Sunday, January 8, 2012

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Setting Suns

Does America have an empire? It's fashionable lately to say so, particularly among those critical of policies that could be construed as imperial. Jonathan Franzen's post-9/11 opus Freedom, the last decade's most important work of literary fiction, is billed in dust jacket hyperbole as depicting "the heavy weight of empire." Writing in this week's New Yorker about Americans' ambivalent relationship to Rome, Adam Kirsch captures the paradox underlying the notion of American imperialism: it has gained more currency as its existence has grown less secure:

"After the Second World War, it was common to wonder if America's national-security state represented the imperial phase of our history. But today, in a post-9/11, recession-battered country, what transfixes the imagination of American writers is the end of the Empire—the 'decline and fall' that Edward Gibbon made the central moral of the whole Roman experience."

Kirsch says it was common to wonder if American imperialism had arrived; apparently, its contemporaries could never decide for sure. It seems the existence of an American empire can only be established ex post facto, and what better way to do this than to identify its decline? If it dies like an empire, it must have lived like one.

But surely an empire like Rome's hasn't been possible for centuries, and colonial administrations like those that characterized the second British Empire finally gave way during World War II. The United States attempted to emulate that kind of expansionism—an essentially economic venture sanctioned by specious religious and racial glosses—in the decades between the Civil War and World War I, as presidents from McKinley to Wilson sent troops to intervene throughout the Caribbean, often on behalf of corporations like the United Fruit Company. Though never as expansive or cherished as the British Empire, America's moment of 'classical' imperialism was nevertheless brutal and consequential, among its legacies one of the foci of latter-day American imperialism: the naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

Insofar as an empire is possible in this age, it probably would look like America's current foreign policy posture: diffuse and calculated, framed by the language of power and interests rather than duties and destinies. It's still debatable whether the most recent Iraqi conflict was primarily motivated by economic concerns, but in any event no one was speaking of finding new markets for American goods or elevating a backwards people to civilized light (though there was, of course, Cheney and Rumsfeld's rhetoric of bringing freedom to all peoples—take that with as much or as little cynicism as you please). And Americans have never felt the sense of ownership of Iraq and Afghanistan that many British citizens felt towards India. This, of course, is a good thing. But the distance Americans have felt from those countries has also had negative effects: a short attention span regarding the wars there; a failure to understand the complex cultures we were intervening in; and a lack of empathy for the people whose lives we had in some way taken responsibility for.

It seems this isn't entirely a phenomenon of modern imperialism, however. Though many British citizens took a great interest and pride in their country's holdings—an elegiac attitude towards the decline of the British Empire is still palpable in that nation's politics—they weren't necessarily better informed about their foreign endeavors. In a speech on India given to the House of Commons in December of 1783, Edmund Burke lamented his countrymen's inability "to awaken something of sympathy for the unfortunate natives ... whilst we look at this very remote object [India] through a false and cloudy medium." Burke's words suggest that foreign entanglements of any kind can never be done cleanly. Though I have previously argued for American withdrawal from the Middle East, Burke's words give me pause: "But if we are the very cause of the evil, we are in a special manner engaged to the redress."

Burke had great respect for Indian civilization, and lamented that Britain's governors there had ruled "without society and without sympathy." In India, Burke said, "England has erected no churches, no hospitals, no palaces, no schools. ... Every other conqueror of every other description has left some monument, either of state or beneficence, behind him. Were we to be driven out of India this day, nothing would remain to tell that it had been possessed, during the inglorious period of our dominion, by anything better than the orang-outang or the tiger."

I have never been to Iraq or Afghanistan, and I do not mean to suggest that we are the only source of evil there. What were America's last years in Iraq but an extended effort to leave some monument "of state or beneficence" behind? But watching the rapidity with which Iraq has descended into chaos in the wake of our withdrawal, I think of Tacitus's infamous indictment of Rome: "They made a desert and called it peace."

I wonder: Centuries from now, what will they call the desert that we have made?