Anyone who wants to write about the constitutional crisis unfolding in
the United States today faces a peculiar problem at the outset. There is
a large body of observations that at one and the same time have been
made too often and yet not often enough–too often because they have
been repeated to the point of tedium for a minority ready to listen but
not often enough because the general public has yet to consider them
seriously enough. The problem for a self-respecting writer is that the
act of writing almost in its nature promises something new. Repetition
is not really writing but propaganda–not illumination for the mind but
a mental beating. Here are some examples of the sort of observations I
have in mind, at once over-familiar and unheard:

President George W. Bush sent American troops into Iraq to find weapons
of mass destruction, but they weren’t there.

He said that Saddam Hussein’s regime had given help to Al Qaeda, but it
had not.

He therefore took the nation to war on the basis of falsehoods.

His Administration says that the torture at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere has
been the work of a few bad apples in the military, whereas in fact
abuses were sanctioned at the highest levels of the executive branch in
secret memos.

His Administration lambastes leakers, but its own officials illegally
leaked the name of a CIA operative, Valerie Plame, in order to
politically discredit her husband.

He flatly stated to the public that all wiretaps of Americans were
ordered pursuant to court warrants, whereas in fact he was authorizing
and repeatedly reauthorizing warrantless wiretaps.

These wiretaps violated a specific law of Congress forbidding them.

His Administration has asserted a right to imprison Americans as
well as foreigners indefinitely without the habeas corpus hearings
required by law.

Wars of aggression, torture, domestic spying and arbitrary arrest are
the hallmarks of dictatorship, yet Congress, run by the President’s
party, has refused to conduct full investigations into either the false
WMD claims, or the abuses and torture, or the warrantless wiretaps, or
the imprisonment without habeas corpus.

When Congress passed a bill forbidding torture and the President signed
it, he added a “signing statement” implying a right to disregard its
provisions when they conflicted with his interpretation of his powers.

The President’s secret legal memos justifying the abuses and torture are
based on a conception of the powers of the executive that gives him
carte blanche to disregard specific statutes as well as international
law in the exercise of self-granted powers to the Commander in Chief
nowhere mentioned in the Constitution.

If accepted, these claims would fundamentally alter the structure of the
American government, upsetting the system of checks and balances and
nullifying fundamental liberties, including Fourth Amendment guarantees
against unreasonable searches and seizures and guarantees of due
process. As such, they embody apparent failures of the President to
carry out his oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of
the United States.”

Opposing One-Party Government

The need to repeat these familiar points, as I have just done (while
also begging the indulgence of the reader, as I do), is itself a symptom
of the crisis. The same concentration of governmental and other power in
the hands of a single party that led to the abuses stands in the way of
action to address them. The result is a problem of political sanitation.
The garbage heaps up in the public square, visible to all and stinking
to high heaven, but no garbage truck arrives to take it away. The
lawbreaking is exposed, but no legislative body responds. The damning
facts pour out, and protests are made, but little is done. Then comes
the urge to repeat.

The dilemma is reflected in microcosm in the news media, especially
television–a process particularly on display in the failure to
challenge the Administration’s deceptive rationale for the Iraq War. The
reasons for severe doubt were, at the very least, available before the
war, and they were expounded in many places. More truthful, contrary
voices could and did speak up, especially on the Internet, the freest of
today’s media. But they were not widely heard. They were drowned out by
the dominant voices in the mainstream, acceding to the deceptions of
power and their variations and derivatives. All over the world,
autocratic-minded rulers, from Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio
Berlusconi to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, have learned that de
facto control of the political content of television is perhaps the most
important lever of power in our day. They have learned that it does not
matter politically if 15 or even 25 percent of the public is well
informed as long the majority remains in the dark. The problem has not
been censorship but something very nearly censorship’s opposite: the
deafening noise of the official megaphone and its echoes–not the
suppression of truth, still spoken and heard in a narrow circle, but a
profusion of lies and half lies; not too little speech but too much. If
you whisper something to your friend in the front row of a rock concert,
you have not been censored, but neither will you be heard.

