Historians spend their life looking backwards. Futurists spend their life looking forward. My goal has been to blend the two disciplines into one seamless endeavor.
When I was studying to become a Historian I came to a point where I had to declare a field of special study. This is where my obsession with current events intersected with my love for History. This is when I realized that current events are the forever unfolding always receding conveyor belt of reality. This is when I first verbalized the perception that as the future slides into the present and the present slides into the past our lives are the history of the future. Therefore in my writings I seek to frame the flow of today with knowledge of yesterday to create a window into tomorrow.
History tells us that Imperial Republics fall. We have the examples of Athens and all the other grasping Greek republics that followed her. We have Rome the example always deferred to of a republic that allowed empire to stifle freedom. The list however does not end there, we can look at Venice and the various republics of Renaissance Italy and of course the First Republic of France which was birthed in blood and died in fire. The siren song of empire has seduced republics down through history to trade in their freedom for power which eventually cost them both their freedom and the power.
Is it time to re-think America’s international military commitments? Though settled by European kingdoms seeking empires the United States wasn’t founded to become an empire. Individuals fought against the empire building tyrants until their determination and resolve won independence against all odds. Then, although the world was filled with despotic kings, our Framers gave us a Republic. However, it is worth remembering the exchange that took place between Ben Franklin, the elder statesman of the Constitutional Convention and an unknown woman. As he left Independence Hall he was asked, “Well Doctor what we have got a republic or a monarchy?” Appealing to his legendary wit Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” We and our ancestors have been blessed by the Republic for hundreds of years. We’ve benefited from the liberty to live our lives and pursue our happiness. Now we’ve arrived at the “if you can keep it” phase of our journey.
At the cost of hundreds of billions and thousands of lives we doubled-down in Afghanistan. At the cost of over a trillion and thousands of lives we conquered Iraq and deposed Saddam. We spearheaded the bombing campaign in Libya. Our drones strike suspected enemies far and near. Troops have been dispatched to central Africa. And the perennial war drums still beat at the very mention of Iran.
We have sent our fellow citizens to fight long hard slogs in countries whose names are the very synonym for Quagmire. As our economy was being outsourced, our debt monetized, and our infrastructure crumbled we meekly followed our leaders deeper into thankless nation-building campaigns in nation after nation including one that’s resisted and foiled every empire from Alexander to Moscow.
Instead of using our cruise missiles and stealth capabilities we fell into the trap announced and laid by Bin Laden. Whose strategy was as Lawrence Wright told us in his seminal book Looming Towers to, “lure America into the same trap the Soviets had fallen into: Afghanistan.” How did he plan to do it? “To continually attack until the U.S. forces invaded; then the mujahedeen would swarm upon them and bleed them until the entire American empire fell from its wounds. It had happened to Great Britain and to the Soviet Union. He was certain it would happen to America.”
There were twists and turns on our journey from republic to empire.
George Washington warned us to avoid foreign entanglements. Thomas Jefferson outlined the essential principles of our government which included this advice concerning foreign affairs, “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations entangling alliances with none.”
For more than one hundred years we concentrated on using our liberty to build a mighty nation. Then the temptation of empire captured the American imagination in the 1890s, a time when Europe was rushing to gobble up the last places open for colonization or carving up those areas unsuited for colonies into spheres of influence. Under President McKinley the United States entered the scramble for colonies in the Spanish-American War winning Puerto Rico and the Philippines
Teddy Roosevelt followed McKinley walking softly while carrying a big stick in the form of the Great White Fleet and multiple intrusions into the sovereignty of Latin American countries. After being re-elected on the promise to keep America neutral President Wilson proclaimed America must fight World War I to “Make the World Safe for Democracy.” An adventure which cost over 300, 000 casualties and which actually expanded the empires of England, France, and Japan. After the war, the Congress of the United States re-asserted control by rejecting the international entanglements of the League of Nations Treaty returning to the traditional American foreign policy of freedom of trade and freedom of action.
Under FDR America fought an undeclared naval war against Germany in 1940 and 41 and imposed draconian embargoes against Japan prior to Pearl Harbor. Once we were attacked we had to defend ourselves. However, when World War II ended not with the defeat of totalitarianism but instead with the expansion of it in Eastern Europe the guiding light of American foreign policy seems to have been permanently extinguished. As the British Empire sailed into the sunset we filled the void taking up the role of leader of the West in the Cold War. For forty-six years we faced the Soviets until they collapsed. Then instead of coming home we spread our wings even further embracing Eastern Europe promising to send young Americans to fight for Estonia and Slovakia among others, and so the sun never set upon the American Empire.
Not only is it against the founding principles of America to establish and maintain an empire of far-flung outposts, we cannot afford to be the Policeman of the world. We cannot afford to build nations for people who don’t want them. How did a peaceful nation of free citizens become the advocate of pre-emptive attack and endless occupation? How much blood and treasure will we invest in Iraq, and what will be the result? A Shi’a ally for Iran. The war in Afghanistan was obviously defensive and retaliatory in nature given the Taliban’s support for Al Qaeda. But ten years later what’s it all about? Are we really dedicated to building a modern nation for tribal people who have no sense of nationhood? Or have we walked into the same trap that brought the Soviets to their knees?
Currently the United States has armed forces in over 130 countries. We’re committed to defend most of these countries against aggression. Where were all these allies on 9-11? Where are they in Afghanistan? Why do we have treaties binding us to go to war to defend those who refuse to support us when we’re attacked? If these policies are counter-productive are there any alternatives?
Close the foreign bases and bring our troops home. Station them on the border to protect us from the on-going invasion of illegal immigrants who’re overloading our systems. We can seal and secure the mountainous border between the Koreas and we can secure our own borders if we have the wisdom and the will. If we need to project American power use the carrier battle-groups designed for that purpose. Protect America and rebuild our infrastructure instead of everyone else’s. When asked what to do with the American Military after World War I Will Rogers said, “Get ’em all home, add to their number, add to their training, then just sit tight with a great feeling of security and just read about foreign wars. That’s the best thing in the world to do with them.”
If we want to save the Republic we need to lose the empire or we can cling to the empire and lose both.
Dr. Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion for Southside Virginia Community College. He is the author of the History of the Future @ http://drrobertowens.com © 2011 Robert R. Owens [email protected] Follow Dr. Robert Owens on Facebook or Twitter @ Drrobertowens