It is no secret to those who know me that I have major problems with Libertarianism; I have problems with its core beliefs (due to my belief that they claim one principle and then argue for things that contradict that principle), I have problems with what they want to legalize, with the way they frame the debate, etcetera. I also have problems with the way I and those similar to me have been treated by the vast majority of Libertarians; in my countless debates with them I have found Libertarians to be very arrogant and nasty with me. BUT it must be understood that despite my problems with Libertarianism, I don’t hate Libertarians. I have many friends who I really care about who subscribe to Libertarianism, and when it comes to economic issues I am 100% in their court.
I also believe that many Libertarians, despite their illogical arguments, are actually smart people; but there is one issue that when Libertarians try to make their case, they use an argument that makes them look absolutely stupid. The reason I say this is because in their zeal to make a point, they fail to use the English language correctly and look very bad in the process; as my example, I’d like to turn to former Congressman and Presidential wannabe Ron Paul. Now I know I pick on Mr. Paul a LOT, but given that he has made himself an inviolable standard of what being a Libertarian is (at least according to every Libertarian I have ever seen, including Lew Rockwell and Thomas Woods who are pretty big themselves), I think he is a fitting example to use; and in a speech on the House floor he said:
“…Could it all be a bad dream or a nightmare? Is it my imagination or have we lost our minds?… An empire replacing the republic… We police our world empire with troops on 700 bases and in 130 countries around the world…” (1)
Now there is so much else in his four minute long speech that we could argue about, there is so much else that I think he overstates or flat out gets wrong; but it’s the claim about our supposed empire that I’m taking issue with, because it’s this claim that makes Paul and so many other Libertarians look like fools.
Let’s be real here; the United States does not have an empire overseas, if having 700 bases in 130 countries constitutes an empire, then the English language is officially meaningless and obsolete. To understand this, all one has to do is look up what the word “empire” actually means; according to Merriam-Webster:
“A: (1): a major political unit having a territory of great extent or a number of territories or peoples under a single sovereign authority; especially: one having an emperor as chief of state (2): the territory of such a political unit. B: something resembling a political empire; especially: an extensive territory or enterprise under single domination or control.” (2)
A second definition to look at is a legal definition of the word empire:
“This word signifies, first, authority or command; it is the power to command or govern those actions of men which would otherwise be free; secondly, the country under the government of an emperor but sometimes it is used to designate a country subject to kingly power, as the British empire” (3)
Rome, Alexander the Great, Persia, Great Britain; these are all powers that had what is defined both normally and legally as an empire. Historian Christopher Kelly describes the Roman Empire thusly:
“Then the empire stretched from Hadrian’s Wall in drizzle-soaked northern England to the sun-baked banks of the Euphrates in Syria; from the great Rhine-Danube river system, which snaked across the fertile, flat lands of Europe from the Low Countries to the Black Sea, to the rich plains of the North African coast and the luxuriant gash of the Nile Valley in Egypt. The empire completely circled the Mediterranean … referred to by its conquerors as mare nostrum—’our sea’.” (4)
The Roman Empire included ownership of nations all across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa; the combined territory once owned by this empire is now split between 40 different countries. (5) According to PBS “one in every four people on earth lived and died under Roman law.” (6) The conquered people of the empire were mostly treated as second class citizens, subject to heavy taxation and not entitled to all rights and privileges one would expect with citizenry. The take away is this; the Romans invaded and took ownership of many countries and people groups all over the world, depriving those nations and individuals of being free and treating them as lesser beings within their vast empire; keep this in mind as we examine the empire of one Alexander the Great.
The achievements of Alexander the Great’s empire are very impressive; he moved through Asia Minor and Egypt, he conquered the Persian Empire and captured Babylon and even crossed into India. (7) Like the Romans, mentioned above, Alexander’s empire qualifies under both definitions as he conquered countries and added them to his rule. The empire that Alexander defeated, the Persian Empire, was the largest geographical empire of ancient times; it covered three continents:
“The empire was forged by Cyrus the Great, and spanned three continents: Asia, Africa and Europe. At its greatest extent, the empire included the modern territories of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, parts of Central Asia, Asia Minor, Thrace and Macedonia, much of the Black Sea coastal regions, Iraq, northern Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and all significant population centers of ancient Egypt as far west as Libya.” (8)
Finally, the British Empire was one that stretched all over the world; from Europe to India and Africa, Britain captured and colonized nations to the extent that it was said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” The point is, no matter which of these empires we mention, Rome, Alexander, Persia, or Britain, they all have at least one quality in common; all of these empires conquered other nations around the world and brought them under their rule. They went out with the purpose of ruling the world, or at least gathering as much foreign land as possible. Those were empires, they fit the definitions; but as we will soon see, America does not.
