We should listen to Karl Rove when he lauds former presidents. For example, Mr. Rove has lately taken to saying that George W. Bush is another Andrew Jackson. As Congress considers Mr. Bush's demand that the Homeland Security Department be exempt from civil service rules, it should recall that those rules were introduced out of revulsion over the "spoils system," under which federal appointments were reserved for political loyalists — a practice begun under Jackson.
But Mr. Rove's original model was William McKinley. Until Sept. 11, we thought that Mr. Rove admired McKinley's domestic political strategy. But McKinley was also the president who acquired an overseas empire. And there's a definite whiff of imperial ambition in the air once again.
Of course the new Bush doctrine, in which the United States will seek "regime change" in nations that we judge might be future threats, is driven by high moral purpose. But McKinley-era imperialists also thought they were morally justified. The war with Spain — which ruled its colonies with great brutality, but posed no threat to us — was justified by an apparent act of terror, the sinking of the battleship Maine, even though no evidence ever linked that attack to Spain. And the purpose of our conquest of the Philippines was, McKinley declared, "to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them."
Moral clarity aside, the parallel between America's pursuit of manifest destiny a century ago and its new global sense of mission has a lot to teach us.
First, the experience of the Spanish-American War should remind us that quick conventional military victory is not necessarily the end of the story. Thanks to American technological superiority, Adm. George Dewey destroyed a Spanish fleet in Manila Bay without losing a single man. But a clean, high-tech war against Spain somehow turned into an extremely dirty war against the Filipino resistance, one in which hundreds of thousands of civilians died.
Second, America's imperial venture should serve as an object warning against taking grand strategic theories too seriously. The doctrines of the day saw colonies as strategic assets. In the end, it's very doubtful whether our control of the Philippines made us stronger. Now we're assured that military action against rogue states will protect us from terrorism. But the rogue state now in our sights doesn't seem to have been involved in Sept. 11; what determines whose regime gets changed?
Finally, we should remember that the economic doctrines that were used to justify Western empire-building during the late 19th century — that colonies would provide valuable markets and sources of raw materials — turned out to be nonsense. Almost without exception, the cost of acquiring and defending a colonial empire greatly exceeded even a generous accounting of its benefits. These days, pundits tell us that a war with Iraq will drive down oil prices, and maybe even yield a financial windfall. But the effect on oil prices is anything but certain, while the heavy costs of war, occupation and rebuilding — for we won't bomb Iraq, then wash our hands of responsibility, will we? — are not in doubt. And no, the United States cannot defray the costs of war out of Iraqi oil revenue — not unless we are willing to confirm to the world that we're just old-fashioned imperialists, after all.
In the end, 19th-century imperialism was a diversion. It's hard not to suspect that the Bush doctrine is also a diversion — a diversion from the real issues of dysfunctional security agencies, a sinking economy, a devastated budget and a tattered relationship with our allies.
Halliburton has objected to my use of the word "confiscate" in summarizing changes in pension benefits to employees whose divisions were sold, changes described in a Sept. 10 New York Times article. Although Halliburton's actions were legal — I did not suggest otherwise — they had the effect of depriving workers of benefits they had been led to expect. In particular, workers who planned to take early retirement were informed that they had "severed" their employment relationship — even though they had no choice in the matter — and that as a result, if they retired early they would not receive the level of benefits suggested by their retirement plan statements. However much Halliburton may try to put a spin on its actions, its behavior remains, as one pension expert quoted in the original article put it, "scandalous."
Originally published in The New York Times, 9.24.02