The Case for an American Empire

Every Catholic should by rights be an imperialist. As Rev. Robert Hugh Benson once wrote, “There were, after all, only two logical theories of government: the one, that power came from below, the other, that power came from above. The infidel, the Socialist, the materialist, the democrat, these maintained the one; the Catholic, the Monarchist, the Imperialist maintained the other.”

Leftists, of course, have always repudiated, disparaged, and hated empire for a litany of reasons. They hate the idea of Western triumphalism. They disparage military adventures, which they claim are launched in the interests of big business and funded against the interests of the welfare state (which brings to mind Jeffrey Hart’s wonderful observation that the great thing about defense spending is at least it keeps money out of the hands of the poor). And of course, to the Left, the idea that the West has a mission civilisatrice is merely hypocrisy über alles: a cover for greed, racism, violence, and cruelty.

But Catholics are naturally men of the Right, and Catholic heroes are the likes of Constantine, Char­lemagne, and Charles V. Catholics remember that the Faith followed the roads made straight by the Roman im­perial eagle. They glory in the memory of the conquista­dors’ conquest of Mexico and Peru. They cherish the fact that French imperialism brought the Faith to Indochina, and Spanish imperialism brought the Faith to the Philip­pines—and in the strange course of history, brought eth­nic Vietnamese and Filipino priests to American parishes. And even Irish Catholic Americans can give a thumbs-up to the British Empire that made their emigration to the land of opportunity possible.

Catholic, monarchist, imperialist: That’s our historic platform, and it’s odd, to say the least, to find it criticized by those who position themselves as predating regular “conser­vative” Catholics—as being the true, authentic paleocon­servative traditionalists (the eminent columnist Patrick J. Buchanan is the most popular and formidable of these).

The Austrian Catholic Erik von Kuenhelt-Leddihn pro­vided one reason why this might be so, noting in his book Leftism Revisited (1990) that “Anticolonialism (or ‘anti-impe­rialism,’ as the Soviets prefer to call it) is one of the most harmful foreign policy snares of the century, and the United States has fallen headlong into the trap. Naturally, its foremost proponents were and are Leftists, but anticolonialism has been adopted by the average American; in the United States, it takes something of an esprit fort, an emancipated spirit, to resist this particular mischief.”

To help others resist this particular mischief, to lift those who have fallen into it, and to aid in the development of an esprit fort, I submitted myself to a paleoconservative interro­gation in the hope that the results might spread sweetness and imperial light into whatever benighted corners crisis readers might reach.

Isn’t imperialism anti-American in principle?

That would be news to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison—all of whom rejoiced that America was a “nascent empire” (Washington’s words) that would become an “em­pire of liberty” (Jefferson’s). In fact, in Federalist One, Ham­ilton calls America “an empire, in many respects, the most interesting in the world.” There were occasional anti-impe­rialists—like Lincoln, who opposed the Mexican War—but the general thrust of real American foreign policy in the 18th and 19th centuries was plainly imperialist. It was 20th- century liberals who propagated the anti-imperial myth, which has done the United States nothing but harm and produced terrible absurdities. Take, for example, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s nonchalance about the territorial ambitions of Uncle Joe Stalin, whom he regarded as a fellow progres­sive. While Stalin swallowed Eastern Europe, FDR’s priority was getting imperialist Britain out of India and Hong Kong. Or remember the obscenity of the Soviet Union crushing the Hungarian revolt of 1956, while the United States used its moral and financial weight to bully its allies—France, Britain, and Israel—to withdraw from their imperialist in­tervention at Suez. Why? So that the alleged George Wash­ington of Egypt, socialist dictator and pan-Arab revolution­ary Gamal Abdel Nasser—who had illegally nationalized the Suez Canal—could keep it and become a “non-aligned” ally of the Soviet Union. Or think of Jimmy Carter’s disas­trous refusal to back the shah of Iran—too imperial an act of intervention to consider—because the Ayatollah Khomeini was the people’s choice.

But America has changed. What about what Pat Buchanan said: “A society that accepts the killing of a third of its babies as women’s ‘emancipation’, that considers homosexual marriage to be social progress, that hands out contraceptives to 13-year-old girls at junior high school ought to be seeking out a confessional-better yet, an exorcist-rather than striding into a pulpit like Elmer Gantry to lecture mankind on the superiority of ‘American values.’”

Well, consider the profane smugglers, rakehells, and slave- holders from the South who colonized Texas and wrenched it away from pious Catholic Mexicans whose constitution prohibited slavery. They had no qualms about preaching the superiority of American values. And I doubt that Pat Buchanan regrets that or wants to give Texas back.

As the trenchant Catholic columnist James Hitchcock has noted, “It bears frequent repeating, because it is so im­probable, that the United States is now the most religious nation in the Western world.” The fact is, the majority of Americans don’t regard abortion as “emancipation”—they oppose abortion in most circumstances. And homosexual marriage is rejected by an overwhelming percentage of Americans, including a majority of Democrats. The Ameri­can people don’t consider it “social progress.”

