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 From Republic to Hegemon 

July 19, 2005 
I recently watched the old (I guess 1968 counts as old) British movie The Charge of the Light Brigade, a bitterly satirical look back at the British role in the Crimean War more than a century earlier, when Wellington and Waterloo were still names to conjure with. Today's column is "From Republic to Hegemon" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.The film was probably meant to comment on the Vietnam war, like everything else in 1968.

A couple of days earlier I’d had a message from a military officer who often writes me in friendly disagreement. Given my views on the Iraq war, he asked me what I proposed to do if certain unpleasant developments should occur overseas. What if, for example, mainland China should attack Taiwan? Or if North Korea should use nuclear weapons against Japan?

Tough questions, but let’s back up a bit. I think we should give due praise to the Buchanan and Lincoln administrations for keeping the United States out of the Crimean quagmire. Not that they were under much pressure to intervene, what with events in this country at the time; but credit where credit is due, I always say. Just about any recent president would have jumped in with both feet.

Now we are at war in the Middle East (again), and I am asked how I would respond to hypothetical, but by no means impossible, crises in Asia. I have before me a tiny globe, which comes in handy when I need to know about where Madagascar or Malaysia is, and it reminds me that when the American Republic was founded, Americans were much concerned about foreign entanglements on a small portion of the earth: Europe, and chiefly three powers in western Europe, England, France, and Spain.

None of these erstwhile superpowers looms very large today, but the United States has since then managed to keep itself busy abroad, all the way to the Far East. In 1898 war with Spain took us to the Philippines, where we remained in charge until, historically speaking, the other day. By 1941 we were openly at war with Japan, though clandestine hostilities had already begun, with secret (and illegal) funding from Franklin Roosevelt to Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers in China; naturally Roosevelt allowed the American public to blame the war on Japanese perfidy. Later came Korea, then Vietnam, after that the Balkans, and now we’re up to our necks in the Middle East.

[Breaker quote for From Republic to Hegemon: Yesterday’s Democrats, today’s Republicans]Quite a change over the years for a modest republic that once sought an amicable divorce from Europe. By 1940 Roosevelt was stigmatizing the philosophy of the Founding Fathers, and Ernest Hemingway was quoting John Donne’s homiletic “No man is an island” as if it were a guiding principle of foreign policy. Today, it seems, every man is a tripwire, demanding U.S. intervention.

It’s odd to recall that President Bush, during the 2000 campaign, spoke sensibly about the limitations of what government can achieve, both at home and abroad. He expressed special scorn for the idea, chiefly associated with Democratic foreign policy in those days, that American political habits can be transplanted to other countries. The old European empires often held their subject peoples in contempt, but this attitude, deplorable as it might be, also saved them from trying to turn pygmies and aborigines into Englishmen and Frenchmen.

So it’s disconcerting to find Bush adopting “democracy” as the universal yardstick of progress. But today’s Democrats are tomorrow’s Republicans, and today’s Republicans are outdoing yesterday’s Democrats in carrying on Roosevelt’s dual legacy of domestic and foreign intervention.

Neoconservatives are touting these old ideas as a new inspiration of their own, but there is no need to dignify bad habits as a theory. Power tends to expand until something stops it, and so far nothing has stopped the expansion of the U.S. Government from modest republic to global hegemon. The dissenting individual can’t do much about this except to try to keep his own head.

The U.S. Constitution might almost as well be an officially classified document. Not much need for conspiracy theories when nearly all the mischief is committed right out in the open, if anybody cares to pay attention. Just read what the Founding Fathers said, then watch what our politicians do, and you’ll get the general picture.

Joseph Sobran

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