The one major breach in the monopoly has been made by the Supreme Court,
especially in its decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld requiring application
of the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice to
detainees. The decision’s reasoning, if it carries the day in practice,
would roll back many of the usurpations by the executive, which has
already claimed that it will apply the Geneva Conventions to prisoners
in US custody (though there is doubt what this will mean) and will seek
a constitutional opinion by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act
court on its wiretapping. When the Supreme Court speaks, it is more than
repetition. It is effective action.

Yet in the last analysis, the outcome of the contest will be decided in
the political arena, where public opinion and, ultimately, voters are
the decision-makers. It’s notable that the reaction to the Supreme
Court’s decision in Hamdan by one Republican Congressional leader was to
accuse Democrats who applauded the decision of wanting “special
privileges for terrorists.”

One-party monopoly of power is not the only inhibiting factor. Any
oppositionist who is honest will keep in mind that a majority, however
narrow, of Americans voted that one party into power in a series of
elections. Especially important was the presidential election of 2004,
when many, though not all, of the abuses were already known. (And then
the election itself was subject to grave abuses, especially in Ohio.)
The weight and meaning of that majority does not disappear because it
was demonstrably misinformed about key matters of war and peace. It’s
one thing to oppose an illegitimate concentration of power in the name
of a repressed majority, another to oppose power backed and legitimated
by a majority. In the first case, it will be enough to speak truth to
power; in the second, the main need is to speak truth to one’s fellow
citizens. As the end is restoring democratic process, so the means
should be democratic. It’s true that since 2004 the President’s positive
ratings in the polls have plummeted, but there is no guarantee that this
shift in opinion will translate into Republican defeats in the
forthcoming Congressional election, and a renewal of Republican
majorities in both houses of Congress would add another stamp of
approval to the Bush policies, however misguided.

The mechanisms inhibiting opposition to state power, especially when
backed by electoral majorities, are not something new. Even in the
freest countries there is at all times a conventional wisdom, which may
wander more or less far from reality. Sometimes it strays into a
fantasyland. Then marginal voices (which of course are not correct
merely because they are marginal) have a special responsibility to speak
up, and sometimes they shift the mainstream–as happened, for instance,
in the 1960s regarding the Vietnam War and legal segregation. For the
better part of a century, segregation fit squarely within the banks of
the American mainstream. Then it didn’t.

A Persistent Pathology

As the mere mention of Vietnam suggests, the repetition dilemma also has
causes that go deeper into the past. I embarked on journalism in 1966 as
a reporter in Vietnam. The experience led, naturally and seamlessly, to
a decade of writing about the war, the opposition to the war and,
finally, when the war “came home,” to the constitutional crisis of the
Nixon years and its resolution via Nixon’s resignation under threat of
impeachment. The war and the impeachment were connected at every point.
It wasn’t just that Nixon’s wiretapping was directed against Daniel
Ellsberg, war critic and leaker of the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers; or
that the “plumbers” outfit that carried out the Watergate break-in was
founded to spy on, disrupt and attack war critics; or that Nixon’s
persistence in trying to win the war even as he withdrew American
troops from it drove him into the paranoia that led him to draw up an
“enemies list” and sponsor subversions of the electoral process–it was
that his entire go-it-alone, imperial conception of the presidency
originated in his pursuit of his war policy in secrecy and without
Congressional involvement.

And now, thirty years later, we find ourselves facing an uncannily
similar combination of misconceived war abroad and constitutional crisis
at home. Again a global crusade (then it was the cold war, now it is the
“war on terror”) has given birth to a disastrous war (then Vietnam, now
Iraq); again a President has responded by breaking the law; and again it
falls to citizens, journalists, judges, justices and others to trace the
connections between the overreaching abroad and the overreaching at
home. In consequence, not only are we condemned to repeat ourselves for
the duration of the current crisis but a remarkable number of those
repetitions are already repetitions of what was said thirty years ago.

Consider, for instance, the following passage from a speech called “The
Price of Empire,” by the great dissenter against the Vietnam War Senator
William Fulbright.

