Celebrating Independence in the Era of Empire


By Medea Benjamin

Common Dreams
July 3, 2005

This Fourth of July, while Americans are marching in parades and oohing and aahing at the fireworks, it would be a patriotic gesture to also spend some time thinking about what independence means today. Our nation was founded on a determination to be free of domination by the British empire. The US Declaration of Independence proclaimed the need to fight the War of Independence against Britain because King George III had 'kept among us standing armies' that committed intolerable 'abuses and usurpations.' Today it is our government whose standing army is committing abuses and usurpations in foreign lands. Today it is our government that is in the business of empire-building. Even before 9/11, the US military maintained over 700 foreign military bases and installations and almost 250,000 troops in 130 countries.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison all warned that the invasion and occupation of other lands would turn America into precisely the sort of empire against which they had so recently rebelled. "We should have nothing to do with conquest," asserted Jefferson in 1791. Unfortunately, subsequent leaders of this nation have refused to heed this advice - invading other countries to control their land, their oil, their people. From the 1890s to the 1930s alone, the US intervened 23 times in the Western hemisphere. Building and maintaining a vast empire is expensive in both lives and money. The human cost in Iraq alone tops 1,700 US soldiers dead, tens of thousands severely injured both physically and psychologically, with much greater death and suffering endured by the Iraqi people.

Our out-of-control military budget will, by 2006, equal that of the rest of the world combined. This enormous cost is draining money from our schools, our hospitals, our public transportation. Martin Luther King's words that 'a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense then on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death' resonate today. According to the organization National Priorities, the $200-plus billion we're spending on the war in Iraq could have provided health care to over 46 million Americans, affordable housing to almost 2 million families, or renewable energy for some 360 million homes.

The imperial ambitions of this administration have also cost us dearly in terms of international prestige. A survey of public opinion in 16 countries released by the Pew Global Attitudes Project on June 23 found a dismal opinion of the U.S. Most said the world was more dangerous after the downfall of Saddam Hussein, rated China more favorably than the U.S., and said the world would be better off if a group of countries emerged as a rival to U.S. military power. And while 94 percent of Canadians and 83 percent of Indians said their countrymen were well-liked by the global community, seven in 10 Americans said Americans were "generally disliked" abroad - the most downbeat assessment of global popularity given by any country in the survey. Most Americans have come to understand that the cost of empire in lives, money and prestige is unacceptable. Recent polls show that the majority believes we should never have attacked Iraq, we should begin to withdraw our troops, and that the war in Iraq has not made us safer at home. Six out of ten Americans say that our nation is headed down the wrong path.

In 1821, then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams warned that if America went abroad in search of 'monsters to destroy - the fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.' While she might become the dictatress of the world, he predicted, 'she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.' This July 4, let us reflect on how empire-building is destroying the soul of our nation. Let us recommit to getting our soldiers out of Iraq, dismantling our foreign bases, preventing new conquests, rejoining the international community and, in the process, becoming the rulers of our own spirit.

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