The Evening of Empire

When the admirable Tiberius upon becoming emperor, received a message from the Senate in which the conscript fathers assured him that whatever legislation he wanted would be automatically passed by them, he sent back word that this was outrageous. “Suppose the emperor is ill or mad or incompetent?” He returned their message. They sent it again. His response: “How eager you are to be slaves.”

— Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Amid the onrush of Caligulan sex scandals, suspension of the Constitution, depressing bulletins from the Babylonian front, and all manner of bogus “events,” a recent news item has passed with remarkably little public stir, despite being featured above the fold on the front page of The Washington Post, a bulletin board as eagerly read by the capital city’s strivers as Pravda in its day by the fellow-traveler, or Osservatore Romano by the untramontanist Catholic.

The article [1] informs us that the President has signed off on a “National Space Policy.” The cornerstone of this new policy is the administration’s intention to “oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space. Proposed arms control agreements or restrictions must not impair the rights of the United States to conduct research, development, testing and operations or other activities in space for U.S. national interest.”

The document adds elsewhere that the new policy must “enable unhindered U.S. operations in and through space to defend our interest there.” Note the unctuous use of the modifier “our”–as if the interests of parasitic contractors, government placemen, and neoconservative scribblers constituted the res publica.

If the English language means anything, the plain intent of the policy is to assert that the United States (or rather its governing clique) can do anything it likes, and treaties be damned, including the Outer Space Treaty currently in force. This conclusion would be consistent with the administration’s treatment of other judicial impedimenta, such as the Geneva Convention or the late Constitution. Similar to the Senate’s craven grant of plenary power to the Roman Emperor, a supine legislative branch has encouraged the administration to believe its own whim is law–to make war, to torture, to “unsign” treaties.

Yet the Post journalist, in the idiot-savant manner made famous by Bob Woodward, stenographically quotes a “senior government official who was not authorized to speak on the record” as saying “This policy is not about developing or deploying weapons in space. Period.”

Ah, just as the Military Commissions Act was not about torture! How like the administration to assign one of its “senior” functionaries to pretend to speak without authorization in order to add verisimilitude to an assertion that it plainly wanted to disseminate–an assertion at odds with the plain text of its policy. And the Post’s reporter fell for it like a yokel at the Barnum circus. Thus the rest of the article becomes a fraudulent “debate” between the administration’s allegations and those of its critics; thereby lending weight to the presumption that there are legitimately “two sides” to any issue involving the administration.

While the Establishment press (other than the Post) gave little attention to the space policy story, the blogosphere (to the extent it paid any attention) behaved in a predictable fashion: the usual hand-wringing about the militarization of space, the unilateralism of the Bush administration, and forecasts of dark tidings generally. There is some truth to these assertions, but they are subsidiary to a more significant point.

The space policy document is not so much a blueprint as a symptom. But of what?–of fiendish Machiavells, plotting to storm the very heavens? Perhaps that is the intent of these laptop Flash Gordons, but between the desire and the fulfillment falls the shadow: the shadow of utter incompetence.

What is to be said about an administration which dreams of policing outer space, when for three and a half years its legions have been stalemated in their occupation of a broken-down country with a pre-war GDP less than that of Fairfax County, Virginia? The Iraq war has been such a riot of fecklessness as to take one’s breath away.

One is hard put to find a more badly fought war in our history. The United States, remember, entered the war with its defense expenditure already nearly equal to that of the rest of the world combined. Vastly increasing the regular military budget since then, as well as piling on the $100+ billion annually for Iraq supplemental spending that “doesn’t count” against fictitious Congressional spending limits, has not improved matters.

Since the imperial court, and particularly its War Minister, Donald Rumsfeld, is so fond of World War II analogies, perhaps it is fitting to point out that the tone for the Iraq debacle was set by the establishment in the spring of 2003 of the Coalition Provisional Authority, a repository of more political hacks, shrieking poseurs, and ideological zealots than at any time since Hitler and Goering “cut up the giant cake” of the Ukraine by offering it to the administration of Nazi Party lay-abouts known derisively as “golden pheasants.”