America’s history is not a history that one sees with empires; America has categorically not gone on the prowl looking for lands to conquer and rule, and anyone who says they have is either ignorant or a bald-faced liar. In World War II for example, the United States helped to drive the Nazis out of Allied-Europe, and they did not even try to take over any of those countries. Same goes for the Allied invasion of Germany; last time I checked, the United States owns no countries or significant land in Europe or Japan, although they had the strength to obtain some if they wished. More recent examples can be found in Afghanistan and Iraq, the two nations we have most recently been involved with militarily. The United States has not tried to take over either country; instead the U.S has helped each of these countries set up new governments and elections. The United States is even leaving Iraq, withdrawing its troops and officially ending the Iraq war. The United States could have easily taken over Iraq to add to their supposed “empire” when they deposed of Saddam Hussein, but that is not what happened.
There are however foreign lands that the United States has taken over due to war, but I can’t think of any of these acquisitions that came through imperialistic invasion for the desire and purpose of getting more territory and more subjects to rule. Let’s think about foreign land that America has obtained through wars: Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, and Cuba. That’s about it; not only were none of these lands acquired to bolster territory for the U.S., but none of these examples help the U.S. to fall under either definition of an “empire” which was stated above. Owning the above lands does not even come close to matching up with historical empires, and it does not constitute a major political unit having a territory of great extent, nor a number of territories.
Even more evidence that the above territories do not constitute an American empire is the collective status of those territories; Guam for example was ceded to the U.S. in the Spanish-American War, it was not taken by conquest and is an unincorporated territory; hardly the work of an empire. (9) Puerto Rico is another example in the vein of Guam; it however holds the title of Commonwealth which is a legal status above territory, but below state. Interestingly enough however, it’s not as if Puerto Rico is in a helpless state of servitude; Puerto Rico does have the option of becoming a state, equipped with every right and privilege that each of the current 50 states enjoy; if they so wish. When it all comes down to it, they are not a state because they don’t want to be. They also do not want to be completely independent either; in their eyes by and large they are in a good position. It is clear that neither of these territories ceded to the U.S. help them to fall under the moniker of empire, but what about the last two?
Both the Philippines and Cuba were acquired from Spain in the agreement to end the Spanish-American War; like Puerto Rico and Guam, neither was obtained by conquest and neither was obtained in order to expand America’s power over other people. How do we know? The point of an empire is to expand your territory, but in both these cases, the United States did not keep these countries; instead they were granted their independence! The Philippines, which was purchased for $20 million in 1898, became a self-governing commonwealth in 1935 and ten years later became a fully independent nation; (9) likewise Cuba also obtained in 1898, was given their independence four years later, minus the area known as Guantanamo Bay.(10) Obtaining two nations and then within a (relatively) short time giving them their independence is hardly the action of an empire; even with these last two countries, the idea of an American Empire is proved to be patently ridiculous.
There are a couple more instances of American territorial acquisition that happened outside of any instance of war; however these also do not prove by either definition, an American Empire. One of these territories in known as American Samoa, and it is hardly a vast expansion of territory. American Samoa was, like the previous examples, obtained by treaty (the 1899 treaty of Berlin) which essentially split Samoa between America and Germany (for the purposes of trade). Currently, American Samoa is an uncategorized and unincorporated territory of the U.S., much like Guam. (9)
There are also a few minor islands owned by the U.S. that are so insignificant, they too do not lend to the theory of an empire; but something that does need to be mentioned are the so called “Trust Islands.” Certain territories; The Federated States of Micronesia, The Republic of the Marshall Islands, The Republic of Palau, and the Northern Mariana Islands are considered Trust Islands, or territories that the U.N. gave America the responsibility of taking care of. Out of all these Trust Islands, the Mariana Islands are the only territory that is currently a U.S.-self-governed Commonwealth, the rest of the “Trusts” mentioned have since gained full independence, but work with the United States in exchange for defense. It is interesting that Libertarians try to claim America has an Empire overseas, when every single territory obtained by the U.S. came by treaty, and except for three of them, (Guam, Puerto Rico, and American Samoa) all have obtained their independence.
There is only one minor exception to all this, and it really isn’t that much of one; the Virgin Islands were also obtained via treaty, this time with Denmark, the reason being that after the sinking of the Lusitania by the Germans, the United States were afraid that Germany would try and annex Denmark and the Virgin Islands (at that time called the Danish West Indies); this was viewed as a problem because the fear was that the Germans could use the Indies as a submarine or naval base that could be used militarily against America. (11) The reason that this is a minor exception is not because it fits the definition of a great extent of land or a people who would otherwise be free (The Indies were owned previously by several different countries), but rather because the U.S. under the leadership of the nightmarish progressive Woodrow Wilson and his administration essentially insinuated that it was either treaty, or occupation. The way Wilson handled it is what makes it a minor exception, the way it was acquired, or even the overall motive of stopping Germany however, does not.
