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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Bruce Fein, American Empire Before the Fall

Welcome Bruce Fein, and Host, Glenn Greenwald.

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]

American Empire Before the Fall

There’s no doubting the conservative bona fides of Bruce Fein. A high-level Justice Department lawyer in the Reagan administration in the 1980s and previously a resident scholar with the Heritage Foundation, he is a long-time advocate for uncompromising right-wing political principles.

Yet paradoxically, Fein has been, and remains, one of the most eloquent and incisive political voices over the last decade. He was one of the earliest and most emphatic critics of Bush and Cheney’s radical abuses of executive power. Two weeks after The New York Times revealed in December, 2005, that Bush had ordered the NSA to illegally eavesdrop on Americans without the warrants required by law, Fein used his column in the right-wing Washington Times to warn that “Mr. Bush has adamantly refused to acknowledge any constitutional limitations on his power to wage war indefinitely”; to scorn as “war powers nonsense” the theories assembled “to defend Mr. Bush’s defiance of the legislative branch and claim of wartime omnipotence”; and, most important of all, wrote this:

Congress should insist the president cease the spying unless or until a proper statute is enacted or face possible impeachment. The Constitution’s separation of powers is too important to be discarded in the name of expediency.

The amount of independence and intellectual integrity required to be a prominent conservative and call for George Bush’s impeachment in a conservative newspaper cannot be overstated. So effective was Fein as a critic of Bush’s radicalism that when Russ Feingold convened a hearing on his proposal to formally censure Bush for illegally spying on Americans, Fein was one of his leading witnesses. And in my first book, the 2006 How Would a Patriot Act?, I devoted an entire chapter — entitled “Patriotism Beyond Politics” — to the handful of conservatives who stayed true to their principles by courageously condemning the Bush/Cheney assault on our Constitution, and began the chapter with a discussion of Fein’s stalwart advocacy. It’s impossible to be a defender of the Constitution without being an admirer of Bruce Fein’s work on these critical issues over the last decade.

Fein’s newest book — American Empire Before the Fall — should endear him even more to people across the political spectrum who are profoundly troubled by America’s radical departure from its core values. The central problem Fein examines — the nation’s conduct as a world-dominating imperial power rather than a republic — infects and exacerbates virtually every serious political and cultural problem. It drains our financial resources and threatens the country with debt-fueled collapse. It precludes spending on the welfare of American citizens for education, infrastructure and entitlements for the needy. It is what justifies the endless erosion of civil liberties and the acquiescence of limitless, unchecked power to the Executive Branch. It is what causes the nation to be plagued by a bloated, borderline-omnipotent National Security and Surveillance State. It even ironically weakens us militarily and renders us far more vulnerable to attack via overstretch and commitments beyond our means. And most of all, it degrades the American character by reducing us to a militaristic, war-fighting state, wallowing in our own fears, insecurities, hatreds and weaknesses.

There is a variety of commentary, and even other books, which warn of the dangers of America’s addition to acting as Empire, but none synthesize these dangers as well Fein’s American Empire does. Equally valuable is the history he examines: how and why the national security apparatus created in the wake of World War II quickly morphed into the sprawling, self-perpetuating “military-industrial complex” about which Dwight Eisenhower presciently (though with futility) warned us in his 1961 Farewell Address. From Korea to Vietnam, the covert Central American wars of the 1980s through our post-9/11 policies of Endless War, this book provides a crystal clear picture of what it means to be an Empire, what motivates it, and how it all came about. As Fein puts it:

The larger national motivation is to dominate the world for the excitement of domination. The narrower particular motivation of the President is to reduce coequal branches of government to vassalage, to place the President above the law, and to justify secret government without accountability. James Madison’s admonitions about presidential wars have been vindicated.

Fein’s talents as a litigator enable him to present all of this in deeply engaging though succinct prose, which allows the reader to absorb all of these complex ideas with ease. Given its weighty subject matter, American Empire is a remarkably quick and effortless — though always illuminating — read.

Appropriate for the non-partisan and independent mind Fein possesses, he spares no party and no faction from his withering critique, as his analysis reaches its apex in the chapter that examines how the post-9/11 expansion of this imperial mindset continued unabated regardless of which party was in control. That chapter, appropriately entitled “The American Empire’s Bush-Cheney-Obama Triumvirate,” documents the tragic, highly disappointing (though indisputable) fact that “President Obama confirms the American Empire as a fixture of the prevailing political culture, not a Bush-Cheney phenomenon,” as he “has bought into the national security state featuring permanent war everywhere on the planet.”

Depressing though this might be, Fein ends the book with a series of steps which the U.S. could and should take to return to its republican roots and thus save itself from what will otherwise inevitably be the same type of imperial collapse that has destroyed the world’s other hubristic empires. It is, however, impossible to imagine the political class undertaking these steps on its own, i.e., without serious public pressure. And it is, in turn, very hard to envision the requisite public pressure without substantially greater economic suffering and deprivation of liberty, by which point we may well have passed the point of no return. That is the central question the U.S. faces: whether the citizenry will recognize the peril it faces from our imperial posture and demand fundamental changes before we reach the point where collapse is inevitable (if we haven’t reached it already). Whatever else is true, Fein’s latest book is a critically important effort to galvanize that process.

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