Before the Second World War our world role was a potential role; we were
important in the world for what we could do with our power, for the
leadership we might provide, for the example we might set. Now the
choices are almost gone: we are almost the world’s self-appointed
policeman; we are almost the world defender of the status quo. We are
well on our way to becoming a traditional great power–an imperial
nation if you will–engaged in the exercise of power for its own sake,
exercising it to the limit of our capacity and beyond, filling every
vacuum and extending the American “presence” to the farthest reaches of
the earth. And, as with the great empires of the past, as the power
grows, it is becoming an end in itself, separated except by ritual
incantation from its initial motives, governed, it would seem, by its
own mystique, power without philosophy or purpose. That describes what
we have almost become….

Is there a single word–with the possible exception of “almost” at the
end of the paragraph–that fails to apply to the country’s situation
today? Or consider this passage from Fulbright’s The Arrogance of Power
with the Iraq venture in mind:

Traditional rulers, institutions, and ways of life have crumbled under
the fatal impact of American wealth and power but they have not been
replaced by new institutions and new ways of life, nor has their
breakdown ushered in an era of democracy and development.

Recalling these and other passages from Fulbright and other critics of
the Vietnam era, one is again tempted to wonder why we should bother to
say once more what has already been said so well so many times before.
Perhaps we should just quote rather than repeat–cite, not write.

Of course, people like to point out that Iraq is not Vietnam. They are
right insofar as those two countries are concerned. For instance,
today’s anarchic Iraq, a formerly unified country now on or over the
edge of civil war, is wholly different from yesterday’s resolute
Vietnam, divided into north and south but implacably bent on unity and
independence from foreign rule. And of course the two eras could
scarcely be more different. Most important, the collapse of the Soviet
Union has effectuated a full-scale revolution in the international
order. The number of the world’s superpowers has been cut back from two
to one, China has become an economic powerhouse, market economics have
spread across the planet, the industrial age has been pushed aside by
the information age, global warming has commenced and rock music has
been replaced by rap. Yet in the face of all this, American policies
have shown an astonishing sameness, and this is what is disturbing. In
our world of racing change, only the pathologies of American power seem
to remain constant. Why?

The Pitiful, Helpless Giant

Perhaps a clue can be found in the famous speech that Senator Joseph
McCarthy gave in Wheeling, West Virginia, in February 1950. This was the
occasion on which he announced his specious list of Communists in the
State Department, launching what soon was called McCarthyism. He also
shared some thoughts on America’s place in the world. The allied victory
in World War II had occurred only five years before. No nation
approached the United States in wealth, power or global influence. Yet
McCarthy’s words were a dirge for lost American greatness. He said, “At
war’s end we were physically the strongest nation on earth and, at least
potentially, the most powerful intellectually and morally. Ours could
have been the honor of being a beacon in the desert of
destruction, a shining living proof that civilization was not
yet ready to destroy itself. Unfortunately, we have failed miserably and
tragically to arise to the opportunity.” On the contrary, McCarthy
strikingly added, “we find ourselves in a position of impotency.”

By what actions had the United States thrown away greatness? McCarthy
blamed not mighty forces without but traitors within, to whom he
assigned an almost magical power to sap the strength of the country.
America’s putative decline occurred “not because our only powerful
potential enemy has sent men to invade our shores, but rather because of
the traitorous actions of those who have been treated so well by this
nation.” And, he raved on in a later speech, “we believe that men high
in this Government are concerting to deliver us to disaster. This must
be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense
as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A
conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its
principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest

McCarthy seemed to look at the United States through a kind of double
lens. At one moment the nation was a colossus, all-powerful, without
peer or rival; at the next moment a midget, cringing in panic, delivered
over to its enemies, “impotent.” Like the genie in Aladdin’s bottle, the
United States seemed to be a kind of magical being, first filling the
sky, able to grant any wish, but a second later stoppered and helpless
in its container. Which it was to be depended not on any enemy, all of
whom could easily be laid low if only America so chose, but on Americans
at home, who prevented this unleashing of might. If Americans cowered,
it supposedly was mainly before other Americans. Get them out of the
way, and the United States could rule the globe. The right-wing
intellectual James Burnham named the destination to which this kind of
thinking led. “The reality,” he wrote, “is that the only alternative to
the communist World Empire is an American Empire, which will be, if not
literally worldwide in formal boundaries, capable of exercising decisive
world control.”