But what was the reason that Ron Paul gave for us being an “empire”? He, like most Libertarians claim it is our “700 bases…around the world…” but as we have already seen, having 700 bases in no way falls under either definition of empire. Military Bases are neither a great extent/number of territories or peoples, nor is it “the power to command or govern those actions of men which would otherwise be free” given that by definition, American military bases are American buildings that house and are run by Americans. While a base, like a consulate or embassy is considered “American territory”, even 700 of them do not constitute an empire under any official definition. If you were to tell Alexander, the Romans, the British, or the Persians that 700 military bases around the world constitutes an empire, they would laugh at what a pitiful excuse for an empire that would be, and when they were done doing so, they would probably kill you for wasting their time.
So why do we have these bases? One of the reasons we still have bases in places like Germany is because those governments actually want us to be there; they enjoy the added security and it’s a preventative measure to make sure that these countries have a harder time acting out like they used to. Award winning writer Alan W. Dowd said it perfectly when he wrote:
“During the September 12 debate, Paul informed us that “we’re under great threat, because we occupy so many countries.” In truth, the U.S. occupies no countries. U.S. forces are welcomed by host governments in every instance, their presence approved by status-of-forces agreements or decade-old treaties. Afghanistan wants U.S. forces to excise Taliban scar tissue. Kosovo, Korea and Kuwait want U.S. troops to maintain regional stability. From Germany to Georgia, those who remember a Europe of concrete walls and iron curtains want U.S. forces on their soil as a hedge against a revisionist Russia. And across the Pacific, those who worry about a rising China are strengthening their ties with America. Australia just inked a deal with Washington to allow U.S. forces full use of Australian naval and air bases. In fact, several countries that once kicked American troops out-the Philippines and Vietnam, for example-are today eagerly seeking security partnerships with America. Whether these global commitments are “overstretching” America is open to debate. But whether U.S. forces are welcomed by host countries, whether the United States is “occupying” any country, is not.” (12)
But there is another very good reason why we have bases around the world; it is for our own national security interests, and if you don’t believe me, allow me to provide the perfect example: Benghazi.
On 9/11/12, the United States had one of their consulates in Benghazi, Libya, attacked by Islamic terrorists; the attack lasted for several hours and resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. What does this have to do with our topic? It turns out that the United States has an air-field/base in Italy that is only an hour away from Benghazi (by plane). If the Obama administration, who knew what was happening shortly after the attack started, acted swiftly enough, troops would have been able to make the flight and potentially stop the attack dead in its tracks:
“As the U.S. consulate in Benghazi came under a devastating attack last month, a rescue team of elite soldiers was being assembled behind the scenes – but not fast enough. The commandos, also known as the Commander’s In-extremis Force, is a highly-trained squad of soldiers utilized for the more risky missions…CBS News reported that the team was dispatched to an airfield in Sigonella, Italy, where they would only be about an hour away from Benghazi. But by the time the attack was over, the soldiers had not yet arrived in Italy, U.S. officials told the network.” (13)
There are two things to take away from this information; first that the Obama administration was completely incompetent in this situation, and second, that if the Obama administration had responded in a timely manner, our troops could have been sent from our base in Italy to our consulate in Libya and American lives could have been saved. THAT is why we have bases around the world; so that if and when American citizens or diplomatic stations are under attack, or anything else threatens our nation’s security abroad, our troops can get there as quickly as possible instead of having to fly all the way from the United States.
To my Libertarian friends, let me give you some advice; if you want to argue that we have too many bases around the world and that we need to reduce the number, go right ahead, I actually have no objection to that argument. If you want to question whether we should be staying because other countries want us to, that is a fine discussion to have; but seriously, lay off the argument that our bases somehow constitute an empire overseas, because it is totally contrary to the facts, and you look absolutely foolish when you say such things. If you really want to be able to make these claims about America, then go create your own version; I hear Age of Empires is a wonderful game to play, and if you insist on living in a fantasy world, it might as well be that one.
2. Merriam-Webster: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empire
3. The Law.com: The Law Network LLC
4. The Roman Empire: A Very Short Introduction: http://www.amazon.com/Roman-Empire-Very-Short-Introduction/dp/0192803913
5. Keith Hopkins, “The Political Economy of the Roman Empire,” in The Dynamics of Ancient Empires: State Power from Assyria to Byzantium (Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 183.
7. Think-Quest: http://library.thinkquest.org/10805/alexmap.html
9. National Atlas: http://nationalatlas.gov/mld/usacqup.html
10. Amigospais-Guaracabuya.org: http://www.amigospais-guaracabuya.org/oagaq023.php
11. U.S. Department of State: http://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/ho/time/wwi/107293.htm
12. Front Page Magazine: http://frontpagemag.com/2011/alan-w-dowd/ron-pauls-revisionist-history/2/