Something remarkable happened on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Commentators began to declare, in somewhat exultant tones, that America had at last become a true empire. America was of course also a benevolent empire, they insisted, but that nod to altruistic tradition could not hide their excitement that America had at last joined the greatest empires of the past.
Implicit in these giddy declarations was the assumption that empire was an exalted state of power and possibility, not so unlike Rome at its zenith. Ironically, and for a historical instant, they were right. But there is one inescapable aspect of empire that the commentators missed. Empires are weak. It is republics in contrast that are strong. The United States is a republic that has been operating like an empire, and it has suffered for it. If we look at the gold standard for empire—Rome—we can see why.
First of all, what is an empire? Empire has less to do with scale of realm or of power than it does with one single feature. Simply, it is a polity where politics itself revolves around the person of the emperor.
This differs from the politics of kingship. Kings represent and embody a densely woven social fabric. They preside over a society of aristocracy: an extended family of rule, where the king is also father. Empires in contrast often emerge from republics. Thus Rome has been a favorite model for American commentators precisely because its successful passage from republic to empire seems close to ours.
Such post-republican emperors often inhabit the complex politics of multiple competing constituencies. These groups and factions continue to do political business within a republic’s constitutional framework transformed. Thus emperors find themselves consulting with and cajoling senates or assemblies; and unlike kings, they may owe their very legitimacy to these bodies.
Weakness 1: The Imperial Person
But the making and the doing in politics swirl around the imperial person—indeed, politics is dependent on the imperial person. This is the first weakness of empire: because politics revolves around the emperor, the rise and fall, success and failure of state policy is ultimately his alone.
The imperial situation is thus one of continuing and always worrisome vulnerability because no matter how many supporters or factions an emperor marshals, they can vanish in an instant. No matter that they have been handsomely bought off with perquisites and gifts, no matter that they are kept in line with threats and periodic cruel example. Failure of an imperial venture puts imperial authority itself instantly at risk.
Thus emperors do their utmost to ensure that politics is stuffed with reliable personal retainers. Longstanding official empires are a bit easier on the imperial person: there may be a tradition of a submissive bureaucracy and a compliant senate, and so the emperor’s legitimacy is less at the mercy of policy failure. But crisis immediately opens up the prospect of rival claimants and coups, usurpations, and civil wars.
A republic’s robustness, in contrast, derives from its ability to replace an elected leader and his government with relative ease. This is consecrated in the U.S. Constitution by mandated quadrennial elections of its executive.
Our constitutional framework is still in place, but after 9/11 it shifted operating practice to the imperial. Basically, 9/11 created an imperial dispensation. Through it the president took on the mantle of the office of commander in chief, which under the circumstances was perfectly natural. But then he went further and announced a state of perpetual war—“a war of generations,” “a hundred years war”—and so transformed himself into an imperial person. The transformation here was from episodic commander in chief—when and where circumstances warranted—to permanent generalissimo. His primary identity was now that of the military commanding person.
U.S. tradition and precedent limited the office of commander in chief both to the duration of a specific emergency and in terms of presidential powers. The Cold War chipped away at congressional authority to limit presidential powers. But the breathtaking 9/11 attacks drove the president to expand these powers further and make them truly open-ended.
Here the imperial transformation was not simply about power. Even more persuasively, it operated in the realm of authority and expectation. The popular climate was such after 9/11 that Americans seemed to share the prospect that American energies now revolved again around a great world struggle. Here of necessity—or so everyone thought—the entire conduct and control of this struggle should be vested in the emperor. The president took full advantage of the new zeitgeist to lock politics into an imperial orbit. Moreover, Americans also believed that war was the new national norm and that it would last a very, very long time. Few questioned that the situation marked a historic shift in the inmost nature of American politics.
So the president, through the transformed office of commander in chief, became an emperor. But the war that made this possible was now an imperial war and so his exclusive enterprise. He deliberately denied national participation—“go about your business”—that would have put this war squarely in the tradition of the old republic. Now it was his, and the benefits were great, extending deeply into American society as much as they did across the globe.
But the president also took on this weakness of empire: the enterprise stands and falls with him.
