Jensen here appropriately turns House minority leader Pelosi's critique of Bush and the U.S. invasion of Iraq against both the Democrats and the Republicans. It is time we started calling the "War on Terrorism" what it really is: the latest installment in an imperialist project that began with the birth of the nation.
It's Not Just the Emperor Who is Naked, But the Whole Empire
by Robert Jensen
Republican politicians took potshots at House Democratic leader Nancy
Pelosi last week after she called President Bush "incompetent" and
criticized his judgment and leadership. Her conclusion -- "the
emperor has no clothes" -- understandably made Republicans angry,
because it is so obviously accurate.
Pelosi's remarks deserve scrutiny, but not because she was too harsh
on the president. The lies and distortions that Bush and his top
officials used to promote the U.S. invasion of Iraq were exposed long
ago, and day-by-day the disastrous consequences of the occupation are
obvious to all but the most fanatical of the Leader's faithful.
But the problem is not just that the EMPEROR is bare, but that the
U.S. EMPIRE has no clothes, and in that respect mainstream Democrats
stand before the world as naked as the most reactionary Republicans.
It is understandable that many think of Bush administration policies
as a radical departure from past U.S. foreign policy, and certainly
the doctrine of preemption (which is so far untested, because Iraq
posed no threat to the United States; the U.S. invasion, therefore,
didn't preempt anything but was instead a simple crime against peace)
and the open call for world domination have taken the country -- and
the world -- down a particularly dangerous path. But Bush is hardly
the first president to engage in empire building.
A few years ago, anyone who described the United States as an empire
was branded part of the loony left. But since 9/11, even conservative
pundits talk of empire, albeit in perversely positive terms,
exhorting U.S. leaders to seize the opportunity to remake the world.
But that project didn't begin with 9/11. Whatever point in U.S.
history one claims as the beginning of the imperial project (the
genocide of indigenous people in North America? the Monroe Doctrine?
the conquest of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War?),
there is no doubt that U.S. empire building went into high gear after
World War II. The fact that the United States doesn't acquire
colonies in the same fashion as past empires, preferring instead to
install compliant governments that will do its bidding, doesn't make
us less an empire. The modalities of control change, but the game
remains the same; set the terms for the world economy and derail the
possibility of independent development by any means necessary, with a
gargantuan military on call when violence is required.
Nor do the differences in style and tactics make Democratic
administrations any less imperial than Republicans. The Cold-War
liberals of the Democratic Party had no greater qualms than
Republicans about using the military to extend U.S. power in the
Third World. The blood of millions of dead Vietnamese is on the hands
of liberal darling John F. Kennedy and conservative curmudgeon
Richard Nixon alike. Whatever the differences in domestic policy in
the postwar period between Republicans and Democrats, in
international relations the consensus on each side of the aisle was
firmly in favor of militarism to project U.S. power around the world.
The only admirable people in either party were the few dissidents
(such as Democrats Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening, the only two
senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that justified
expansion of the Vietnam War, or Republican Rep. Pete McCloskey, who
That pattern continues up to this day. We should not forget that for
all the talk of Bill Clinton's "multilateralism," he launched an
illegal attack on Iraq in 1998 and insisted on maintaining the
harshest economic embargo in modern history on that country for eight
years, which killed as many as 1 million Iraqis -- policies that had
virtually no support in the world. In short, Clinton killed more
Iraqis than Bush as he ignored international law and world opinion. I
doubt the fact that Clinton is smarter and more rhetorically gifted
than Bush makes much difference to the dead in Iraq.
And while Bush bears primary responsibility for the Iraq War, he
couldn't have done it without the help of some Democrats (such as
John Kerry, who voted for it) and the inaction of others (such as
Pelosi, who voted against the war but expended no political capital
to mount a serious campaign to stop it and added to the case for war
with false statements such as "Saddam Hussein certainly has chemical
and biological weapons" as late as November 2002).
There's no indication that any of the current strategists in the
Democratic Party have learned anything from all this. Kerry is not
calling for an end to the illegal and immoral occupation but instead
advocates a continued U.S. presence with an international fig leaf.
Neither Republicans nor mainstream Democrats seem capable of
admitting that the invasion of Iraq was never about weapons of mass
destruction, terrorist ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda, or creating
democracy; it was simply an intensification of the longstanding U.S.
project of controlling the strategically crucial energy resources of
the Middle East. That project has gone on under Democratic and
Republican presidents alike, taking different forms but always with
that same goal of expanding U.S. power.
It's not just the Iraq War that is immoral. The whole rotten project
of empire building is immoral -- and every bit as much a Democratic
as a Republican project. When politicians from both parties offer
platitudes about America's benevolent intentions as they argue about
the most appropriate strategies for running the world, we should
remember this trenchant comment after World War I from W.E.B. DuBois:
"It is curious to see America, the United States, looking on herself,
first, as a sort of natural peacemaker, then as a moral protagonist
in this terrible time. No nation is less fitted for this role."
This analysis doesn't mean voters can't judge one particular
empire-building politician more dangerous than another. It doesn't
mean we shouldn't sometimes make strategic choices to vote for one
over the other. It simply means we should make such choices with eyes
open and no illusions.
Here, I borrow phrases from Pelosi's condemnation of Bush: "When are
people going to face reality? Pull the curtain back."
Indeed, Rep. Pelosi, pull the curtain back. You will see naked
emperors, Republican and Democratic. You will see the cowardly
legislators who chose to step aside before the war, when spirited
opposition in Congress might have helped derail the disaster that is
playing out in Iraq.
Pull the curtain back, and step in front of the mirror.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at
Austin and the author of "Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to
Claim Our Humanity." He can be reached at email@example.com.