In normal times the New York Times refrains from recognizing that the United States has created a global empire, but on Thursday, apparently to buck up sagging American spirits, its Op-Ed page published the musings of Piers Brendon, an expert in the decline and fall of the British Empire.  --  It is certainly rare to be told in the columns of the New York Times that "America’s informal empire, controlled diplomatically, commercially, and militarily, girdles the globe."[1]  --  To banish the gloomy specter of American imperial decline, Brendon proposed two lines of defense.  --  Dismissing organicist philosophies, he first affirmed that the U.S. has only to come to its senses to maintain its imperial sway:  "[T]here are some relatively simple steps America could take to recover its position.  It could bring its military commitments into line with its resources, rely more on the 'soft power' of diplomacy and economic engagement and, as George Washington said, take advantage of its geographically detached situation to 'defy material injury from external annoyance.'  Such a policy would permit more investment in productive enterprise and pay for butter as well as guns, thus vindicating Joe Biden’s faith in the recuperative capacities of the Great Republic."  --  (Fat chance, since oligarchy has superseded republicanism in the United States.)  --  If that line of defense fails, then "[f]aced by the prospect of decline, Americans could hardly do better than to cling to the noblest traditions of their own civilization," as Great Britain has done (allegedly).  --  On the same day that the New York Times published this sterling bit of wise advice, it took an editorial position seemingly in harmony with it, urging that John Yoo and Jay Bybee face a disciplinary review for their work in providing "legal cover" for "facilitating torture."[2]  --  But if the New York Times were really serious about making torture unavailable "as a policy option for future administrations," it would support the prosecution George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, et al. for war crimes.  --  Only a few days ago, however, it ignored confessional remarks on the matter of torture by the former vice president.  --  As for UFPPC, since October 2005, four and one-half years ago, we have advocated "a thorough investigation by Congress and appropriate judicial authorities into responsibility for the embrace of torture by the United States government."  --  Back in those days, we recall, the New York Times couldn't even bring itself to use the word "torture."  --  In fact, even as recently as Oct. 22, 2009, a reader complained:  "Could the New York Times please stop using the euphemism 'interrogation techniques' when the indicated word is torture?  If this were about any other country -- including an ally -- we would not hesitate to use the right word -- even if that country’s leaders were to call it something else.  The trouble is that the Times is afraid of its own shadow and fears backlash by an administration (Bush) that is not even in power anymore." ...



Op-Ed contributor


By Piers Brendon

New York Times

February 25, 2010 (posted Feb. 24)

CAMBRIDGE, England --
Vice President Joe Biden complains that he is being driven crazy because so many people are betting on America’s demise.  Reports of it are not just exaggerated; they are, he insists, ridiculous.  Like President Obama, he will not accept “second place” for the United States.  Despite the present crippling budget deficit and the crushing burden of projected debt, he denies that the country is destined to fulfill a “prophecy that we are going to be a great nation that has failed because we lost control of our economy and overextended.”

Mr. Biden was referring in particular to the influential book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy, a British historian who teaches at Yale.  Published in 1988, the book argues that the ascendancy of states or empires results from the superiority of their material resources, and that the wealth on which that dominance rests is eroded by the huge military expenditures needed to sustain national or imperial power, leading inexorably to its decline and fall.  The thesis seems a tad schematic, but Professor Kennedy maintains it with dazzling cogency.  In any debate about the development of the United States, one would certainly tend to side with the detached historian rather than the partisan politician.

All too often, however, students of the past succumb to the temptation to foretell the future.  For reasons best known to himself, for example, the eminent British historian A. J. P. Taylor predicted that the Second World War would reach its climax in the Spanish port of Vigo.  Equally preposterous in its way was Francis Fukuyama’s claim that the conclusion of the cold war marked the end of ideological evolution, “the end of history.”

