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The Death of American Empire

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The failure of the occupation of Iraq, coupled with the Bush Administration's unleashing of Israel, makes one thing clear: conservative foreign policy has failed. Conservatism hasn't strengthened America's position in the world, produced the Pax Americana that conservatives expected. It's done the exact opposite; weakened the United States across the board. As a result, we're witnessing the death of the conservative dream of American empire.

Conservative foreign policy rests upon two beliefs: The first is that military might is sufficient to ensure supremacy of American interests. The second belief is that when it is unencumbered by government interference, the marketplace will solve the world's problems whatever they are: WMDs, poverty, or global warming.

Conservatives rely solely upon the military to solve America's foreign policy disputes. Their stance is based upon a logical contradiction: conservatism insists on drastic reduction of the Federal government and simultaneously demands that the Department of Defense grow larger. The US military budget is roughly equal to the amount that the rest of the world spends on defense, yet for conservatives this is never enough. Each year brings demands for increased expenditures on foolish projects, the anti-missile defense system being only one.

Conservatives not only believe in the maxim that the bigger DOD grows the better it serves the nation, but they go further and advocate that the U.S. military be our primary conduit to the international community. After 9/11, the Bush Administration dismissed the advice of national-security experts that the war on terror should involve diplomacy, covert operations, economic sanctions, and law enforcement, as well as military action. In Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Lebanon, the U.S. pays lip service to diplomacy but instead wages war. The Bush Administration talks about spreading democracy, but where they've strengthened overseas alliances-for example in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkmenistan-they've forged partnerships with autocrats and overlooked their human rights' abuses. Dubya's heavy-handed approach has shattered traditional diplomacy and undone years of bipartisan work building international institutions.

Conservatives believe that if they do away with the Federal Government, the market will solve America's domestic problems. They apply this same simplistic logic to international problems by arguing that if governments would get out of its way the international marketplace would deal with troubles such as pollution and genocide. Conservatives contend that organizations such as the United Nations and World Trade Organization are useless.

In the domestic arena the shortcomings of conservatism's childlike beliefs are obvious: the market won't take care of problems such as building levees to protect citizens from floods or inoculating children from Polio. The market cares only about profit: it has no conception of the common good or public morality.
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Conservatives' naïve belief that the marketplace will resolve global issues is equally problematic. International organizations deal with three classes of problems: military, economic, and social. It's obvious that neither the market nor American military force can solve all international disputes. DOD hasn't succeeded with the occupations of Afghanistan or Iraq; privatization of the "reconstruction" failed either to provide necessary services or to enable civil society. There are military predicaments that clearly require international cooperation, such as cutting off the flow of nuclear weapons. As for social problems, there is no indication that the market is able to deal with issues such as bird flu and AIDS. A huge international economic issue is what to do about damage resulting from unpredictable weather, such as hurricanes. The global marketplace ignores such events and calls upon governments to be the ultimate insurer. More generally, the market is unwilling to address the problem of global climate change; it would rather pretend that global warming is not happening and continue to treat the environment as an infinite, free resource. Similarly, the global marketplace shows no indication that it will resolve the issue of poverty.

Conservative foreign policy has failed and taken with it their dream of a new American empire. Unfortunately, in the course of its jingoistic pursuit of global supremacy, conservatism undermined the international institutions that Democratic and Republican Presidents tried to strengthen, before the disastrous reign of George W. Bush. This failure is most obvious in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, where the international community was unable to protect thousands of civilians, but it's also apparent in the collapse of the WTO Doha summit, where the common good was abandoned in favor of parochial national interests. Conservatism has failed and in the process weakened America.

Conservatism likes to describe the world as a jungle, where only the strong survive. Indeed, the failed foreign policy of the Bush Administration has accentuated this metaphor, made the world more jungle-like, created an atmosphere where it's every nation for itself. The obvious problem with living in this conservative jungle is that the world faces critical issues that can only be solved through cooperative effort. Unfortunately, conservatism doesn't believe in cooperation. Conservatives have failed and seem intent on taking us all down with their ideological ship, where it's every person for him or herself.

The critical question is: what do liberals propose as an alternative foreign policy?
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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