The Ghost of Empires Past
Like Spain of old, America is overextended, committed to goals it lacks the power and money to achieve.
President Joe Biden was working late in his private office in the White House. At the end of the day his chief of staff had handed him a somewhat unfortunate report from the Justice Department. It seemed Hunter recently sold the Brooklyn Bridge to the president of Moldova for $30 million. “Damn fool kid,” the president muttered to himself. “It’s worth at least three times that.”
Someone was knocking at his door. Where was his staff? How did security let someone through? “Come in,” he said hesitantly. Maybe it was his wife, the doctor, coming to give him a pill. Or be one.
It wasn’t. Instead, in walked a dark-haired man of middling age, dressed in black with a white ruff around his neck and, alarmingly, a sword at his side. “Permit me to introduce myself to Your Excellency,” the visitor said, bowing elaborately. “I am the Count-Duke of Olivares. I was what you would now call the prime minister of Spain through much of the first half of the 17th century.”
Biden hit the panic button under his desk. In an instant, the room was filled with Secret Service agents, guns drawn. “Get this nut case out of here!” the president barked. “Who let him in? He’s got a sword, dammit.”
“Um, who, Mr. President?” asked an agent, looking around puzzled. Olivares smiled. “Him! That guy!” yelled the president, pointing. “Um, Mr. President, we don’t see anyone,” said the agent. Oops, thought the president. “Oh, OK guys, I guess I just nodded off again.” Better to be nuts than to be thought nuts, said Biden to himself. “No problem, Mr. President,” the agent said. “I do the same thing all the time.” As they left, Biden thought he heard one say to another, “Bats in the belfry again,” but he wasn’t sure.
“OK, Mr. Olives or whoever you are, what’s this all about?” asked a peeved president. Olivares again bowed and scraped. “I am the Ghost of Empires Past, the Spanish empire to be precise,” he said. “When I rose to power, Spain was the world power without peer, the only hyperpower, if you will. By the time I fell, Spain was in an accelerating downward spiral that ended in a change of dynasties. Part of my penance for my failures is to warn others who are following Spain’s course. Regrettably, I must tell you your United States is now my Spain, without our good manners.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” grumbled the president. “Permit me to draw your attention to some unhappy parallels,” explained the count-duke. “Like Spain, America is overextended, committed to goals it lacks the power and money to achieve. We set up a Baltic fleet while the Dutch controlled the Straits of Gibraltar; you attempt to bring peace and order to Afghanistan when you cannot provide it in your own cities. We could not pull back because the reputación of the monarchy was at stake; your term is ‘credibility.’ What do you think Cervantes was talking about when he wrote of tilting at windmills? But at court, now in Washington as then in Madrid, anyone who mentioned the unfortunate contradictions was banished. In my Spain, even the simplest activities required so many people, so much ceremony, that eventually nothing moved. As you might put it, vast inputs brought only tiny outputs. It reached the point where the king’s entourage was so vast he could no longer leave Madrid.”
“OK, that I get,” said Biden. “I can’t walk out the back door to take a piss behind the bushes without them locking down half the city.”
“It is all very familiar to me,” replied Olivares. “I could move in tomorrow. Spain once had a great army,” he continued. “It did not lose a battle for a century. Our Armada awed the English as it swept up the Channel in perfect formation. But we did not adapt to changes in war, and others did. Soon we found ourselves defeated everywhere—Rocroi remains a painful memory, beaten by those French puti—but no one dared suggest our officers were not up to the job. That would have offended their honor. In the end, we just accustomed ourselves to losing. Wars, elaborate courts, and overextension cost money, lots of it, more than even wealthy Spain possessed,” the count-duke said. “So we borrowed abroad and debased the currency at home to maintain a false prosperity. Being a monarchy, Spain could and did repudiate the debt. That option is not open to you, so you will have to inflate your way out of it instead.”
“Keep your voice down, dammit,” said the president. “If a reporter hears that, Wall Street will go nuts. Everybody knows it but no one dares to say it.” “All so familiar to me,” laughed Olivares. “Truly, su casa es mi casa.” “Here’s what I don’t get,” said Biden. “Didn’t you see all this happening? Why didn’t you reform, take a different course?” “For the same reason you do not, Your Excellency,” answered Olivares. “Of course we saw Spain was in decline. We had almost an industry turning out proposals for reform, arbitrios we called them. Some probably would have worked. But none could cut through the interests at court that lived off the country’s decay. At one point I put my formidable weight (in both senses) behind a set of reforms. In the end, one made it through: we abolished the ruff, this thing around my neck.”
“Then why are you still wearing it?” Biden asked. “As part of my penance for my failure as a statesman. And it itches like hell,” replied Olivares. “OK, so what’s the bottom line here?” asked Biden. “What do you expect me to do?” “Do?” laughed Olivares. “You? Mr. President, I did not get into town on the last mule train. I know you will do nothing. That’s how you got where you are. Your predecessor tried to do things, and look how it ended for him. No, Mr. President, you will do nothing. A new dynasty will, an American fourth republic.”
“Then why have you bothered telling me all this?” an impatient Biden asked. “So you know why your neck itches,” replied Olivares. Biden looked down and saw he too was now wearing a ruff. When he looked up again, the count-duke was gone.
William S. Lind is the author, with Lt. Col. Gregory A. Thiele, of the 4th Generation Warfare Handbook. Lind’s most recent book is Retroculture: Taking America Back.