The soldiers are now paying the price. Scanning the casualty lists, one is struck by the number of enlisted reservists over the age of 50. In a past war such hexagenarians would, for example, be cannon fodder for the Volkssturm’s last-ditch defense of Berlin. One also hears of a veteran of one Iraq deployment, who had been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and placed on suicide watch, being ordered back to Iraq. [2]

If this is an imperial army, it smacks of late imperial Rome, plugging the gaps in its vast, ramshackle conquests with too few troops to stem the barbarian hordes. As if on queue, the Post’s op-ed page saw fit to air a solution to the troop dilemma on the day after its space policy story: neocon fanatic Max Boot and Establishment weathervane Michael O’Hanlon teamed up to advocate recruiting foreigners (including undocumented aliens) into the military as a step to citizenship. [3] Shades of the Germanic volunteers in the Legions of Rome!

It is sufficiently ironic that a coterie which dreams of Zeus-like control of the heavens comes a cropper in a minor imperial project on terra firma. But what are we to say about the pretensions of a class that asserts such omnipotence, when the very borders of the country in whose name it rules are as permeable as cheese cloth?

One almost feels sympathy for the dilemma of our rulers. The mob that helped put this clique on the imperial throne is demanding that this southern invasion across the imperial limes be halted forthwith. And the proles know whereof they speak: their living standards are at risk, and while they can be mollified with television entertainment and sports spectacles, they, like the mob at the Circus Maximus, can be fickle in its loyalty to the imperial purple.

At the same time, the money barons who sustain the emperor and his retinue profit handsomely from the chaos on America’s southern border. The hordes who swarm across it work the latifundia of the great, E Coli-ridden corporate farms, pluck the chickens, and construct the houses of the luxuriating class. If one were a betting man one would lay odds the money barons will win and the borders will remain porous, the nascent totalitarianism of Homeland Security and the fury of the mob notwithstanding.

If the geographic situation of the United States, in the sense of the contrast between its far-flung (if futile) imperial ventures and its utter breakdown as a sovereign nation-state, is reminiscent of late Rome, then the economic basis of the empire completes the picture. The United States is no longer a producer, it is a ravenous consumer, now with an annual trade deficit of three-quarters of a trillion dollars (an unimaginable figure even ten years ago).

China, the favorite nation-state “national security threat” of the imperial gang, is a prime beneficiary of our governing class’s addiction to arbitraging labor. A war with China, while not an impossibility, is far-fetched. War would instantly empty the shelves of Wal-Mart; where would the people who earn Wal-Mart wages shop, other than Wal-Mart? One could foresee serious social instability (read: riots) as a result. Even if our rulers were competent enough to construct a space denial program to discomfit the Chinese, they could finance it only if the Chinese Central Bank remained strangely passive, and did not dump U.S. Treasury bills.

Thus it was with Rome:

“Rome lived on its principal till ruin stared it in the face. Industry is the only true source of wealth, and there was no industry in Rome. By day the Ostia road was crowded with carts and muleteers, carrying to the great city the silks and spices of the East, the marble of Asia Minor, the timber of the Atlas, the grain of Africa and Egypt; and the carts brought out nothing but loads of dung. That was their return cargo.” [4]

Seen in the historical perspective of an Edward Gibbon or a Winwood Reade, the Bush administration’s National Space Policy bears out neither the vain hopes of its authors nor the nagging fears of its critics. Rather, it is a gesture of bravado characteristic of empires in the evening of their existence. Logic might suggest that such empires would hive to the status quo, and avoid adventures that could drain their power. Logic, however, can be deceiving.

Just as the Emperor Valens embarked on a disastrous campaign against the Goths in 376, the Austro-Hungarian Empire rolled the dice in 1914, and the British embarked on the feckless Suez campaign of 1956 (significantly, when their finances were in terrible shape), so the American Empire doubles its bets at the casino of history. It would vault the firmament to bring its purported enemies to heel, when the very basis of its power is ebbing away.

It is the expression of late imperial hubris, not just of a mad emperor, but of a whole governing system.

WERTHER is the pen name of a Northern Virginia-based defense analyst.

[1] “Bush Sets Defense as Space Priority,” The Washington Post, 18 October 2006, p.A1.

[2] “Troops With Stress Disorders Fit For Duty?” CBS News, 19 October 2006

[3] “A Military Path to Citizenship,” The Washington Post, 19 October 2006, p. A29

[4] The Martyrdom of Man by Winwood Reade (1871)