McCarthy’s double vision of the United States must have resonated
deeply, for it turned out to have remarkable staying power. Consider,
for example, the following statement by the super-hawkish columnist
Charles Krauthammer, penned fifty-one years later, in March 2001 (six
months before September 11). Again we hear the King Kong-like
chest-beating, even louder than before. For the end of the cold war,
Krauthammer wrote, had made the United States “the dominant power in the
world, more dominant than any since Rome.” And so, just as McCarthy
claimed in 1950, “America is in a position to reshape norms, alter
expectations and create new realities.” But again there is a problem.
And it is the same one–the enemies within. Thus again comes the cry of
frustration, the anxiety that this utopia, to be had for the taking,
will melt away like a dream, that the genie will be stuffed back into
its bottle. For the “challenge to unipolarity is not from the outside
but from the inside. The choice is ours. To impiously paraphrase
Benjamin Franklin: History has given you an empire, if you will keep
it.” The remedy? “Unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will.”

We find expressions of the same double vision–a kind of anxiety-ridden
triumphalism–again and again in iconic phrases uttered in the
half-century between McCarthy and Krauthammer. Walt Rostow, chair of the
State Department’s Policy Planning Council, articulated a version of it
in 1964, on the verge of the Johnson Administration’s escalation of the
Vietnam War, when he spoke in a memo to Secretary of State Dean Rusk of
“the real margin of influence…which flows from the simple fact that at
this stage of history, we are the greatest power in the world–if only
we behave like it.” Madeleine Albright, then UN ambassador, gave voice
to a similar frustration when she turned to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff Colin Powell and asked, “What’s the point of having this superb
military you are always talking about if we can’t use it?” But it was
Richard Nixon who gave the double vision its quintessential expression
when, in 1970, at the pinnacle of America’s involvement in Vietnam, he
stated, “If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation,
the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the
forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and
free institutions throughout the world.” For Nixon, as for McCarthy and
Krauthammer, the principal danger was on the home front. As he said on
another occasion, “It is not our power but our will and character that
is being tested tonight. The question all Americans must ask and answer
tonight is this: Does the richest and strongest nation in the history of
the world have the character to meet a direct challenge by a group which
rejects every effort to win a just peace?” And, even more explicitly,
“Because let us understand: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the
United States. Only Americans can do that.”

The question is how the United States could be a “giant” yet pitiful and
helpless, the “richest and strongest” yet unable to have its way, in
possession of the most superb military force in history yet unable to
use it, the “greatest power the world had ever known” yet at the same
time paralyzed. Why, if the United States has had no peer in wealth and
weaponry, has it for more than a half-century been persistently,
incurably complaining of weakness, paralysis, even impotence?

‘Losing’ Country X

McCarthy, of course, presented the “loss” of China as Exhibit A in his
display of the deeds of his gallery of traitors. For example, in the
Wheeling speech, he specifically mentioned John Service, of the State
Department’s China desk, and charged that he “sent official reports back
to the State Department urging that we torpedo our ally Chiang Kai-shek
and stating, in effect, that communism was the best hope of China.” By
such false accusations–including the spurious allegation about the
Communists in the State Department–did McCarthy transpose the “lost”
war in China to the domestic sphere, where the phantom saboteurs of
American global hegemony were supposedly at work. Soon, the Communist
tactic of the purge was adopted by the American government, with the
result that many of those most knowledgeable about Asia, such as
Service, were driven out of government.

As has often been pointed out, whether the United States “lost China”
depends on whether you think the United States ever had it. The question
has lasting importance because the alleged loss of one country or
another–China, Laos, Vietnam, Chile, Iran, Nicaragua, Iraq–became a
leitmotif of American politics, especially at election time. In each of
these cases, the United States “possessed” the countries in question
(and thus was in a position to “lose” them) only insofar as it somehow
laid claim to control the destinies of peoples on a global basis, or, as
Fulbright said, an imperial basis. But if there is one clear lesson that
the history of recent empires has taught, it is that modern peoples have
both the will and the capacity to reject imperial rule and assert
control over their own destinies. Less interested in the contest between
East and West than in running their own countries, they yearned for
self-determination, and they achieved it. The British and French
imperialists were forced to learn this lesson over the course of a
century. The Soviet Union took a little longer, and itself collapsed in
the process. The United States, determined in the period in question to
act in an imperial fashion, has been the dunce in the class, and indeed
under the current Administration has put forward imperial claims that
dwarf those of imperial Britain at its height. It is only because, in
country after country, the United States has attempted the impossible
abroad that it has been led to blame people at home for the failure.

Fortunately, American involvement in China in the 1940s was restricted
to aid and advice, and virtually no fighting between Americans
and Mao’s forces occurred. Now that the price of the military
intervention in Vietnam–a much smaller country–is known, we can only
shudder to imagine what intervention in China would have cost. Perhaps
one of the few positive things that can be said about the Vietnam
disaster is that if the United States was determined to fight a
counterinsurgency war, it was better to do it in Vietnam than in China.
But even without intervention, the price of China’s defection from the
American camp was high. The causes of McCarthyism were manifold, but in
a very real sense, what the country got instead of war with Mao was the
“war” at home that was McCarthyism.

The true causes of the Nationalist government’s fall–its own
incompetence and corruption, leading to wholesale loss of legitimacy in
the eyes of its own people–were expunged from consciousness, and the
lurid fantasy of State Department traitors and conspirators was
concocted in their place. Then the delusion that Chiang could return
from what then was called the island of Formosa (the Portuguese name for
Taiwan) to retake the mainland was fostered by the China lobby. Delusion
ran wild. Myths were created to take the place of unfaceable truths. The
internal conspiracy to destroy the United States, said McCarthy, was
supposedly headed by, of all people, Truman’s Secretary of State, Gen.
George Marshall. “It was Marshall, with Acheson and Vincent eagerly
assisting,” he said, “who created the China policy which, destroying
China, robbed us of a great and friendly ally, a buffer against the
Soviet imperialism with which we are now at war.” And he added for good
measure, “We have declined so precipitously in relation to the Soviet
Union in the last six years. How much swifter may be our fall into
disaster with Marshall at the helm?”

Impotent Omnipotence

Another event, scarcely more than a month before Mao declared the
existence of the People’s Republic of China, also fueled McCarthy’s
theme of thrown-away greatness. On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union
tested its first atomic bomb–Joe-1, named after Joseph Stalin. At once,
in an experience strangely parallel to the loss of China from America’s
sphere of interest, intoxicating dreams of atomic monopoly and the
lasting military superiority that was thought to go with it shriveled
up. Not superiority but stalemate was suddenly the outlook–not
dominance but the stasis of the “balance of terror.” The outlines of the
new limitations soon took shape in the long, wearying, poorly understood
and publicly disliked Korean War, in which America’s atomic arsenal,
whose use was considered but rejected, was no help. The theme of
thwarted American greatness was sounded again, when Gen. Douglas
MacArthur, who proposed using atomic weapons in Korea, announced, “There
can be no substitute for victory,” and was fired by Truman for
insubordination. Meanwhile, a connection with the enemy within was
discovered when Soviet spying on the Manhattan Project came to light.
Scientists had long known that there could be no “secret” of the
bomb–that the relevant science was irretrievably available to all–and
that the Soviet Union would be able to build one. The Soviet timetable
had indeed been speeded up by the spying, but now it seemed to McCarthy
and others that the domestic traitors were the prime agents of the
sudden, apparent reversal of American fortune. (Truman sought to
compensate for the loss of the atomic monopoly with his prompt decision
to build the H-bomb.)

The full implications of the ensuing nuclear standoff sank in slowly. As
the Soviet Union gradually built up its arsenal, American strategic
thinkers and policy-makers awakened to some unpleasant discoveries about
nuclear arms. The bomb, too, had a distinctly genie-like quality of
looking formidable at one instant but useless the next. Even in the days
of American nuclear monopoly, between 1945 and the first Soviet
explosion of 1949, nuclear weapons had proved a disappointing military
instrument. Stalin had simply declared that nuclear weapons were for
scaring people with “weak nerves,” and acted accordingly. And once the
monopoly was broken, no use of nuclear weapons could be planned without
facing the prospect of retaliation. During the 1950s Dwight Eisenhower
tried to squeeze what benefit he could out of the United States’
lingering numerical nuclear superiority with his “massive retaliation”
policy, but its prescription of threatening nuclear annihilation to gain
advantage in far-flung local struggles was never quite believable,
perhaps even by its practitioners. By the late 1950s a new generation of
strategists was awakening to the full dimensions of a central paradox of
the nuclear age: Possession of nuclear arsenals did not empower but
rather paralyzed their owners. Henry Kissinger remarked, “The more
powerful the weapons, the greater the reluctance to use them,” and
fretted about “how our power can give impetus to our policy rather than
paralyze it.”

Here at the core of the riddle of American power in the nuclear age was
the very image of the pitiful, helpless giant, a figure grown weak
through the very excess of his strength. But the source of this
weakness, which was very real, had nothing to do with any domestic
cowards, not to speak of traitors, or any political event; it lay in the
revolutionary consequences for all military power of the invention of
nuclear arms, even if–with a hint of defensiveness, perhaps–the United
States now called itself a “superpower.” (The H-bomb was first called
“the super.”) Here was a barrier to the application of force that no
cultivation of “will” could change or overcome. But the policy-makers
did not accept the verdict of paralysis without a struggle. Within the
precincts of high strategy, the “nuclear priesthood” mounted a
sustained, complex intellectual insurrection against this
distasteful reality of the nuclear age. Even in the face of the
undoubted reality that if the arsenals were used, “mutual assured
destruction” would result, they looked for room to maneuver. One line of
attack was the “counterforce” strategy of targeting the
nuclear forces rather than the society of the foe. The hope
was to preserve the possibility of some kind of victory, or at least of
relative military advantage, from the general ruin of nuclear war.
Another line of attack was advocacy of “limited war,” championed by
Kissinger and others. The strategists reasoned that although
“general war” might be unwinnable, limited war, of the kind just then
brewing in Vietnam, could be fought and won. Perhaps not all war between
nuclear adversaries had been paralyzed. Thus, the impotent omnipotence
of the nuclear stalemate became one more paradoxical argument, in
addition to those drummed into the public mind by McCarthy and his
heirs, in favor of American engagement in counterinsurgency struggles.
And this time the United States, unprotected by the prudence of a George
Marshall, did go to war.

The results are the ones we know. American military might was no more
profitable when used against rebellious local populations in
limited wars than it was in general, nuclear wars. This time, the
lessons were learned, and for a while they stuck: Peoples, even of small
countries, are powerful within their own borders; they have the means to
resist foreign occupation successfully; military force will not lead
them to change their minds; the issues are therefore essentially
political, and in this contest, foreign invaders are fatally
disadvantaged from the outset; if they are not willing to stay forever,
they lose.