When indulging his own penchant for prophecy, Paul Kennedy too proved sadly fallible.  In his book, he wrote that Japan would not stagnate and that Russia, clinging to Communism, would not boom economically by the early 21st century.  Of course, Professor Kennedy did not base his forecasts on runes or entrails or stars.  He weighed the available evidence and extrapolated from existing trends.  He studied form, entered suitable caveats, and hedged his bets.  In short, he relied on sophisticated guesswork.  However, the past is a map, not a compass.  It charts human experience, stops at the present and gives no clear sense of direction.  History does not repeat itself nor, as Arnold Toynbee would have it, does it proceed in rhythms or cycles.  Events buck trends.  Everything, as Gibbon said, is subject to “the vicissitudes of fortune.”

Still, history is our only guide.  It is natural to seek instruction from it about the trajectory of earlier great powers, especially at a time when the weary American Titan seems to be staggering under “the too vast orb of its fate.”  This phrase (loosely taken from Matthew Arnold) was used by the British politician Joseph Chamberlain to depict the plight of his nation in 1902.  The country had indeed suffered a severe setback during its South African war and its global supremacy was under threat from mighty rivals in the United States and Germany.  Yet the British Empire was at its apogee.

Paradoxically, the larger great powers grow, the more they worry about their vulnerability. Rudyard Kipling wrote this elegy to the empire, of which he was unofficial poet laureate, to mark its most spectacular pageant, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dunes and headlands sinks the fire;
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Aptly quoting these lines exactly a century later, when Britain gave up its last major colony, Hong Kong, this newspaper’s editorial page noted that the queen’s empire had been relegated to the history books; the United States had become the heir to Rome.

Now doom-mongers conjure with Roman and British analogies in order to trace the decay of American hegemony.  In so doing they ignore Gibbon’s warning about the danger of comparing epochs remote from one another.  It is obviously possible to find striking similarities between the predicament of Rome and that of Washington (itself modeled on classical lines, incidentally, because it aspired to be the capital of a mighty empire). Overstretch is common to both, for example:  Rome defended frontiers on the Tigris, the Danube and the Rhine; America’s informal empire, controlled diplomatically, commercially and militarily, girdles the globe.

But the differences are palpable.  The Roman economy depended on agriculture whereas the United States has an enormous industrial base, producing nearly a quarter of the world’s manufactured goods, and dominates the relatively new invention of the service economy.

Rome was prone to internecine strife whereas America is constitutionally stable.  Rome was overwhelmed by barbarians whereas America’s armed forces are so powerful as to prompt dreams of what is known in military doctrine as “full spectrum dominance.”  Even in an age of terrorism and nuclear proliferation, it is hard to visualize an attack on America as devastating as that inflicted by Vandals, Goths and Huns on Rome.

Similarly, the British Empire was a weak empire.  It was acquired thanks to certain temporary advantages, and run on a shoestring.  It governed the multitudes of India with 1,250 civil servants, and garrisoned its African colonies with a thousand policemen and soldiers, not one above the rank of colonel.  The thin white line often broke under pressure.

Then Britain lost a whole generation of empire-builders during the First World War, and was virtually bankrupted by the Second.  It was bailed out by the United States, which briefly sustained the British Empire as an auxiliary in the Cold War.  But its status as no more than a client was amply demonstrated in 1956, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower cracked the whip and stopped the Anglo-French invasion of Suez.  The empire was quickly dismembered, its ghost surviving as the Commonwealth.

Stemming from a tiny island, the British Empire was once described as an oak tree in a plant pot. American dominion, by contrast, is rooted in a bountiful continent.  But does not the organic metaphor imply that states, like other living things, will inevitably deteriorate and die?  This suggestion was convincingly denied by Lord Palmerston, the champion of the Victorian “gunboat diplomacy” that brought China to its knees.  To compare that country to a sick man or an old tree was an “utterly unphilosophical mistake,” he said, since a nation could adopt mechanical means of self-renovation.  This, needless to say, China has done.

Despite its grave problems, there are some relatively simple steps America could take to recover its position.  It could bring its military commitments into line with its resources, rely more on the “soft power” of diplomacy and economic engagement and, as George Washington said, take advantage of its geographically detached situation to “defy material injury from external annoyance.”  Such a policy would permit more investment in productive enterprise and pay for butter as well as guns, thus vindicating Joe Biden’s faith in the recuperative capacities of the Great Republic.