Weakness 2: The Imperial Purse
In crisis, a republic can claim all the energy and resources of its citizens because in the end the citizenry and the republic are the same. In empires, however, former republican citizens have given over their political authority to the trust and keeping of empire—and also their deepest responsibility to the nation as well. The emperor now manages; the emperor now defends. This is the heart of the imperial compact, and it is expressive of a fundamental political transaction: the citizens yield over management powers to the imperial person in exchange for a release from civic responsibility.
In revenue terms, this means that although they will still pay a citizen’s normal taxes, they are no longer obligated for extraordinary levees. Formal empires, in fact, are unusually weak when it comes to squeezing the very top citizens, those who in a republic would have been the foremost contributors. Remember, an empire that succeeds a republic retains as a sort of sacred fiction the old constitutional framing. And behind this fiction is continuing reality: that the emperor is not all-powerful, but rather dependent on the same political constituencies that were players in the old republic. The emperor cannot do without them, and he cannot afford to alienate them. Thus the top citizens in effect have to be bought off. This president has done just that with his extravagant tax cuts. In other words, the emperor can have his war, which itself is necessary to his majestic exercise of imperial power, as long as he does not demand too much from the interest groups whose support he needs for the continued exercise of imperial authority.
It is up to the emperor to marshal what national resources he can—and this is especially true in elective wars he has taken on and made his own. He cannot ask citizens to bear a burden that is exclusively his, and this limitation extends to money. As historian Mark C. Bartusis wrote, “In Byzantium there was never a general ‘citizen’s duty’ to fight for the state. In fact the very notion that a subject had an obligation to defend the state was foreign to the Byzantine mind set and antithetical to both Roman and Byzantine ideology that identified the emperor, through his army, as the Defender of the Empire.”
War expenditures therefore must exist in a “normal” fiscal context—which naturally limits the scope of imperial actions. Thus truly grand war by contrast and by definition is always a republican, or people’s war.
This limitation is even more keenly felt when it comes to soldiers. Here it is not simply a question of how they are paid, but also how they are recruited and retained. One of the key transformations of republic to empire is precisely in the shift from armed citizenry to imperial military. By fighting his own war, the emperor above all needs loyal troops: both figurative troops in politics and real shooters in the battle. The transformation from armed citizenry to imperial military is not simply a shift from conscription to volunteer force. In fact, it is necessary for the new army to become the emperor’s instrument, and thus it must be at some deep level bonded to the imperial person. In this way, the empire’s soldiers are also transformed. But it is often metamorphosis so nuanced as to be easily missed that they become the emperor’s retainers.
If they are native volunteers, then their emotional motivation to join is still patriotic—for the nation. But increasingly, their functional motivation as soldiers changes and is expressed through their direct allegiance to the emperor, in whose wars they fight. He is their benefactor, their protector, and their leader. Integral to imperial authority and imperial majesty is also the emperor’s overarching identity as soldier (hence in the original Latin, imperator meant general). Therefore, the emperor’s relationship to his soldiers must first be one of a general to his troops. He may not actually lead forces in the field, but his persona is anointed as generalissimo and war leader. For this president these ties were underscored in media interviews with troops on the eve of war: “We’re good to go when our commander-in-chief gives the word.”
This relationship has also been etched repeatedly in very public and very emotional images of the emperor with his army. The president would often give war speeches at posts and bases where his person was always staged with troops arrayed in back of him, as well as before him. There he would stand in camera-eye in a sea of battledress uniforms. The emotion would run high, encouraging him, lending steely drama to his voice. There are even images of soldiers in the round, outstretching their arms to him. At applause lines his troops would go further, washing his presence with whoops and hoo-yahs. The ties of the imperial person and his army were further consecrated by his ubiquitous short military jacket, emblazoned with its badge and title of supreme authority: “George W. Bush, Commander-in-Chief.”
Weakness 3: The Imperial Majesty
We have indicated that the personal politics of empire are surprisingly fragile, and that the politics of the emperor must therefore always be about reinforcing or shoring up his politics by the constant reminding exercise of imperial authority. This is best done not through attempting to acquire more statutory power—a risky and problematical pursuit—but rather through radiating more authority.
