Friday, September 19, 2008

The American Empire

Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them."

-William Shakespeare-

I studied history in school. Ancient history. The Roman Republic from the end of the Third Punic War to the birth of the Empire under Augustus, to be precise.

My thesis was on the cultural origins of violence in Republican politics, but that's an entirely different essay.

One of the major things that drew me to study that period were the striking similarities between where they were then, in 161 BCE, after the final defeat of Carthage, and our situation in the United States today.

In both cases, the nations found themselves the overwhelming superpower. In both cases, they became so after three major wars, and numerous smaller ones. In both cases, how to deal with the transformation from backwater to regional force to superpower became the most important issue the nations faced.

Having said all that, the differences are important, especially as they impact on our ability to maintain and properly use the "Empire."

Most important of these differences is the relative abilty to move on a strategic level, communicate, and project force. Despite its size, there were whole sections of the globe where the Romans could not trade, or project force. There is nowhere that the US cannot. I would also argue that the military and economic superiority we currently have is even greater than that of the Romans at the peak of their power.

The most important social factor is the reluctance of the American people to build an Empire in the traditional sense, that of physically occupying or colonizing the land outside our current boundaries. The Roman's territorial aggression can be largely explained by the need for the Men On Horseback, the Sullas and Marius' of the world to get loot and land to pay off their armies. I don't see too many enlistees in the Army hopin' they're gonna get 40 acres and an oil well in northern Iraq at the end of GWII.

We simply don't need to go occupy the liberated nation. We don't need their people as slaves for our latifundia, we don't need their land, and we don't in most cases, need their resources. All we need is for them to do is treat their folks humanely and be peaceable. Some trade would be nice, but it will help them more than it helps us.

Finally, the Romans as a culture were much more violent and militaristic that we are today, but that's that other essay.

There are few practical limits on our power. The gigantic trump card that the US has is the Navy. All maritime trade today moves only with our permission. If every single nation in the world combined against us, in an effort to control the seas, the effort would still be about as successful as a Little League team playing the Yankees.

Several years back, I owned what was then the most realistic simulator of naval warfare that a civilian could own, and I am fairly confident that the classified stuff was not much better. It had everything, surface combatants, subs, land based patrol and attack aircraft, along with the ability to create your own scenarios in addition to the pre-packaged ones that were bundled with the simulation.

Just for fun, I created a scenario. On one side, a standard U.S. Carrier Battle Group - Nimitz class carrier, Ticonderoga class Aegis cruiser, two Los Angeles attack subs, a few Arleigh Burkes, fast frigates, destroyers, and the rest of auxilaries typical of such a formation.

On the other team, - every single hull on the globe that a) was a combat ship, b) had legitimate blue water capability, c) was flying a non - U.S. flag, and d) was listed in the current edition of Jane's.

I then took this task force, Russian, French, English, Chinese, everybody, a real polyglot dog's breakfast, it was, and set it after that single carrier battle group. It took me a week to do the math required to coordinate the attack, working backwards from the desired Time on Target to get all the different times for the various platforms to launch their missiles.

(Lessee, the Backfire bombers shoot this missile, with range x at speed y for a time of flight of z seconds, while the Kilo class subs shoot this missile at this speed, so they need to lauch three minutes and 14 seconds before the Backfires, so on and on...) I created this attack so perfectly synchronized, so tactically beautiful, that you could NEVER pull it off in the real world. Well, we might be able to now, but nobody could have then. The only thing I ruled out were fission warheads on the missiles.

The result? The carrier took a few hits, but nothing serious, as did the Tico. The FFs got ate up like potato chips, dying gallantly in their assigned role out there on picket duty. A few other ships went down. But the battle group lived on.

Was it totally realistic? Almost certainly not. I did stuff no commander would do, like launching every single Tomcat and Hornet on the carrier, leaving nothing in reserve. But this was the world navy against ONE carrier. At the time, I think we had 14 of them, though I think we're down to twelve now.

The moral of the story? If we truly were imperials, if our overseas adventures were about blood for oil, we could simply tell the world producers that they're selling us all the oil we can drink for twenty bucks a barrel, and they can sell whatever is left to wherever at whatever price they can gouge, but ONLY after we've had our fill.

