Mr. Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and a writer for the History News Service.For the Bush administration, the road of public policy leads to Rome. That's nothing new in U.S. history. Americans of the 19th century often pointed to the Roman republic as the model for our own rights and freedoms. But President Bush would have us emulate the Roman empire, creating world order by giving orders around the world.
The fall of the twin towers in New York gave a tremendous boost to the advocates of empire within the administration. They sealed their victory in the president's recent report on "The National Security Strategy of the United States." Now, like Romans sending warriors to distant provinces, they want to take us to war against Iraq. But a policy of war and empire will only bring us the fate the Romans suffered: more enemies and more attacks upon our own soil.
When the president declared war on terrorism a year ago, he spoke in the language of the Roman republic. He praised "our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other." He urged us to wage "civilization's fight" against the "enemies of freedom," leaving no doubt that those enemies are barbarians. Cicero, the eloquent Latin champion of the republic's virtues, could hardly have said it better.
But the "National Security Strategy" turns these words into an excuse for empire. It insists that our nation's "values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society ... the birthright of every person - in every civilization." Since any other way of life is apparently uncivilized barbarism, we have the right, and the duty, "to bring democracy ... to every corner of the world." It sounds like everyone will have to embrace our kind of freedom, like it or not. That is the way of empire.
In the administration's policy, our kind of freedom includes not only human rights and voting rights, but private property rights. "Free markets and free trade are key priorities of our national security strategy." So we must also bring "development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world."
Why? Because, in the document's words, "Democracy and economic openness ... are the best foundations for domestic stability and international order." Like the Romans and all empire-builders, the Bush team dreams of uniting all lands in one predictable, orderly, controllable political and economic structure.
The problem of every empire is, and always has been, how to spread order and maintain control. "The National Security Strategy" relies on the Roman approach: overwhelming military force. It is now official U.S. policy "to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States." As Iraq already knows and may soon learn even more bitterly, we dissuade our enemies much the same way the Romans did, when they turned Carthage back into a desert.
"To forestall or prevent hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively," the Bush document announces. Our enemies need not attack us. They need only arouse our suspicion that some day they might get too strong. Then they can be targets of a preemptive strike - as the example of Iraq clearly shows. That's the stern mettle of which empires are made.
And unmade. The Roman empire faced constant rebellions on its borders. Rebellions were inevitable. Like most imperialists, the Romans believed they were forging a "uniquely benign imperium" (as columnist Charles Krauthammer now describes the United States). But out in Rome's provinces, where everyone had to dance to the ruler's tune, the empire's efforts at order and control bred resentment. Even in tiny Judea, it took the Romans four long years to stamp out the revolt.
In the end, the so-called barbarians destroyed Rome. That, too, was inevitable. Empires gain and keep power by spreading their advanced technology wherever they go. Eventually, their subjects always learn to use that technology against them. The barbarians had no trouble reaching Rome. They just used the excellent roads the Romans had paved for their own armies to travel.
If war comes, Iraq will be using the computers and cell phones and radar it got from the United States to defend itself against attack from the United States. If the worst comes, it may also use the chemical and biological weapons it got from the United States. Some day, other nations may be tempted to turn against us the nuclear technology they imported from us. Resentment plus advanced technology is the eternal recipe for the end of empire.
The Romans did themselves no favor in trading a republic for an empire. They
hoped to preserve the republic's freedoms by imposing them violently on others.
They learned that things just don't work that way. A war against Iraq would
take us a fateful step down the same dangerous road.
This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.
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