By Caryl Rivers
Wednesday, October 23, 2002
George Bush campaigned on a "humble foreign policy." Now he is apparently transformed into Mucho-Macho Prez--risking the well-being of women and families for the dangerous goal of building a real-man's empire.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Are we seeing the Macho-ing of American politics?
Are we going from "I feel your pain!" to "Sock it to you?" From "It takes a village to raise a child" to "Bomb the village back to the Stone Age?" Are we seeing the genesis of a new American empire whose aim is to reshape the world through U.S. might? And if so, what will the cost of this be to ordinary Americans especially to women and families?
Most Americans approved of the attack on Afghanistan as retaliation for the Sept. 11 attacks and want the nation to be aggressive in pursuit of terrorists. But there is a real question as to whether they envision an American empire.
They voted, in fact, for the opposite. George W. Bush campaigned on a "humble" foreign policy, and tore into Democrats for too much nation-building. Now, is he going in for empire-building instead?
Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service says the administration has decided to overhaul the Arab world, rather than dealing with it. While Iraq is on the horizon, Saudi Arabia and Iran may also be in the gun sights. As one British diplomat put it to Newsweek, "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad, but real men want to go to Teheran."
But if the "real men" are in charge, what do the rest of us less hairy-chested types stand to lose?
The U.S. paid the Cold War freight, providing the umbrella for Western Europe. Freed from crushing defense costs, Europe invested in its population: free health care and child care, generous parental leaves and paid vacations. In the United States, the lives of working people become ever harder: 43 percent of us have no health insurance, we have no paid parental leave, we work more hours than any other industrialized society, and the 9-to-5 day has become a 24-7 work life with globalization.
So what are our priorities? Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich, the author of "American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy," believes we have already chosen.
"My belief is that the empire is a reality which we are obliged to acknowledge, but is not necessarily a cause for celebration," Bacevich says. "The maintenance and management of this empire is something that will cause us great pain.
"To fulfill our providential destiny as the New Jerusalem, we have tacitly decided that we have no recourse but to be the New Rome, as well," he adds.
The old Rome found itself over-extended and attacked by barbarians, who sacked it. The new barbarians have jet-liners, anthrax, dirty bombs and maybe suitcase nukes. If we try to remake the world, do we become more or less vulnerable to them? When we market our freedoms, our multi-racial culture and even our rock music, the world (except for the medieval maniacs) loves us. Will an American Raj breed worldwide fear and loathing instead? Will we be seen around the world as Darth Vader's empire? Will the Real Men lead us to safety? Or to Armageddon?
Do we even have the patience for Empire? Bacevitch says: "The country likes its aims noble, its objectives clear, its enemies evil, and its commitments short." We want crusades to end fascism or save democracy; we are not well suited, by history or temperament, he says, to the nasty work of maintaining an empire.
And if the real men are in charge, women may be among the big losers. Women's earnings are critical to economic recovery. Harvard economist Richard Freeman points out that it was the earnings of married women with children in the United States that gave our economy a lead over the European Union in the 1990s. Most women are in the work force--61 percent of mothers of toddlers are working, with nothing like the support systems that European women enjoy. When the Cold War ended, women could be forgiven for thinking that now was the time for the United States to catch up, putting resources into working families, which are under great stress. We were making baby steps in that direction.
Now, we must ask basic questions. Do we want to remake the world, or our health-care system? Can we afford to fight a two-front war--one on the rest of the world, and the other on our own problems of poverty, crime, and ill health? And should we go it alone? Unilateralism is another word for macho, but is it the vocabulary we want?
We may ultimately decide that the United States must bear enormous burdens around the world. But let's not slide into them as we did with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. A small-scale attack on our warships there--that may never even have happened--led President Lyndon Johnson to greatly expand the war in Vietnam. Johnson asked Congress for the power to take "all necessary measures" in Southeast Asia and was given a virtual blank check to make war. But some historians believe that there was really no attack on American ships, just jittery sailors shooting into the night. Recently released White House tapes reveal skepticism inside the administration. Even LBJ himself seemed skeptical, saying in 1965: "For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there."
Now, another president has won congressional approval for a war, one that could set us on the road to Empire. Women should have a special concern, since the needs of children and working parents will move rapidly to the back of the (financial) bus.
We need a vigorous national debate. Empire, after all, is not to be taken--or undertaken--lightly.
Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:
The Brookings Institution: