If the United States government continues as it does today, bestriding the narrow world like a colossus, it will be stabbed through the heart by daggers inscribed with the nation’s founding principles — the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” shedding salty tears of blood from sullied steel.
But I hope this day will not arrive.
– Joey Clark
I hope we will soon stop simply damning war presidents as hypocrites and killers so we may take the time to see the complex reasons why presidential peace candidates continue to become warmongers.
As a candidate, George W. Bush promised a humble foreign policy.
But as president — especially in reaction to the violent and tragic imperial blowback of 9/11 — humility gave way to hubris. War was not only waged against Bin Laden’s terror network and the Taliban in Afghanistan but also globally against all Terror, a campaign that somehow led U.S. forces to topple a tyrant in Baghdad only to ignite and invite more terror to a fight amongst the rubble.
As a candidate, Barack Obama railed against Bush’s wars of “choice,” promising peace in Baghdad, Kabul, and beyond.
But as president, Obama’s peace prize and campaign promises gave way to more wars of choice.Though Obama “ended” the war in Afghanistan, leaving thousands of troops stationed there, he escalated the Afghan war first. Obama pulled out of Iraq only to topple Gaddafi in Libya. He attempted to topple Assad in Syria only to jump back into Iraq once again to take on ISIS — no doubt an enemy of the United States but an enemy also interested in toppling Assad in Syria. He fought both sides of the same war, inflaming the conflict further. His expanded use of drones is also well documented.
As a candidate, Donald Trump railed against the Bush and Obama wars, including Afghanistan, as an utter waste of American blood and treasure — treasure and manpower that should go to “America First.” Candidate Trump didn’t shy away from saying he would bomb the shit out of ISIS, but his candidacy did seem to suggest a change in direction to a more ‘realist’ and ‘transactional’ approach to foreign policy as opposed to Bush’s overt hubris and Obama’s covert idealism.
But as president, Trump has already launched cruise missiles into Syria, flirted with nuclear war on the Korean peninsula, and most recently gone against his instincts on pulling out of Afghanistan. The latest news is that 3,500 troops will be thrown back into Afghanistan, bringing the troop levels there to 14,500.
“My original instinct was to pull out — and, historically, I like following my instincts,” Trump said in his address to the nation on the Afghan war, “But all my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office; in other words, when you’re president of the United States.”
Indeed, it is easy to write off Trump, Obama, and Bush as lying and hypocritical warmongers, fair enough. It is also easy to apologize for their actions as fallible men reacting to complex events the best they can, true enough. Both approaches have and will be adopted in the name of either defending peaceful ideals or advancing cynical imperial ploys, respectively.
However, rather than simply criticizing or apologizing for presidents, again, it is time we ask why recent presidents have pursued war despite their professed humility, aspirations, and instincts.
What is it about sitting in the presidential chair that changes a man? Why does the presidency mute men’s better angels only to amplify their demons?
If peace candidates wanted to be honest with the American people, they would first stop regarding their re-branding of the same-old-song-and-dance war policies as actual changes in policy. If presidents wished to be truthful, they would stop dressing up America’s military actions as forever and always fights between the American good and the evil du jour. And if ‘the people’ had any desire to take a long hard look in the mirror, they would stop buying into euphemisms such as “leadership” or “strength” or “hegemony” to obscure a truth that has been staring them in the face over the past century — America is an empire.
Though many presidents and the American people themselves may wish to deny it, as Niall Ferguson wrote in his 2004 book Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, a defense of American empire:
“Julius Caesar called himself imperator but never king. His adopted heir Augustus preferred princeps. Emperors can call themselves what they like, and so can empires. The kingdom of England was proclaimed an empire—by Henry VIII—before it became one. The United States by contrast has long been an empire, but eschews the appellation.”
The American empire — what Thomas Jefferson hoped would be an “empire for liberty” — has been centuries in the making no matter what Americans choose to call it. This is why recent ‘peace’ candidates have turned into war presidents. They are caught in an imperial catch-22. Their choices are hardly a matter of choosing good and evil. No, the ‘necessary evil’ of imperial government only allows them to choose between lesser evils, yet evils all the same.
The criticisms from hawks and doves alike are true — pull back the United States and power vacuums will be left behind to filled by China in the Asia Pacific, Russia in Eastern Europe, and Iran and Sunni fundamentalists in the now decimated Middle East and Central Asia; stay put and push forward only to experience more blow back, more debt, and more death while flirting with the Thucydides trap, especially in relation to a rising, nationalistic China..
And speaking of Thucydides, if war presidents really wished to be honest with the American people, they would quote what Pericles said to the people of Athens:
“And do not imagine that what we are fighting for is simply the question of freedom or slavery: there is also involved the loss of our empire and the dangers arising from the hatred which we have incurred in administering it…Your empire is now like a tyranny: it may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go.”
It’s time to pick your poison, America. We face the prospect of tyranny either way.
Even with the best of intentions, empires have ramifications. Empires have consequences even when they are let go. Even if the millennial generation never asked to inherit the American Empire in the first place, the legacy of our forefathers cannot be simply shrugged off without immense effort and sacrifice.
I, of course, prefer to end the empire, bring the republic back home, and brave the dangers of peace and commerce. I do not agree with Niall Ferguson that “liberal” empire is necessary for peace and prosperity worldwide. Sorry, Mr. Kipling, there is no white man’s burden, no need for “savage wars of peace,” no matter the imperial end sought. If necessary, I am quite prepared to “[w]atch Sloth and heathen Folly Bring all your hopes to nought.”
For those of you who agree with me — that we must end this bloody empire, not out of sloth or decadence, but out of conviction that liberty cannot be imposed with liberty serving as the cost — do not kid yourself.
Put yourself in the shoes of those you elect to do your dirty work. Imagine yourself behind the presidential desk surrounded by military and intelligence professionals giving you the latest news on threats across the globe.
Now, ask yourself: which tyranny would I choose?
My choice would be to see the American empire ended, even at a high cost. Luckily for myself and those who want the empire, I am not president. Most of us will never have that much power, thank the gods. But, that said, we cannot continue to count on peace candidates to actually be peace presidents until we all demand it’s time all the wars for peace be lost no matter who sits in the oval office.
You see, under American Empire, Trump is not the imperator. Obama was not the princeps. No, the American Colossus is the American people. And we, the people, are full of dissonance and impatience, full of sound and fury, full of fear and vaunting, scared of our own tall shadow that has bound us to the perilous path we have chosen to walk.
May we heed these words before tragedy strikes either way:
“Men at some time are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves”