Friday, June 21, 2013

The would-be 'benevolent Empire'

As I've noted on this blog before, Robert E. Lee made a very accurate prediction about the future, in his post-war correspondence with Lord Acton:
I yet believe that the maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the states and to the people, not only essential to the adjustment and balance of the general system, but the safeguard to the continuance of a free government. I consider it as the chief source of stability to our political system, whereas the consolidation of the states into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of that ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it.
This week marks the anniversary of the culminating battle of the Philippine insurgency, an ugly episode in American history that shows just how quickly Lee's concerns became reality:
The United States took control of the Philippines in 1898, after it was ceded to them by Spain following the Spanish-American War. The big problem was that the people of the Philippines had already declared independence from Spain several months prior.
What followed was 15 years of bloody crackdowns by U.S. forces under the pretext of what President McKinley called a goal of "benevolent assimilation" of the islands into a dominion of the United States. The fighting started with the First Philippine Republic, whose soldiers were mostly armed with spears and bows and arrows and whose leadership objected to US military rule. It quickly turned into the sort of ugly war against an insurgency that is all too familiar to us today from US adventures into Iraq and Afghanistan.
How quickly did the 'consolidated republic' become aggressive abroad?  So soon after the War of Northern Aggression that some U.S. troops were commanded by a former Confederate officer!  That officer, Joseph Wheeler, would go on to command forces during the very insurgency noted above.

As one author put it, the Spanish-American War represented what was left of the American Republic "eating the forbidden fruit of imperialism."  No longer was the nation content with expanding its contiguous domains--it now actively placed other peoples under an involuntary 'protectorate.'  Yet this same "Benevolent Empire" had the audacity to claim the moral cloak of "self-determination" as one of its peace points for the First World War (in which it became a belated imperial participant).

In between the Philippine adventure and the First World War, the U.S. engaged in a series of "Small Wars" throughout Central and South America that ensured hegemony but instilled a lasting animosity in the region.  One of the most decorated Marines of that time finally became convinced his service amounted to little more than providing "corporate muscle."  But of course, all this was 'for their own good.'  President Wilson, faced with instability in Mexico, abandoned economic measures in favor of using American force to teach the neighbors to "elect good men."  Only five months after being reelected as the "President who kept us out of the war," Wilson went to Congress asking for a Declaration of War that would embroil the U.S. in the European Suicide of 1914-1917.

Thus did the blasphemous "Battle Hymn of the Republic" go global.  America became smug, expanding the original Manifest Destiny into a quasi-religious global crusade that somehow conveyed a license to dictate to outhers.  As our dependence on military might and other forms of force increased, our moral and diplomatic capital evaporated.  Now, the main tool we have for any problem is a hammer... a hammer that Americans are now waking up to realize is used at home as well, far more than they were led to believe. 

Naturally, those in power protest any charge of wrongdoing.  To them, the Empire, "aggressive abroad and despotic at home," only acts out of protective paternalism. 

Or, if you prefer, "it's for the children."

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