This is after all why people put up with emperors at all. People have come to believe that leadership of the polity and the nation requires a single, celestial man at the helm.
Imperial vesting happens because the emperor in his imperial person is the bringer of triumph, the vanquisher of foes in a world milieu of constant, “lurking” insecurity—a favorite term in presidential rhetoric because it helps to sustain the impression that enemies are everywhere, all the time, requiring constant, strenuous, and victorious executive action. In Rome this quality of the imperial person was famously styled as victor ac triumphator.
The emperor himself was anointed ultimately through the legitimizing concept of “eternal victory.” Rome’s very identity came to be couched in terms of perpetual triumph—over foes, adversity, backwardness, over what was not Roman. Moreover, the nation’s (res publica) triumph was achieved always through the intercession of imperial leadership. The emperor had to be the quintessential generalissimo, and victory thus became the essential hallmark of his reign.
The emperor’s authority was established through what became the central Roman imperial ritual: the imperial triumph. In the triumph, the emperor’s semi-magical persona that marshaled the forces of the nation and led them to victory was celebrated and revealed.
Central to a Roman imperial triumph was the conveyance of the imperial person to the sacred place where triumph would be celebrated—a stage entrance always freighted with grand symbolism. Our emperor’s landing on the flight deck of the USS Lincoln was no exception. Instead of a triumphal chariot, the president arrived on a military aircraft in which he was co-pilot, thus demonstrating to all his soldierly bona fides.
The Lincoln itself represented a grand symbol of American power and an enormous icon of eternal victory. In this triumph it is significant that the emperor chose to celebrate exclusively with his troops, where Americans were collectively placed outside as second-class onlookers—thus underscoring their depreciation of citizenship while elevating the military’s relationship.
In Roman times, of course, the army was often the source of imperial legitimacy. Just as the army would proclaim a new emperor by elevating him on a shield borne up by troops, so this emperor was raised up by “his own” (ton idion). In a supremely public moment, the emperor chose to have his own legitimacy ratified before the American people by the very military that represented “his own.”
The procession and prostration of the enemy leader is a common trope in Roman victory ceremonies. The vanquished leader undergoes ritual divestiture of his badges of authority and then is forced to prostrate himself before the imperial person. This ceremony was often associated with the army and took place in the camps. But Justinian transferred this ceremony to the imperial capital in 534. The public triumph over the Vandalic kingdom culminated in the divestiture and proskynesis of Gelimer, which served to signal to the Gothic kingdoms that their regimes too were illegitimate, that they were no better than usurpers, and that they were next.
When U.S. forces pulled Saddam out of his “spider hole” they made sure to videotape the filthy and disheveled dictator during a medical examination. This was no medical moment but rather a carefully orchestrated ceremony of divestiture and prostration. Like similar late Roman ceremonies, it took place in one of the battle army’s encampments, but it was also broadcast worldwide, to have the widest public impact, like an ancient victory procession in the imperial capital. Indeed, modern ceremony puts its ancient antecedents to shame. Not only was the entire world shown again and again the interior of Saddam’s mouth, but also the purposeful degradation of the former ruler went beyond even the old Roman act of forced proskynesis.
The emperor-president also addressed the people in carefully assembled, handpicked venues. These not only guarantee high levels of emotional support—visualized on-camera as positive energy —but they also bring forth comments that are less questions than they are petitions of support. In the president’s March 22 “town hall” meeting in Wheeling, West Virginia, one military wife exclaimed, “I ask you this from the bottom of my heart, for a solution to this, because it seems that our major media networks don’t want to portray the good. … And if people could see that, if the American people could see [the good], there would never be another negative word about this conflict.”
These are reminders of imperial authority flowing from popular acclamation. These events become all the more essential as imperial popularity wanes. No matter how selective and narrowly unrepresentative the audience, its enthusiastic acclamation is broadcast to all as though it were all-American.