The Decline of Power

By the late 1970s adverse experience sufficient to illuminate the
utterly novel historical situation of the United States in the late
twentieth century was in hand. Undoubtedly, it had the biggest heap of
weapons of any country. Without question, they were the most varied,
sophisticated and effective in the world at their job of
killing people and blowing things up. The question was what the United
States could accomplish with this capacity. Certainly, if a
conventional foe lacking nuclear arms arrayed itself in battle against
the United States, it could be handily defeated. That was the mistake
that Saddam Hussein made in 1990 when he sent his army out into the
Kuwaiti desert, where it was pulverized from the air. But few wars in
fact conformed to this conventional pattern any longer. Of far greater
importance was what happened to two kinds of war that had historically
been the most important–wars of imperial conquest and general,
great-power wars, such as the First and Second World Wars. During the
twentieth century the first kind had become hopeless “quagmires,” owing
to the aroused will of local peoples everywhere who, collectively, had
put an end to the age of imperialism. The second were made
unfightable and unwinnable by the nuclear revolution. It was
these two limitations on the usefulness of military force, one acting at
the base of the international system, the other at its apex, that
delimited the superiority of the superpower. (The paradox of impotent
omnipotence was even more pronounced for the other superpower, the
Soviet Union, which actually disappeared.)

Very possibly, the United States, with all its resources, would have
been the sort of globe-straddling empire that Joseph McCarthy
wanted it to be had it risen to pre-eminence in an earlier age. It was
the peculiar trajectory of the United States, born in opposition to
empire, to wind up making its own bid for empire only after the age of
imperialism was over. Though it’s hard to shed a tear, you might say
that there was a certain unfairness in America’s timing. All the
ingredients of past empires were there–the wealth, the weapons, the
power, hard and soft. Only the century was wrong. The United States was
not, could not be and cannot now be a new Rome, much less greater than
Rome, because it cannot do what Rome did. It cannot, in a
postimperial age, conquer other countries and lastingly absorb them into
a great empire; it cannot, in the nuclear age, not even today, fight and
win wars against its chief global rivals, who still, after all, possess
nuclear arsenals. Even tiny, piteous, brutalized, famine-ridden North
Korea, more a cult than a country, can deter the United States
with its puny putative arsenal. The United States, to be sure, is a
great power by any measure, surely the world’s greatest, yet that power
is hemmed in by obstacles peculiar to our era. The mistake has been not
so much to think that the power of the United States is greater than it
is as to fail to realize that power itself, whether wielded by
the United States or anyone else–if conceived in terms of military
force–has been in decline. By imagining otherwise, the United States
has become the fool of force–and the fool of history.

In this larger context the repeated constitutional crises of the last
half-century assume an altered aspect. The conventional understanding is
that an excess of power abroad brings abuses at home. The classic
citation is Rome, whose imperial forces, led by Julius Caesar, returning
from foreign conquest, crossed the river Rubicon into the homeland and
put an end to the republic. (Thus both the proponents of American empire
and its detractors can cite Rome.) But that has not been the American
story. Rome and would-be Rome are not the same. Empire and the fantasy
of empire are not the same. It is rather the repeatedly failed bid for
imperial sway that has corrupted. It was not triumph but loss–of China,
of the atomic monopoly, among other developments–that precipitated the
McCarthyite assault on liberty at home. It was persistent failure in the
Vietnam War, already a decade old and deeply unpopular, that led an
embattled, isolated, nearly demented Richard Nixon to draw up his
enemies list, illegally spy on his domestic opposition, obstruct justice
when his misdeeds became known, ramble drunkenly in the Oval Office
about using nuclear weapons and ultimately mount an assault on the
entire constitutional system of checks and balances. And it is today an
unpopular President Bush, unable either to win the Iraq War or to
extricate himself from it, who has launched his absolutist assault on
the Constitution. Power corrupts, says the old saw. But is power the
right word to use in the face of so much failure? The sometimes
suggested alternate–that weakness corrupts–seems equally appropriate.
In a manner of speaking perhaps both saws are true, for in terms of
military might the United States is unrivaled, yet in terms of capacity
to get things done with that might, it so often proves weak–even, at
times, impotent, as McCarthy said. The pattern is not the old Roman one
in which military conquest breeds arrogance and arrogance stokes
ambition, which leads to usurpation at home. Rather, in the case of the
United States, misunderstanding of its historical moment leads to
misbegotten wars; misbegotten wars lead to military disaster; military
disaster leads to domestic strife and scapegoating; domestic strife and
scapegoating lead to usurpation, which triggers a constitutional crisis.
Crises born of strength and success are different from crises born of
failure. Fulbright warned of the corruption of imperial ambition and the
arrogance of power. But we need also to speak of the corruption of
imperial failure, the arrogance of anxiety.

