A permanent war on all terrorists all over the world is impossible to sustain effectively and indefinitely. It erodes the moral position of the United States and undermines our democracy as all war, no matter how necessary, eventually does. Terrorism is not am existential threat to the United States, and we have been deceived and mislead by our unreasoning fear.