Thursday, August 4, 2011

What Kind of America Do You Want? (Pt. 2)


I read an (I thought) excellent book this summer: The Unconquerable World by Jonathan Schell. I wish I hadn't returned it to the library so I could quote from it now, but one of Schell's main points is: Empire abroad is corrosive to liberty at home. This seems to be a pretty well-established law of modern history. When a democratic government acquires the power and the will to dominate entire foreign nations with violence, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep that government from doing the same at home. Returning to the example of Israel, the Jewish state's refusal to relinquish its "accidental empire" is starting to produce some nasty results, the most outrageous and recent of which is a law banning boycotts of goods produced by Israeli settlements built on colonized land. To sustain its colonies, Israel must place limits on free expression at home.

What about here?

I am convinced that the U.S.'s global power has grown to the point where it can't possibly be regulated by a concerned public in the same way that our economic and domestic policies can. Sure, Iraq and Afghanistan grab the headlines (sometimes), but our foreign policy touches every country on the planet. There is no way a single person, much less an organized constituency, can keep it all straight. For instance, do you know our country's policy towards Equatorial Guinea? It's pretty horrifying. Have a look-see.

Our Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. They haven't done so since 1941. Following the Vietnam disaster, Congress succumbed to the realities of empire and passed a law called the War Powers Act, giving the president the authority to go to war for 90 days, after which he could seek a congressional "authorization" to use force in lieu of an actual declaration of war. Ten years ago, Congress passed a resolution authorizing the use of military force against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. (It was as vague as that.) Today, our current president is using that resolution to occupy one country, Afghanistan, and bomb three others - Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen. He's been bombing a fifth country, Libya, for 126 days without any congressional authorization at all. His official explanation? It doesn't qualify as "hostilities." He's ordered the assassination of American citizens. Warrantless wiretapping, military tribunals - all standard procedure. This is what an antiwar president looks like in the American empire.

I am currently reading a non-fiction book called Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, which follows the tragic tale of a Syrian-American family living in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. (Thanks Alvin!) The book's main subject, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, stayed through the storm to protect his house and rental properties while his family evacuated. He was seized by the military from his own home on suspicion of being a terrorist (really) and was held for 23 days without counsel, without being charged, and without being allowed to call his desperate wife, who we certain he had been killed in the post-storm chaos. In effect, he was disappeared by his own government.

Early in the book, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco announces that "war-hardened U.S. soldiers were on the way to New Orleans to restore order at any cost. 'I have one message for these hoodlums,' she said. 'These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.'" (p. 118). Later in the book, A. Zeitoun's wife ponders the news reports of the military being deployed to New Orleans to "maintain order":

"[Her] mind spun as she read about the unprecedented concentration of armed men and women in the city. ...Blackwater USA, a private-security firm that employed former soldiers from the U.S. and elsewhere, had sent hundreds of personnel to the region. They were there in an official capacity, hired by the Department of Homeland Security to help maintain order. They arrived in full battle dress. ...As well as she could surmise, there were at least twenty thousand National Guard troops in New Orleans, with more arriving every day. ...If each one of those soldiers had at least one M-16 assault rifle, there were about twenty thousand automatic rifles in the city. Too many. And if Governor Blanco was right, that these were vets coming straight from Afghanistan and Iraq, it could not bode well for her husband. ...There were 5,750 Army soldiers in the New Orleans area. Almost a thousand state police officers, many of them there with SWAT teams, armed for urban combat. ...And snipers. They were sending snipers into the city to shoot looters and gunmen. Kathy added it up. There were at least twenty-eight thousand guns in New Orleans." (p. 194-196)

A. Zeitoun was held in a massive prison that was built nearly overnight at New Orleans' train station just two days after the storm hit. Eggers: "This complex and exceedingly efficient government operation was completed while residents of New Orleans were trapped in attics and begging for rescue from rooftops and highway overpasses. The portable toilets were available and working at [the prison] while there were no working bathrooms at the Convention Center and Superdome a few blocks away. Hundreds of cases of water and MREs were readily available for the guards and prisoners, while those stranded nearby were fighting for food and water" (p. 311)

Who says empire never comes home?

All of which is to say: empire is not simply another side project, another thing to cut. It is something that has already changed the fundamental character of our nation, and will change it further if we cling to it as doggedly as we have thus far.

What kind of America do we want? We can't have both the empire and the republic, and not just because we can't afford both.

Full disclosure: four years ago, I found myself on the opposite side of this debate. I was in one of my college's student research seminars, presenting a response to a paper from a Kuyperian scholar about the future of globalization. In my response, I argued that there was going to have to be a dominant superpower in the new world order. I argued that, given our democratic, religious and liberal heritage, that superpower should (continue to) be the United States, rather than China, Russia or Europe. Professor Kok challenged me on this point in the question-and-answer session. He reminded me that according to 1 John 5:19, the whole world is under the control of one person. Like any good Dordt freshman, I was about to answer, "Jesus," when he cut me off and said, "Read the passage, and you'll find out who that is."

What kind of America do we want? The Debt Crisis is over. The question is still unanswered.


  1. What? Empire? You are positively becoming a leftist. I like it. You know, you might find it interesting to read in the tradition of economic analysis of empire - kind of the scientific study of the phenomena. A good place to start - and its compellingly written - is J.A. Hobson's Empire, which pretty much founded the discipline of empire studies. It's free.

  2. Do you think that global terrorism against the US would grow if we just pulled all of our military our of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and left no military presence in the Middle East other than Israel? I have a feeling we'd be no worse off at least. The fewer armed Americans in Middle Eastern countries the harder it will be to recruit new terrorists or create new martyrs, right? It's a hunch I have.

    This is good stuff. Keep it coming.

  3. Leftist!? The way I took everything Joel wrote was in favor of small government - conservative - even libertarian. Which I totally agree with. Some of the power our government has bestowed on itself is unbelievable. And agreed. It is unbelievable that a supposedly anti-war person is doing all those things.

    But seriously Joel. You need to step outside and breathe some fresh air and enjoy yourself. And stop listening to Glenn Beck? Yes. Cease.

    That said, I am sometimes appalled by the way that some people brush off, justify, or ignore horrendous things that our government decides to do.

    But again - fresh air.

  4. ps - Glenn Beck in the sense of conspiracy-theory type of rhetoric. Not about Israel. Or American dominance.

  5. pps -

  6. Robert: Perhaps... I'm actively trying to stop looking at the world like an American citizen. I think it's nearly impossible to deny the existence of an American empire in objective terms. That doesn't mean I'm ready to start collectivizing farms. But give me some time. Could you post the Hobson link again? I think it's broken.

    Adam: I think your hunch is pretty close to the mark. Dismantling our empire would take a LOT of wind of the extremists' sails. There was a time when I would have fiercely disagreed, but you and I both know from experience how hard it is to convince even well-educated Middle Easterners that the U.S.'s intentions are benign when we have 150,000 troops in the region.


    1) Good link. I saw that in the paper today also.

    2) You should know by now that this IS how I enjoy myself. Also, just because I mostly blog about politics here doesn't mean I'm not also swimming, reading, watching Battlestar Galactica with my brothers and dad, and rocking out to the new Arcade Fire album. I get eight hours of fresh air a day. I'm a farmer too, remember?

    3) Glenn Beck??? Take it back!

  7. First, Neal and/or Laura: real libertarians are leftists.

    Anyway, about the Hobson link. Try here or here.

    Or if there's something screwy with your html that makes all my links redirect: