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The Cost of Empire

With a price tag of $74.7 billion, the war in Iraq couldn't possibly be about colonialization or American empire.

6:00 AM, Mar 25, 2003 • By J. BOTTUM
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THE BRITISH always tended to run their empire on the cheap. Even fighting Napoleon, they didn't want to spend much money: Wellington's letters from Portugal are filled with complaints about how hard it is to chisel money out of the Horse Guards and the War Office--and that was to build the Lines of Torres Vedras that would save Lisbon, England's last remaining friendly port on the entire continent.

As it happens, the Marxists' great cry that England fattened itself on the rape of the Third World turns out to be nearly as false as the Little Englanders' claim that maintaining the Empire impoverished Great Britain. In "Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power" (recently reviewed in The Weekly Standard by Max Boot), Niall Ferguson suggests the Empire was pretty much a financial wash, bringing in to England about what England paid out. It's probably impossible finally to calculate such things--what percentage of the huge cost of the Navy do you ascribe to defense of the colonies, for instance?--but England always did things in a small way, even in the days of its greatness. At times before the Boer War, the British ruled around an eighth of the world with a standing army smaller than Belgium's.

You can't say the same for the United States. Even in our days of smallness, we tended to do things in a big, big way. And that's perhaps the best refutation to the idea that a new American empire is being born in the sands of Iraq. Late yesterday, President Bush delivered the supplemental cost estimate for the war to Congress: $74.7 billion. You ever meet people who think that buying a $100 item on sale for $50 means they've saved $50? The bankruptcy courts are full of them. Well, at $74.7 billion a pop, we can't afford to pick up many more bargains. Iraq milked dry for three generations wouldn't pay for it. If this is empire, then the rest of the world has nothing to worry about.

But it isn't empire, of course--neither the "imperialism as the last stage of capitalism" that the old Leninists loved to denounce, nor even the "coca-colonialization" that the later Maoists and Castroites raged against. And the result does, in fact, mean that the rest of the world has something to worry about. King Leopold may have run the Belgian Congo at a profit, and United Fruit may have held Cuba like a private fiefdom, but the price tag of our current war proves we are not in Iraq for the sake of money or markets. Only two things are worth this kind of cost: personal defense and ideals so deeply held that we refuse to weigh them against their financial expense.

We aren't building an empire in Iraq. We can't afford it. We are making the world safe for America and safe for democracy. We can't afford not to do that.

J. Bottum is Books & Arts editor at The Weekly Standard.