Wednesday, November 24, 2004


The following are excerpts from Tony Judt's "Dream of Empire" in the NY Review of Books:
The United States is different from other countries. But as an imperial power it is actually quite conventional and even familiar. True, modern America eschews territorial acquisitions. But that is irrelevant. Like the British at the height of their imperial majesty, the US prefers to get its way by example, pressure, and influence. Lord Palmerston's dictum—"trade without rule where possible, trade with rule where necessary"—has been applied by Washington with even greater success. Whereas the British were constrained (after some initial reluctance) to exercise formal—and costly—imperium over whole sub-continents, the US has hitherto perfected the art of controlling foreign countries and their resources without going to the expense of actually owning them or ruling their subjects.

Let us concede, for the sake of argument, that American intentions are more honorable than those of the perfidious Brits and hypocritical French.
OK. . .
The history of what they went on to do is what counts—and what is remembered and weighed in the balance when American behavior is assessed from abroad. The name Mohammad Mossadegh doesn't trip readily off many educated American tongues. But as the elected prime minister of Iran who was unceremoniously bundled out of office in 1953 by an Anglo-American coup his memory is invoked all across the Middle East whenever the subject of Western intervention in the region comes up. Americans may be only dimly aware of this history, but others are better informed.

One reason to be pessimistic about America is the mediocrity of its current political class. A brilliant elite is no guarantee of political wisdom, as David Halberstam reminded us many years ago. But its absence is a bad omen. Douglas Feith, the Pentagon undersecretary for policy and a prominent representative of the generation of neoconservatives now installed in Washington, was recently described by General Tommy Franks (who had to deal with him in Iraq) as "the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth." Even allowing for the fighting soldier's traditional contempt for civilian interlopers, this should give us pause—it is hard to imagine Eisenhower being driven to describe Charles Bohlen or George Kennan in these terms.

And yet the election of 2004 is the most consequential since 1932, if not since 1860. Is John Kerry the man for the moment? I doubt it. Does he fully grasp the scale of America's crisis? I'm not sure. But what is absolutely certain is that George W. Bush does not. If Bush is reelected much of the world (and many millions of its own citizens) will turn away from America: perhaps for good, certainly for many years. On November 2 the whole world will be looking: not to see what America is going to do in future years, but to find out what sort of a place it will be.

With our growing income inequities and child poverty; our underperforming schools and disgracefully inadequate health services; our mendacious politicians and crude, partisan media; our suspect voting machines and our gerrymandered congressional districts; our bellicose religiosity and our cult of guns and executions; our cavalier unconcern for institutions, treaties, and laws—our own and other people's: we should not be surprised that America has ceased to be an example to the world. The real tragedy is that we are no longer an example to ourselves. America's born-again president insists that we are engaged in the war of Good against Evil, that American values "are right and true for every person in every society." Perhaps. But the time has come to set aside the Book of Revelation and recall the admonition of the Gospels: For what shall it profit a country if it gain the whole world but lose its own soul?

I'm not sure about the assessment of Empire, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. It seems that fairly abstract forces are at work in the world at the moment, that subjects in the Enlightenment sense are less relevant, that the possibility for revolutionary democracy may be required (events in the Ukraine may bear this out presently), and that multinational organizations such as al-Qaeda are becoming more relevant than the "subjects" of traditional, realpolitik conflicts, i.e., nation states. On the whole, though, an interesting set of reviews on a topic that is surely going to become more acute given the outcome of the recent election and its attendant "loss of soul."


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