What about 13-year-olds being given contraceptives.

These days, all American teenagers are clinically obese and incapable of sexual intercourse anyway—so it’s a moot point.

Oh come on, you’re not going to deny that American society is corrupt and that “imperialism” makes it worse. What about Abu Ghraib? As Buchanan says, it raises a question” “Exactly what are the ‘values’ the West has to teach the Islamic world?”

I never thought I’d see conservatives promoting the supe­riority of Islam to the West. It’s also sheer hysteria. A sin­gular outrage—treated by the military as a serious crime, a crime that appalled, horrified, and was condemned across the Western world (rather more than terrorist beheadings seem to bother the Islamic world, which isn’t notable for its record on human rights)—Abu Ghraib is no more represen­tative of American culture than Andersonville prison was of Southern culture. People who make this argument need to get a grip.

Still, what about the pornographic mindset that it reveals? America needs to clean up its own house before it goes waging war to impose democracy on other people.

In that case, the popes should never have launched the Crusades. Clean and pristine are not words that would describe medieval and renaissance Europe. Or what about Shakespeare’s or Boswell’s London: What right had drunk­en, bawdy, slum-ridden England to colonize the world and spread “English values” about representative government, the rule of law, and the alleged rights of Englishmen through the morally dubious vehicles of penal colonies, grasping merchant companies, and piratical treasure seekers? Espe­cially now that we know it would lead to a continent like modern North America, which Buchanan thinks needs an exorcist. I mean, to make that sort of argument is utopian twittering; it has nothing to do with the real world.

But Americans today don’t even agree on what qualifies as moral truth.

Moral truth has been up for grabs in America for a while now. Remember a nation half-slave and half-free?

Can I quote Buchanan again?

Please do; he’s a smart man.

He says, “Even John Kerry does not agree with George Bush  on the morality of homosexual unions and stem cell research. On such issues American have more in common with devout Muslims than with liberal Democrats.”

Well, I’m a conservative American and I would rather have John Kerry as a neighbor than Mullah Omar. And I wager that 90 percent of my fellow Americans would feel the same.

Don’t tell me you support John Kerry.

No, and if John Kerry were my neighbor, I don’t expect we’d be hanging over the fence chit-chatting too much. But I also wouldn’t expect to see homosexuals stoned to death in his backyard. And the latter would bother me more, frankly. It’s pretty bizarre for a conservative to raise politics and abstract principles to the point of thinking he has more in common with, say, an Indonesian than his fellow Americans.

You don’t care about America becoming “MTV America”?

I do. And I’m a classical music man, myself. But let’s put it this way: Britney Spears is less of a threat to the United States than is Osama bin Laden.

You wouldn’t mind having her as a neighbor, influencing your kids?

No, I wouldn’t mind having her as a neighbor. I’d keep her under a diligent neighborhood watch. But if Osama bin Laden were my neighbor, I’d report him to the zoning board for his exotic weapons labs.

You’re making excuses for a moral sewer.

No, what I’m saying is that the real moral decay in America would be if Americans didn’t feel morally superior to the Islamo-nihilism that says, “The Americans love Pepsi-Cola, we love death.” In case we missed the point, al Qaeda re­iterated that sentiment after the 2004 Madrid bombing: “We choose death, while you choose life.” The choice of Martha’s Vineyard or Teheran, Amsterdam or Riyadh, is an easy one. Give me liberty or give me death.

So you throw in the towel on the social issues?

No, but I don’t see Christians anywhere in the world welcoming Muslim attempts to impose sharia law on them. Catholicism is on the side of liberty and free will. A Catholic has faith: that abortion will be defeated by prayer and the ultrasound; that homosexual marriage will be defeated by prayer and common sense; and that militant Islam will be defeated the way it was at Vienna in 1683, by armed force and the rosary, and indeed by Western imperialism, which is what stopped its advance in the first place. It is our retreat from empire that has allowed it to reemerge.

Why imperialism? Why not follow Buchanan’s three-step program to win the hearts and minds of the Arab world: “Stand up for justice for the Palestinians. Remove our imperial presence. Cease to intervene in their internal affairs.”

“Justice for the Palestinians” has never been high on bin Laden’s to-do list. Killing infidels is the idea. And he kills them pretty far afield—from Morocco to Bali to the United States. You might remember that after al Qaeda bombed a French-flagged oil tanker, an al Qaeda terrorist said: “We would have preferred to hit a U.S. frigate, but no problem, because they are all infidels.” The conflict between militant Islam and the West didn’t begin with Israel and will not end with a Palestinian state.