What the true greatness–or true power–of the United States is or can
be for the world in our time is an absorbing question in pressing need
of an answer. Our very conceptions of greatness and power–military,
economic, political, moral–would need searching reconsideration.
Those true powers–especially the economic–also have an “imperial”
aspect, but that is another debate. An advantage of that debate is that
it would be about things that are real. Jettisoning the mirage of
military domination of the globe that has addled so many American brains
for more than half a century and also shunning the panic-stricken fears
of impotence that have accompanied the inevitable frustration of these
delusions, the debate would take realistic stock of the
nation’s very considerable yet limited resources and ask what
is being done with them, for good or ill, and what should be done.
Perhaps it will still be possible to shoehorn the United States into a
stretched definition of “empire,” but it would look nothing like Britain
or Rome. Or perhaps, as I believe, a United States rededicated to
its constitutional traditions and embarked on a cooperative
course with other nations would find that it possesses untapped reserves
of political power, though it will take time for American prestige to
recover from Bush’s squandering of it.

Restoring Illusion

Until very recently those authentic questions went substantially
unexplored outside scholarly journals, and the country instead busied
itself repairing the imperial illusions so rudely dashed by the
Vietnam War. Suppressing the lessons of the Chinese Revolution had been
easy, since the United States had not fought in China. Getting over the
lessons of Vietnam took longer. Many segments of American society, none
more than the military, had learned them deeply and vowed “never again.”
(The poignancy of the generals’ recent outspoken statement against the
conduct of the war in Iraq lies precisely in the officers’ chagrin that
they did indeed let it happen again.) The lessons were formulated in
military terms in the so-called Powell doctrine, requiring that before
military action proceeded there must be a clear military–not
political–objective, that there must be a commitment to the use of
overwhelming force and that there must be an “exit strategy.”
Nevertheless, in other quarters the lessons were named a “Vietnam
syndrome,” an illness, and other explanations were brought forward. The
lessons of Vietnam were not so much forgotten as vigorously suppressed,
in the name of restoring the reputation of America’s military
power. Ronald Reagan said of the Vietnam military, “They came home
without a victory not because they were defeated but because they were
denied a chance to win.” After the first Gulf War, President Bush
crowed, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!”
The country was getting ready for the second Iraq War, which violated
every tenet of the Powell doctrine.

A parallel evolution was occurring in the constitutional domain. The
lesson most of the country learned from Watergate and the forced
resignation of Richard Nixon was that the imperial presidency had grown
too strong. (In general, our imperial-minded Presidents have had much
more success rolling back freedom at home than extending it abroad.)
Dick Cheney, who had served as Chief of Staff for President Gerald Ford,
drew an opposite lesson–that the powers others called imperial were in
fact the proper ones for the presidency and had been eviscerated by the
opposition to Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. As he has put it,
“Watergate and a lot of the things around Watergate and Vietnam, both
during the 1970s, served, I think, to erode the authority…the
President needs to be effective, especially in the national security
area.” Taking the Nixon presidency as a model rather than a cautionary
tale, he sees new usurpation as restoration. In doing so, he brings an
old theme back in new guise–that American weakness in the world is
caused by domestic opponents at home. In his view domestic
subversion–this time of executive authority, not misguided imperial
ambition–is the country’s problem.

Can this pattern be broken? Voices are already being heard advising that
the opposition to the Iraq War and the failed vision it embodies should,
with the next election in mind, now embrace a generalized new readiness
to use force. But that way lies only a new chapter in the sorry history
of the pitiful, helpless giant. The needed lesson is exactly the
opposite–to learn or relearn, or perhaps we must say re-relearn, the
lessons regarding the limitations on the use of force that have been
taught and then rejected so many times in recent decades. Only then will
we be able to stop repeating ourselves and, giving up dreams of imperial
grandeur, start saying and doing something new.