But of course, modern America is not ancient Rome, and Americans are not generally even like old Romans. But it is rather astonishing how some of the rituals of imperial kingship—those that defined imperial authority 1,500 years ago—should have reappeared, unbidden and unrecognized, and yet with such crystal fidelity in our own politics.
Moreover these echoes, however strongly they have sounded over the past four years, may well be fading. The entire imperial enterprise erected around the global war on terrorism seems to be receding, if not heading toward wholesale collapse.
But the imperial moment was real. For a time at least the American Republic came close to being transformed—in operating politics if not in its actual constitution—into an empire.
We would be wise at the very least to acknowledge how close we came to the politically irreparable. We should also recognize what attends the transformation to empire. For a time, national politics came to revolve dangerously like old empires, and almost wholly, around the person of the commander in chief. Everywhere it was believed that the fate of the nation was in his hands, that he would protect us, that he would lead us to victory—and moreover that the people were passive onlookers in a great struggle run by the emperor.
Two convergent conditions made this happen.
The prodigal symbolism of 9/11—whose emotional power transcended Pearl Harbor—demanded a national narrative on the scale of America’s great wars, especially World War II. This was not simply a war narrative but a sacred war narrative. It alone seemed to demand a struggle between good and evil and an American national messianic mission of world redemption—or at least Islamic-world redemption.
At that moment, Americans were not only emotionally vulnerable, their emotions inclined them toward the comforting and the mythically familiar. We were ready for a great war that would unify the nation, vanquish evil, and lead to a better world. We were primed, in short, for a war of national transcendence.
And this administration was ready to give America a military catharsis. Americans were ready for the war leadership of a commander in chief. But the administration took the all-powerful Great War trope and shaped it into an imperial rather than republican vessel of authority.
Like Rome, the administration made victory the foundation of authority. It was implied that a series of campaigns would be necessary to achieve millennial goals such as “democracy in the Middle East.” The situation called for active and constant presidential leadership. Going further, the entire management of the war would be the president’s alone: there would be no government of national unity, no national mobilization, and no conscription. Not only was the president acting as commander in chief, he had undergone a metamorphosis: his person now fully inhabited an imperial station.
Furthermore, the administration also transformed the war into a permanent dispensation for imperial authority. The “long war” was designed to take normal politics and normal expectations off the table. By accepting the reality of the long war, moreover, Americans were encouraged to submit to a working imperial constitution. In practice this meant widespread expansion of executive powers at home as well as abroad.
But now “his own” closest retainers have deserted him, and even the military is no longer ton idion. And so, according to ancient story, the emperor is increasingly isolated, if not quite alone.
Our very strategy now founders because it was vested entirely in the cockpit of one man’s vision. So what is next? Where do we go from here? What lessons can we draw from the past five years?
First, the office of emperor as bringer of Eternal Victory is now a bankrupt, rotten concept. The quest to fulfill this triumphant identity did not bring victory but instead visibly weakened American world authority and domestic cohesion. Arguably no future leader will touch the model of triumphal rulership for a very long time. Therefore future executives will be less tempted to transform themselves into working imperial persons.
Second, even if the model of triumphal rulership has been discredited, the other imperial dispensation—the “long war” trope—is still alive and well, so even the next president might be tempted to renew a state of national emergency and become a permanent war leader. Then, if a real war rears up, the lure of triumphal rulership will beckon yet again.
But national emergencies are nonetheless real, and the political-military role of commander in chief was designed to deal with crisis. We must also remember that the slide beyond this, to imperial mode after 9/11, was more like an opportunistic pushing of norm and form rather than a permanent transformation. After all, we did not end up with anything like real triumphal rulership but only in contrast, its sordid failure.
Perhaps the lesson for all of us is in how quickly an imperial enterprise took root in the American presidency in the wake of a single—if pushing-all-the-buttons flamboyant—attack. Moreover, that enterprise was supremely confident: it was fully prepared to transform the office of president into that of an imperial victor ac triumphator. There was the real possibility, however remote it might actually have been, of an American political transformation.
Therefore, if nothing else, we should be all the more alert to future imperial temptation.
Michael Vlahos is principal professional staff at the National Security Analysis Department of The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.