Even if we were to follow the paleoconservative three- step program, what would it entail? Prohibiting the export of American films, music, television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and books to the Arab world? Withdrawing not only our troops, but our support for friendly Arab govern­ments? Removing all American economic interests from the Arab world and prohibiting American travel there unless our tourists keep themselves shrouded in burkhas to avoid giving offense? There’s an easier way to please militant Is­lam, declare the United States an Islamic republic—at least then we’d have the satisfaction of crushing same-sex mar­riage in the bargain.

The fact is, an America that tries to shelter behind a non-interventionist fortress will not be secure, and its eco­nomic interests will not be left unmolested. If America has any intercourse with the world, it must engage the world. Even the infant American republic had to fight the Barbary pirates. As Pat Buchanan well knows, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “Our commerce on the ocean. must be paid by frequent war.”

It was an axiom of Robert E. Lee’s that Richmond was never so safe as when its defenders where absent. So, too, America’s safety is best assured by keeping our enemies on the run.

What about when Iran gets nuclear weapons? What happens to neoconservative dreams of empire then?

American empire is less dangerous than nuclear weapons in the hands of a regime that loves death.

I refuse to believe that we have any enduring conflict with the Arab world. Our problems are at home, that’s where the real enemy is: the people who are trying to unravel the moral fabric of this country.

Yes, I know, it’s all very tempting to dream that freed from foreign distractions, we could settle accounts with the do­mestic Left—presumably with the otherwise unemployed military. Don’t we all yearn to be the Cossacks riding down the workers? Don’t we all yearn to shut up a neighbor blabbing away about how she’s been so responsible giving condoms to her teenage sons by saying: “Oh, but I heard President Pat Buchanan’s new surgeon general, Augusto Pi­nochet, is banning them”?

But we can smite enemies abroad and, as the King James Version has it, “kick against the pricks” at home. Victorian Britain simultaneously ran an empire and practiced domes­tic moral uplift. In fact, if you look at Europe, when it lost its imperial mission of making the world safe for Christian­ity, commerce, and civilization, it also lost its faith and re­treated into the secular, welfarist-consumerist, zero-popula­tion-growth trading block and bureaucrats’ paradise that we know today. There’s a good argument to be made—it’s been made before—that it isn’t empire that degrades a civiliza­tion, but a refusal to accept the responsibilities and duties of empire that mark a civilization’s decay.

There’s no way you can make a moral case for imperialism.

Sure, there is. Nineteenth-century imperialists saw moral­ity in terms of taking up the white man’s burden, “the sav­age wars of peace—/Fill full the mouth of Famine/And bid the sickness cease,” while accepting that there would be no thanks in it and that “when your goal is nearest/The end for others sought,/Watch Sloth and heathen Folly/Bring all your hope to nought.” To take up the white man’s bur­den—to end the slave trade and widow burning, to impose Western ideas of justice in heathen climes, to build up colo­nial economic infrastructures—was a duty that any mature Christian people accepted. Of course, they don’t accept it any longer.

But the realities of world politics haven’t changed. Take a look at my fellow imperialist Niall Ferguson’s latest book Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire. He makes the case that the world needs “a liberal empire—that is to say, one that not only underwrites the free international exchange of com­modities, labor and capital but also creates and upholds the conditions without which markets cannot function—peace and order, the rule of law, noncorrupt administration, stable fiscal and monetary policies—as well as provides public goods, such as transportation infrastructure, hospitals and schools, which would not otherwise exist.”

We can’t possibly do all that.

Yes, we can, and we are. Ferguson shows that the United States can run a liberal empire without breaking a sweat. Imperial overstretch isn’t the problem. There’s no reason why we can’t do what Britain did a hundred years ago, we have far greater resources at our disposal. The problems we have are the welfare state, which could bankrupt America, the refusal of the United States to think in—and commit to—the imperial long-term, and the complete lack of inter­est most Americans have in running an empire. Ferguson notes that unlike our British imperial cousins of the past, “America’s brightest and best aspire not to govern Meso­potamia but to manage MTV, not to rule the Hejaz, but to run a hedge fund.” In short, right-wing reactionaries like me are right: If the world is doomed it’s because of MTV, welfare socialism, and an Ivy League that prepares its stu­dents to become spin doctors for the Democratic National Committee rather than players of the Great Game in the Hindu Kush. And that’s not to mention the defection of the paleoconservatives who think the burkha is superior to the bikini, and who on foreign policy side with Michael Moore against Rudyard Kipling.

What about Iraq? Surely you can’t justify preemptive war.