On the other hand, Paul Kennedy may well be right to predict that the United States will shrink relatively in wealth, and therefore power, as its Asian and European rivals grow.  Such contractions can be traumatic, as suggested by the experience of Britain, which, as Dean Acheson said, lost an empire without finding a role.

However, the British now tend to echo the historian Lord Macaulay, who said that the end of their physical empire would be the proudest day in their history if they left behind “the imperishable empire” of their arts and their morals, their literature and their laws.  In other words, national self-esteem should not stem from global might but from cultural values and achievements.  Faced by the prospect of decline, Americans could hardly do better than to cling to the noblest traditions of their own civilization.

--Piers Brendon, a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, is the author of The Decline and Fall of the British Empire.

NOTE: This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:  Correction: February 26, 2010.  An Op-Ed essay on Thursday, about the decline of nations, misidentified the source of the observation that Britain had lost an empire without finding a role. It was Dean Acheson, not Adlai Stevenson.





New York Times
February 24, 2010

Is this really the state of ethics in the American legal profession?  Government lawyers who abused their offices to give the president license to get away with torture did nothing that merits a review by the bar?

A five-year inquiry by the Justice Department’s ethics watchdogs recommended a disciplinary review for the two lawyers who produced the infamous torture memos for former President George W. Bush, but they were overruled by a more senior Justice Department official.

The original investigation found that the lawyers, John Yoo and Jay Bybee, had committed “professional misconduct” in a series of memos starting in August 2002.  First, they defined torture so narrowly as to make it almost impossible to accuse a jailer of torturing a prisoner, and they finally concluded that President Bush was free to ignore any law on the conduct of war.

The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility said appropriate bar associations should be asked to look at the actions of Mr. Yoo, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and Mr. Bybee, who was rewarded for his political loyalty with a lifetime appointment to the federal bench.  It was a credible accounting, especially since some former officials, like Attorney General John Ashcroft, refused to cooperate and e-mails from Mr. Yoo were mysteriously missing.

But the more senior official, David Margolis, decided that Mr. Yoo and Mr. Bybee only had shown “poor judgment” and should not be disciplined.  Mr. Margolis did not dispute that Mr. Yoo and Mr. Bybee mangled legal reasoning and produced work that ultimately was repudiated by the Bush administration itself.  He criticized the professional responsibility office’s investigation on procedural grounds and excused Mr. Yoo and Mr. Bybee by noting that everyone was frightened after Sept. 11, 2001, and that they were in a hurry.

Americans were indeed frightened after Sept. 11, and the Bush administration was in a great rush to torture prisoners.  Responsible lawyers would have responded with extra vigilance, especially if, like Mr. Yoo and Mr. Bybee, they worked in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.  When that office renders an opinion, it has the force of law within the executive branch.  Poor judgment is an absurdly dismissive way to describe giving the green light to policies that have badly soiled America’s reputation and made it less safe.

As the dealings outlined in the original report underscore, the lawyers did not offer what most people think of as “legal advice.”  Mr. Yoo and Mr. Bybee were not acting as fair-minded analysts of the law but as facilitators of a scheme to evade it.  The White House decision to brutalize detainees already had been made.  Mr. Yoo and Mr. Bybee provided legal cover.

We were glad that the leaders of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, Representative John Conyers Jr. and Senator Patrick Leahy, committed to holding hearings after the release of the Justice Department documents.

The attorney general, Eric Holder Jr., should expand the investigation into “rogue” interrogators he initiated last year to include officials responsible for facilitating torture.  While he is at it, Mr. Holder should assign someone to look into the disappearance of Mr. Yoo’s e-mails.

The American Bar Association should decide whether its rules are adequate for deterring and punishing ethical failures by government lawyers.

The quest for real accountability must continue. The alternative is to leave torture open as a policy option for future administrations.