David Hoppe

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:: Empire is a drag

Now it’s Syria

by David Hoppe

Empire is a drag.

If the bloody mess known as Syria tells us nothing else it is this: being the biggest, baddest Superpower is no bargain.

Superpower, of course, is how we prefer to think of ourselves here in the United States. It’s a role we grew into during World War II when, along with our mismatched allies, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, we whipped the Axis of Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan.

Comic book heroes possess superpowers. Like Superman, they can be faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Naturally, they always use these gifts for Good.

Empire, on the other hand, is a more complicated thing. The USA was part of an empire once. We didn’t like it. There was taxation without representation, among other insults to our growing sense of a national self. Our British overlords were alternately patronizing or bullying, and they were terrible listeners. So empire, to us, has always been synonymous with arrogance. It is a kind of bullying — what some countries do to others because they think they can get away with it.

What makes all this complicated is that imperial powers — or Superpowers, if you like — have a way of thinking they are doing something for the countries they are actually doing something to.

Which brings us, as in U.S., back to Syria.

The debate over whether or not to attack, fire a shot across the bow, or whatever you want to call doing something violent to people and places in this slaughterhouse of a Middle Eastern country has revealed the love-hate relationship Americans are developing with their Superpower status.

It wasn’t always like this. After the Second World War ended and the world became the equivalent of a cage match between Americans, representing the Free World, and Soviets, or the Red Menace, there was a kind of Superpower symmetry. This seemed good, even necessary, because it meant we were there to balance the nefarious ambition for world domination of Soviet-style communism.

But then the Soviet empire collapsed. Only one Superpower was left. For a moment, lasting about as long as it takes to blink, this seemed like liberation. Maybe there wasn’t a need for Superpowers anymore. People talked about something called a Peace Dividend — what we might be able to do with all the money we had previously spent on building up our military might.

Others, though, saw this as a different sort of opportunity. To them it meant that now the U.S. could have its way, whatever that meant, anywhere in the world. This crowd got a considerable boost when terrorists hijacked airliners and flew them into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon.

Now being a Superpower meant being able to protect ourselves — preemptively, it turned out. Soon we were fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq which, we were told, were not about defeating either of those countries so much as a notion: Terror itself.

As we know, those wars are ending badly. Over ten years have passed, we’re broke, our armed forces are exhausted, and the countries we’ve been fighting over appear to be teetering on the precipice of civil wars like the one tearing Syria apart.

So what do we do? For starters, we debate. This has been a welcome, if woozy, thing. President Obama called for this debate after it became clear his threat to blow things up in Syria for its use of chemical weapons failed to rally enthusiasm among other countries.

In Britain, for example, Parliament voted down Prime Minister Cameron’s passionate proposal for a military strike. According to members of the Obama Administration, and such bellicose fellow-travelers as John McCain, this exercise in representative government only goes to show what an UnSuperpower Britain has become.

Here at home, the question of whether to attack Syria has managed to do something observers of our dysfunctional Congress thought impossible — effectively blur previously polarized party lines. And so the likes of Senators Rand Paul and Tom Udall have found, for once, common cause in their shared opposition to the idea that America has a right or obligation to lower a boom on Syria because…well, because we are a Superpower.

For those of us who have come of age in this country since the end of World War II, our country’s Superpower status is practically second nature. If we are the world’s policeman, we are also its biggest consumer of natural resources. Our military is deployed around the world, but then English is spoken everywhere. We take such things for granted.

Then something terrible happens someplace most of us can’t find on a map. We’re lectured that if we don’t act, no one else will.

It’s like I said: Empire is a drag.