Thirteen colonies
Once unfurled;
Grew up
To rule the world.

National Public Radio presented a dramatic reading of the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July.

It properly honored the brilliance, perseverance, and clarity of the document’s authors and the people they represented in challenging the British Empire. Yes, the colonists admitted wanting to exterminate the “savages” whose land they coveted, which was dead wrong. But their powerful phrasing could easily resonate today in Sudan, Afghanistan, Palestine, or East Timor.

For our nation, those 235 vibrant years have brought progress beyond anything its founders could have imagined. Once a classic servant of empire, we’ve turned the tables on the world. We’re now occupying Afghanistan, fighting insurgents in Colombia, bombing Libya, encircling Russia, refueling in Kyrgyzstan, assassinating in Yemen, preparing an emergency air base in Paraguay, building a naval base in Korea, stationing soldiers in Honduras, flying bombing missions from Diego Garcia, parking missile cruisers in Romania, creating launch pads in Poland, and attacking parts of Pakistan every second day.

( / Flickr)

( / Flickr)

And this of course is just a partial list. The U.S. military admits to actually owning land in 46 countries and territories. The number of our foreign bases runs anywhere from 500 to upwards of 1,000, depending on how you count them. For example, when the Pentagon finally pulls out of Iraq but leaves behind thousands of troops and mercenaries working for the State Department and operating out of the world’s largest embassy, will that be a “base?”

You get the idea. For now at least, the United States of America rules the Earth militarily. We surround Russia with nukes and control China’s oil supply routes. With NATO now a global enterprise and the United Nations a pliable sidekick, we can stoke up a cadre of partners to lard on credibility to any armed conflict we deem useful.

But unfortunately empire comes with costs. For one, a lot of people have grown to dislike us. Even hate us. You know how testy folks can become when you swipe their stuff. This resentment in turn sometimes leads to terrorism, facilitated by modern communications and technology. Under that menacing cloud we are now turning our own country into a police state that features warrantless surveillance, confiscation of property, and detention. That’s a high price.

An even steeper price is money. More than one empire has collapsed for want of the wherewithal to maintain the upkeep. The Soviets were the latest. Now we’re getting close. All those bases, ships, planes, nukes, drones, rockets, gas, troops, spooks, and bribes cost a bundle, and we’ve put them all on our credit card. This is in no small part where that humongous national debt comes from.

You’d think all this impending peril would make a fine policy discussion for Americans to wallow in, but we can’t. We’re not allowed. The “empire” issue is always disguised as “security.” We never get to answer polls about the world ambitions of our leaders or our corporations. We only get to hear about “enemies,” while the real question is whether we can afford any more conquests. And we can’t.

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