Here’s a little thought experiment. Suppose, years ago, the United States had dropped the 82nd and 101st Airborne into Kampala and landed Marines from the shores of Lake Victoria to topple Idi Amin. Suppose the United States had done so because of intelligence reports that the Ugandan dictator had been developing biological weapons in his fetid prisons, testing them on political opponents. Suppose further that hatred of America was a regular focus of Amin’s speeches and that the United States had already suffered a terrorist attack from Amin’s fellow anti-American Muslims of the terrorist group al Qaeda. Suppose, finally, that while the American military operation had successfully toppled Amin (with a minimum of casualties) and committed itself to establishing a democratic Uganda, it also failed to find biological weapons and had to engage in a long-term, low- intensity, anti-insurgency campaign against Amin loyalists and foreign jihadists.

If all this had happened, would the Western world, and a goodly proportion of people in the United States, beat its collective breast about how the president lied and people died, the illegality of violating Amin’s sovereignty, and the immorality of fighting a “preemptive” war against a regime that posed no conceivable threat to us? Would the discovery of severed heads in Amin’s refrigerator (the leftovers from cannibalistic dinner parties) and mass graves be dismissed as “not the reason we went to war” and no good reason for war in any event? Would the archbishop of Canterbury be warning the British prime minister, our ally in this military adventure, that he would have to answer to God for his ac­tions? I tend to think not, but you never know, especially about the archbishop of Canterbury.

You’d have us engaged in perpetual war.

To my mind—which adopted this position on September 12, 2001—the war in Iraq was an alternative to perpetual war. Attacking al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan was necessary, but insufficient—a mere ratcheting up of tit-for tat, better than what President Clinton did, sending the odd cruise missile to blow up an aspirin factory, but not enough to stop the jihadists.

To win the war against al Qaeda and radical Islam we needed to make an object lesson of a hostile Arab regime pour encourager les autres. Iraq was the obvious choice, because we were already patrolling the no-fly zones, because we al­ready had a casus belli with Iraq’s flagrant violations of the Gulf War’s cease-fire agreements, and because of the threat Saddam Hussein posed with his manic pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and support for terror. Take down Iraq, make it clear to terror-harboring governments that if they don’t want to be hit by America’s big stick they need to clean up their own backyards or be held accountable—do that, I argued, and the world would be a safer, more pleas­ant place.

That strategy, when it was finally employed, worked, at least initially. Syria made appeasing noises, bellicose North Korea suddenly went quiet, Libya’s Muammar Gad­dafi told Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi that he was going to drop his weapons-of-mass-destruction program to avoid Saddam’s fate, and Pakistan’s cooperation against al Qaeda and against nuclear weapons proliferation dramatically increased.

Much more along these lines could have been accom­plished had not the anti-war movements (and governments and the United Nations) in the West effectively communi­cated the message that all the other regimes had nothing to fear; that further interventions were politically impossible. For which we can all say: Thanks a lot, guys. Iran, North Korea, and Syria feel a lot safer because of you.

All these governments have to do is read the West­ern press and look at polling data to see that the United States, Britain, Australia, and the other allied powers are now routinely condemned and urged to remorse for ridding the world of Saddam’s regime. The moral high ground is supposed to belong to mercenary France, Germany, Russia, and China (not an axis of evil, granted, but a quadrangle of merchants of death), who had huge business interests in Saddam’s Iraq; to the United Nations that was running an outrageous scam out of the Oil-for-Food program; and to third-world tyrants everywhere who rest easy behind the barbed wire fence of national sovereignty, secure in West­ern self-flagellation.

Saddam miscalculated. He believed Western appeasers would defeat President Bush’s war plans. As John Keegan makes clear in his new book The Iraq War, while Saddam ad­mired Hitler, he was a votary of Stalin; and like Stalin, he thought he’d never be called to account. He never imag­ined dying in his bunker—he thought he would get away with everything; and in the political climate of today, he might have.

You’re not going to tell me that Iraq is a model for United States foreign policy?

Let me quote John Keegan instead. Before the war, Keegan wrote in the Daily Telegraph that the “weight of opposition to the projected war with Iraq baffles explanation.” For Keegan—a Catholic and a Knight of Malta, incidentally— the case for war in Iraq was so open and shut (regardless of whether Saddam actually had nuclear weapons) that op­position to it was inexplicable. He concludes The Iraq War on exactly the right note: “Reality is an uncomfortable com­panion, particularly to people of good The reality of the Iraq campaign of March-April 2003 is, however, a better guide to what needs to be done to secure the safety of our world than any amount of law-making or treaty-writ­ing can offer.”

And you endorse that?

Yes, and I’ll go further and endorse what the Catholic jour­nalist and historian Paul Johnson wrote in the Spectator of London, calling for “an American Leviathan to prevent life becoming nasty, brutish and short.”

Shall we end it there?

Let’s end with Kipling and invoke the

God of our fathers, known of old,

Lord of our far-flung battle-line,

Beneath whose awful Hand we hold

Dominion over palm and pine—

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!


  • H. W. Crocker III

    H. W Crocker III is a popular historian and novelist. His classic history of the Catholic Church Triumph, updated and expanded, has just been reissued in hardcover.

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