The Imperial Vice Presidency

Dick Cheney says the “e”-word.

The Bush administration is firmly committed to the idea that whenever the United States intervenes in the affairs of other countries, it’s to extend the blessings of liberty and democracy rather than to create or expand any sort of American empire. Here, for example, is President Bush speaking last year on Veterans Day, as the nation prepared to invade Iraq:

As many veterans have seen in countries around the world, captive people have greeted American soldiers as liberators. And there is good reason. We have no territorial ambitions, we don’t seek an empire. Our nation is committed to freedom for ourselves and for others. We and our allies have fought evil regimes and left in their place self-governing and prosperous nations.

In Bush’s mind, an empire is something that Americans seek to overthrow, not something they seek to create. On those rare occasions when he uses the word, it’s usually to describe the former Soviet Union (the “evil empire”) or to praise the Founding Fathers (who freed us from the British Empire). He will never say or acknowledge in any way that the United States presides over an empire. That message is well understood by other members of the Bush administration. Here, for example is Condoleezza Rice fielding a question from a German reporter last July:

Q: Struggling to find a comparison in history for America’s position in the world now, people have come up with the Roman Empire, as in comparison. There’s an obvious difference: America doesn’t strive to acquire foreign countries. But beyond that, would you, as an academic, accept the comparison? A: I wouldn’t accept the comparison to the Roman Empire, of course, because the United States has no imperial ambitions. …It is the spread of values that will make us more secure. And so I think of this rather as a period of the triumph of states that are committed to a set of values, not the triumph of the United States alone.  

Bush’s and Rice’s description of America as a force for freedom in the world is an accurate description of our aspirations and—when we get it right—the outcome. Still, it’s undeniable that America has used its economic and military pre-eminence in the world to create some sort of postcolonial empire. That was true before Bush became president, and it is truer now given Bush’s preference for unilateral control over Iraq; his codification of a new “pre-emption” doctrine that we will never allow other nations to adopt; and his general wariness of the United Nations.

But you’ll almost never hear anybody say that. Within the mainstream of American political discourse, it’s perfectly acceptable to criticize pre-emption and unilateralism, but by silent agreement, the word “empire” is understood to be beyond the pale. It’s one of those words, like “servant,” that Americans refuse to utter because it’s too difficult to reconcile with American ideals. The only people rude enough to use the word “empire” to describe the United States are foreigners, hard leftists, and Buchananite conservatives. Oh, and one more: Vice President Dick Cheney.

The Cheney Christmas card

Cheney violated the Bush administration’s policy of never saying the e-word in a Christmas card he and his wife sent out to various supporters and important Washingtonians. (Chatterbox did not receive one.) Along with their best wishes for this holiday season, the Cheneys included the following quotation from Benjamin Franklin:

And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?

Franklin said this at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 by way of suggesting that the proceedings begin each day with a prayer. It is a favorite touchstone for those, like Cheney, who believe that the separation of church and state has become overly fastidious. (These people seldom go on to mention that Franklin’s suggestion was rejected by the other delegates.) For Cheney, though, it was a twofer, because it also allowed him to state (using the words of another) that America need not be ashamed of its empire. Although Chatterbox fears that Cheney’s motive—in blazing past whatever warnings his aides likely extended about using the e-word—was fanaticism, he can’t help but applaud Cheney’s honesty. It’s time for America’s empire to come out of the closet.

Pedant’s corner. Why did Franklin use the word “empire,” when he so easily could have said “nation” or “republic” or some such? A mere decade after the Revolutionary War, wasn’t “empire” a dirty word? Chatterbox posed this question to Franklin biographer Edmund S. Morgan. “It didn’t carry the kind of freight that the word carries today,” Morgan explained, adding that Franklin’s use of the term probably reflected his Anglophilia and his desire to spread the new nation’s dominion westward. (Doing so, of course, would subject various Native American tribes to foreign rule, but people didn’t think that way at the time.) Franklin, Morgan said, did not mean to indicate any desire to conquer foreign lands, a notion he would have found distasteful. Walter Isaacson, another Franklin biographer, said much the same when Chatterbox caught up with him a few hours later, and pointed out that the negative connotations we attach to “empire” were in that time attached to the word “colonial”:

He was very opposed to colonialism. That was a bad word. He believed that any nation or “empire” that had territories should treat all inhabitants, in the far-flung territories as well as near the center, as equal citizens with equal democratic and legislative and governing rights. In other words, he was against “colonialism” but he never used “empire” in a pejorative manner.

Dick Cheney may be fully aware of what Franklin meant when he uttered the word “empire,” but even so it can’t have escaped his notice that the word’s contemporary meaning is much more provocative.