In the modern world, if you control the seas, you control the economy. Not a Toyota leaves Japan, not a Beanie Baby leaves China, not a pound of coffee leaves Brazil, without a hall pass from the U.S. Navy. Hey Hugo, see how long you last after the good people of Venezuela discover that your head on a pike is our non-negotiable requirement for international trade to resume.

No oil could leave the Middle East, save through the few existing pipelines, which are themselves easily destroyed. Until such time that the other nations of the world garner the political will to build larger navies, which I don't see happening, then this situation will not change.

Not that I see how it could ever come to a military confrontation - even economic sanctions against the US could never work, as it would hurt the sanctioners much more that it would hurt us. There is no one important that can afford not to be our trading partner.

Now, note well, I am NOT stating that this course of action would be a moral, or even advisable, one. I am saying that if we wanted to be ruthless hegemons, it is well within our capability. The world should be extremely grateful that it is simply not in the American character to take advantage of our economic and military dominance.

So, what does this mean to the tin-pot despots of the world? Only bad things. They are doomed, if we only generate the selfless will to make it so.

I am well aware that we cannot be everywhere, doing everything. To topple North Korea, for example, at this point would probably cost more than we are willing to pay. Some rotten fruits will of necessity have to be left hanging on the tree, to eventually succumb to natural entropy, as Cuba continues to do. But that should not then mean we should not intervene where the task is relatively easy, the price low, and people are dying every day we delay - such as the situation today in Darfur.

We need not fix the whole damn planet before the decade is out. Every regime change where a new liberal democracy can be planted is one less to worry about, a job well done, and worth doing for simple goodness' sake. Eventually, though it take a generation or two, the task will be completed.

There's little doubt that the various peoples involved will welcome the transition to liberal little-r republican rule, once the mechanisms are set in place. In the meantime, the various hand-wringers, negotiators, and worrywarts here and abroad might best occupy themselves by designing a default gov't, a template, if you will, for good governance in the newly liberated countries.

This is my idea of one way this might come about. We can establish a constitution with independent branches of government, and a default civil and criminal code, under the auspices of a governor of near-dictatorial power. He would be given the mission of designing things such as electoral districts, coordinating humanitarian relief, etc. This government would be initially staffed with a multinational group of experienced outsiders, perhaps retired statesmen, (paging Bill Clinton, it'll keep him out of trouble and out of the country), Senators and MPs and such, holding the offices that will eventually be filled by citizens of that country.

Allow those outsiders a single, fairly long term of office, say, six years. During the last four years of that term, they will have as an understudy someone that they identify and choose during the first two years. That understudy will then take office for a term. They will be the last unelected officeholders that country will ever have. The hand-picked incumbent would be allowed to run for re-election, though subject to subsequent term limits. (An exception might be made for the judiciary, where the judges would be appointed for life.)

Of course, this plan would be accompanied by liberal doses of economic aid, perhaps encouraged by allowing Stateside corporations ample incentive to invest there, say by allowing any such profits legitimately generated there to be untaxed for a decade or two.

After a few successes of this type, the remaining nations of the world will end up begging for us to come in and straighten their messes out.

We are well on the way to completing the creation of a free and democratic nation is what will prove to be the most difficult situation on the planet. There is nowhere that the deck will be stacked as harshly against us as it was in Iraq. We have taken Islam's best shot and beat them, discredited them, ate their lunch, drank their milkshake, and their bases all belong to us.

In the process, our military has learned lessons that make it the most experienced, combat-hardened force on the planet. Our junior officers and NCOs have earned Ph.D.s in counter-insurgency, and will competently lead for at least another generation. Both Iraq and our military are in better shape for our experience there.

As is America itself.


Steel Turman said...


I've never really given any thought to the aftermath of 'fixing things' ala Bush & Co.

There must be a job for you in the CIA.

Heh. Just as I was ready to put neat link to this post - typepad went down.


Glad you took the plunge, Marcus.

Amy said...

I second Steel's emotion. What a fine read. I got a tingle up my leg reading about our navy. I knew it but didn't know, and I loved how you played it out.

Thanks for this piece!