An unusual manifesto is circulating through the e-mail boxes of prominent Washingtonians from an ad hoc group calling itself the "Committee for the Republic." Its five sponsors include conservative C. Boyden Gray, a White House lawyer in the first Bush administration; Chas. W. Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia; and Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The manifesto is a work in progress, its authors say. But the goal is clear: to educate Americans about the dangers of empire.
The U.S. is operating open-ended protectorates in Afghanistan and Iraq, at a combined cost of $5 billion a month, or $60 billion a year. That's roughly triple the entire foreign-aid budget, and almost double the federal government's budget for elementary and secondary education. Meanwhile, intervention in Liberia appears just around the corner. U.S. soldiers reside in nearly 100 different countries. During the president's trip last week to Africa, there was talk of opening bases elsewhere on that continent.
You can argue that none of this is "empire" of the British or Roman variety, since it doesn't involve, for the most part, elaborate systems of civil as well as military governance. But it's close enough. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. has struggled with what it means to be the world's sole remaining superpower. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President Bush moved with surprising force and speed -- and with surprisingly little resistance -- to put an expansive definition on that role.
The Committee for the Republic is saying, in effect: "Whoa, hold on a minute. Shouldn't we talk about this first"?
"The American Revolution was a nationalist revolt against the British Empire," the draft manifesto argues. "Our country was born as a defiant rejection of the legitimacy of imperialism." Citing the lessons of the classics, it argues that the "inevitable cost of empire" is a loss of political and economic freedom at home. "Domestic liberty is the first casualty of adventurist foreign policy."
While the draft was written before the latest flap over bad intelligence used in the State of the Union address, it also argues: "To justify the high cost of maintaining rule over foreign territories and peoples, leaders are left with no choice but to deceive the people."
The events of the past week have provided new heat to the debate over the war in Iraq. For the first time since this past fall, Mr. Bush's defense and foreign policies are encountering serious questioning at home. For the first time, Democrats seem to have found a consistent voice in criticizing those policies. And for the first time, Washington's political punditocracy has begun saying that the defining issue of the 2004 election might not be the economy or health care but foreign policy.
That is a good thing. Mr. Bush may have defined a bold new course for the U.S. in foreign policy, but he hasn't yet had to defend it before a skeptical public. And while the leading Democratic presidential hopefuls are getting more aggressive in their foreign-policy attacks, none has yet articulated a clear alternative vision.*
The Committee for the Republic thinks it is time to have a great national debate about America's role in the post-Cold War world. I say: Bring it on.
*Some solutions are beneath articulation. A clear alternative vision to driving off a cliff would be to stay on the road. Do we really need to spell that out?
The alternative to unilateralist military mania, built on a foundation of 9/11 fraud, is to secure the homeland (instead of Iraqi oil fields) and to build a multilateral front against stateless terrorism.
How can we have a debate without a forum? For almost two years, Americans who want to discuss these issues have had to endure a cheap, ersatz "patriotism" promoted relentlessly by a corporate media cabal working in lockstep.
But the last several days offer fresh hope for something resembling a national discussion. Even Time Magazine is beginning to connect the dots, and is drawing the conclusion that our national hallucination may not hold up to inspection.
"You woke me out of oh! such a nice dream!" — Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass.