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Do Americans Really Want an Empire?         
  by Gene Lyons
           Almost regardless of who wins the presidential nomination, there's small likelihood of serious debate about the most crucial long term foreign policy question facing the American people: Do we, or do we not, want to maintain a global empire by force of arms? Or, to put it another way, what's in it for us, as individual citizens, for the United States to maintain 800 military bases around the world? Does the word "superpower" actually mean anything in today's world? 
          Hardly anybody in the foreign policy establishment likes having it put that way. It strikes them as vulgar and reductive. Hence anybody who questions, for example, whether the United States really needs to spend almost twice as much on wars and weaponry as the rest of the world combined gets caricatured as a crackpot isolationist--the kind of person who, in the usual formulation, would have ignored Hitler's military buildup in the 1930s. 
          Hence too a seemingly infinite procession of miniature "Hitlers" clanking along like targets in a carnival shooting gallery - Ghaddaffi, Noriega, Saddam Hussein, Ahmadinejad, etc. "Endless Enemies," the late Jonathan Kwitny dubbed them in his 1984 book of that name. Subtitled "The Making of an Unfriendly World," the one-time Wall Street Journal correspondent's thesis was that the majority of America's armed interventions in the Third World constituted a self-fulfilling prophecy guaranteeing more-or-less constant war.
Today, only marginal political figures like Ron Paul, Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader devote themselves to such arcane topics. Indeed, one sometimes wonders if the foreign policy "experts" and "resident scholars" who decorate Washington think tanks wouldn't fear more than anything else the diminishment of their own swollen self-regard should Americans return to the Founding Fathers' views of enlightened national self-interest. 
            Jefferson may have put it best in his 1801 innaugural address, promising "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none." (Because it builds upon Washington's determination to avoid getting sucked into European wars, the phrase is often mistakenly attributed to him.)
            No, al Qaeda didn't exist in 1801, although Barbary pirates did. That said, the time's rapidly approaching when events outside U.S. control will force a serious re-examination of America's place in a fast-changing world. To anybody with both eyes open, what the Bush administration's ill-conceived "war on terror" has demonstrated is almost the precise opposite of what its 2003 "shock and awe" bombing campaign was intended to show: not overwhelming U.S. tactical strength, but all too obvious U.S. strategic weakness.
            To the neoconservative imagineers who dreamed it up, the Iraq war was supposed to be the first step toward American domination of Asia, with the ultimate goal of containing China. (The "Project for a New American Century's" founding document really has to be read to be believed.) Debate "the surge" all you want. Five years, close to 4000 dead Americans, hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, and close to a trillion dollars later, the U.S. remains tied down there like Gulliver in Lilliput. Its main strategic result has been to improve Iran's position, theoretically our next opponent in an empire-building war that now appears blessedly unlikely to happen.
            Meanwhile, the Persians are making multi-billion dollar gas and oil development deals with China, whose continued willingness to buy American securities basically finances U.S. deficit spending for the war. Further east, the U.S. and its NATO allies find themselves stuck in a slowly disintegrating Afghanistan - a nation (to use the term loosely) which history records has never been successfully occupied by foreign powers. In the wake of Benazir Bhutto's assassination (another Bush administration daydream gone tragically awry), nuclear-armed Pakistan teeters on the edge of dissolution. Al Qaeda operates with increasing openness in remote tribal areas not controlled by Pakistan's government.
            Meanwhile, scenes of desperate Palestinians streaming out of Gaza into Egypt couldn't help but remind anybody not blinded by propaganda of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The barriers may be temporarily back in place, but the Bush/Likud policy of treating the area like an enormous outdoor prison camp is clearly doomed to fail.
            None of this is to say the U.S. "homeland," so-called, is seriously endangered, nor ever was. From the numbers alone, it's clear that no nation or group of nations on earth aspires to threaten the U.S. by force of arms. Even China's estimated $65 billion military budget, the second largest in the world, is less than 10 percent of ours. (China has almost four times the U.S. population.)
            Equally clear, however, is that the United States cannot dominate the world by force. We wouldn't have enough troops to fight on all these fronts even if Americans had ever bought into the imperialist idea, which they never have. Our vaunted nuclear arsenal has become the economic equivalent of the Egyptian pyramids: fantastically expensive, but useless. Maybe after Bush is gone, we can talk about itbject: 

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