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America trudges down the road to imperial ruin like an ogre with a big stone hammer. I keep expecting the final pratfall, the step off the cliff into the void, the drop into the pit full of sharpened stakes, or just the steady banging of a great shaved head against a wall. But, of course, that’s not how empires end. Empires end in bankruptcy. There are no shortcuts to bankruptcy. You have to borrow until no one will lend to you, squirm, plead and bluster for a while, and then finally stiff everyone, hopefully with as little bloodshed as possible.

Americans now enjoy all the many, delicious delusions of empire and there are still plenty of people who will lend us money. The superiority of our culture is a certainty, confirmed daily by the international popularity of our music and films. We lord it over the rest of the world. We know what freedom is all about. Our soldiers pester the locals in dozens of countries around the globe. We’re there to set them free. We badger them to become good democrats. We like tyrants who understand the workings of an electoral machine. We choose them as our own leaders.

Since the beginning of the American Empire during the reign of Woodrow Wilson, Americans have increasingly worked to destroy the institutions we claim most to admire. We claim a devotion to freedom, but as soon as the flag gets to the top of the pole we stumble over one another to be inspected, injected, certified, registered, numbered, frisked and disarmed. Once there are G.I’s fighting in some godforsaken backwater there is no expense too great, no indignity too embarrassing, no violation of our own or some foreigner’s rights that is so serious that we would protest it. Yet we would set the world free.

In 1989 we had our chance to become again the peaceful republic we once were. Our only credible enemy threw in the towel. The Soviet Union gave a great sigh and decided world communism was just too much trouble. We won the cold war. There was no power on earth that could seriously threaten the United States.

Unfortunately, empires never dissolve themselves. Fish gotta swim, dogs gotta howl, empires gotta meddle in everybody’s business. Dismantling a vast military machine would effectively dismantle the empire. What’s in that for an imperial leader or for the noble people who bask in the reflected glory of world domination?

It wasn’t to be. Fortunately for our Imperial ambition, the world was still fraught with danger. A spectacularly successful attack by a handful of Arab fanatics on a couple of skyscrapers solved the enemy problem. The Empire of IOU’s now had the perfect new enemy. A tactic rather than any particular group of humans was America’s tormentor now. A war on terror is not unlike a war on camouflage, or a war on the surprise attack or a war on propaganda. That a war makes no sense has never been a deterrent to empire building.

And what a peculiar empire it is. The traditional model for empires features outlanders shipping wealth back to the imperial center. The Romans understood it. They took 10% of everything and sent it back to Rome. Romans lived large on the sweat of the conquered.

All the earlier conquerors of Baghdad, like Hulagu Kahn and Suleiman, enjoyed the customary looting and pillaging. They sold the locals into slavery. They carried off women, or abused them on the spot. They stuffed their tunics with candlesticks and flatware. Imperial conquest throughout history has been a moneymaker. Until now.

America is the first empire to turn conquest into a losing proposition. We conquer in the name of the Painted Whore, Democracy. We conquer so that we may borrow from the conquered. The only winners in America’s wars of conquest are the vanquished. The moment the imperial forces overrun your country you can expect the American taxpayer to start sending tribute to you. I’m surprised countries aren’t lining up for subjugation.

American taxpayers will rebuild the waterworks, the electric company, the sewer system and the schools and hospitals the U.S. Air Force bombed into rubble just a few months before. They will rebuild them better than they were. The imperial taxpayer would have been better-off if the Iraqi’s had somehow managed to whip the U.S. Army.

But so consumed is America with its own good intentions that despite our steadily growing poverty we continue to approve of conquest for the benefit of the conquered. We only want what we know is best for everyone, meaningless elections, no smoking in restaurants, lead free paint in schools and granite countertops in every kitchen.

What peculiar imperialists we Americans are.

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