The American empire approaches its limits

December 16, 2010|By Ron Smith

Liberty exists only in the brief time between the fall of one tyranny and the rise of another. The nation's founders understood this explicitly. That's why they constructed the system they did, under which the three branches of government would check and balance each other.

The idea was to prolong the life of the Republic for a longer time than would naturally be the case. The Civil War left more than 600,000 Americans dead, along with the then-popular notion that states which had voluntarily joined a union could decide to withdraw from it.

Ever since, except for brief periods during which an emerging America stopped to catch its breath, the path toward ever more powerful consolidated government has been trod rather swiftly.

It took us into a war to seize some possessions of the crumbling Spanish empire, including the Philippines, whose people naively believed they would gain their freedom after their overlords were defeated.

We killed more than 200,000 Filipinos to disabuse them of that childish fantasy and show them the new boss is the same as the old boss. That Philippine-American war featured one method of interrogation more recently in the news. Waterboarding was then considered what it is: torture.

It consists of immobilizing the person being questioned on his or her back with the head inclined downward and then pouring water over the face, creating a sense of drowning. This creates immense anxiety and suffering. American soldiers were court-martialed for employing it.

Former President George W. Bush says in his new book that waterboarding isn't torture because his lawyers told him it isn't.

Writer Christopher Hitchens, a big proponent of the war in Iraq where these methods were used, decided to find out for himself what a person experiences while being waterboarded. Gasping and terrified afterward, he concluded it was indeed torture.

It would have been instructive had those lawyers been waterboarded before their ruling. We wonder what they would have concluded had that been the case.

The march toward the American empire we now live within continued with Woodrow Wilson's decision to ignore his 1916 reelection campaign promise and instead enter the European civil war commonly referred to as World War I, or amusingly back then, as the "war to end all wars."

President Wilson's goal was to "make the world safe for democracy." His peers, David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau and Vittorio Orlando thought him clueless.

The world plunged into the Great Depression, and after a 20-year hiatus the European nations resumed their war. This time, through the wonders of aerial bombardment, millions of civilians were killed in addition to the combatants.

The United States emerged unscathed, industrially without challenge, and with its eyes set on world domination. The old Republic expired. And here we are in what sociologist Robert Nisbet called "a twilight age." He said they appear periodically during the time of Western Civilization.

In the preface to his 1975 book, "Twilight of Authority," he wrote: "As the way out of economic crisis, political division, and intolerable social disintegration, war, despite its consecration of force and violence, its raw disciplines, and its heavy blanket of regimentation upon a social order, becomes attractive to enlarging numbers."

In the recent election, the American people voted for change, particularly in the spending habits of the government. Millions of us realize the path to fiscal ruin has taken us to the edge of the proverbial cliff.

A $1.1 trillion spending bill, stuffed with pork and unreadable in its nearly 2,000 pages, has been proposed by our legislators. Reading the election tea leaves, President Obama has sided with what amounts to a Republican stimulus consisting of lower taxes, more spending and deficits mounting as far as the eye can see or the brain can figure.

The president said this week that he is "pleased" with the Afghan war, the longest in American history. What pleases him escapes a group of foreign policy experts who have written an open letter warning that the war is going extremely poorly.

The American empire is stressed and appears to be at or approaching its limits. It is simply unaffordable, yet the people in charge of it seem determined to defy that reality.

What I fear is a widened war in the Middle East, something that could set the world on fire. It could happen soon.

Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 9 a.m. to noon, on 1090 WBAL-AM and His column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is

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