The United States is getting tagged as an "empire" from all quarters. Indeed, it's been a century since the notion of an American empire got such wide circulation, and back then Washington truly had designs on such expansion. (Google "Spanish-American War" if you're interested.)
The empire charge has long been a staple of the political extremes. It's even bubbled up in the presidential race. Lefty Rep. Dennis Kucinich insists that we must abandon "the ambitions of empire." Hyper-libertarian Rep. Ron Paul says we could afford health care if we weren't running a "world empire."
My problem is that the word "empire" usually substitutes for an argument; there are no good empires, just as there are no good fascists, or racists, or dictators.
In recent years, however, there's been an attempt to rehabilitate the e-word. Historian Niall Ferguson deserves primary credit for the mainstreaming of the empire debate with his 2004 book "Colossus." He faced the empire charge head-on, saying, in effect, "Yeah, so what's your point?" The world needs a stabilizing watchman to keep the bad guys in check and to promote trade, he argued, and America is the best candidate for the job.
Ferguson concedes that the American people don't want an empire, don't think that they have one, and that even our elites have no idea how to run one. As David Frum noted in the National Review, Ferguson "repeatedly complains that his particular fowl neither waddles nor quacks - and yet he insists it is nevertheless a duck."
Even as he strives to rehabilitate the idea of empire, Ferguson acknowledges the word's limitations. It "is irrevocably the language of a bygone age," he concludes. It's become irretrievably synonymous with villainy.
America's critics point out that the U.S. does many things that empires once did - police the seas, deploy militaries abroad, provide a lingua franca and a global currency - and then rest their case. But noting that X does many of the same things as Y does not mean that X and Y are the same thing. The police provide protection, and so does the Mafia. Orphanages raise children, but they aren't parents. If your wife cleans your home, tell her she's the maid because maids also clean homes. See how well that logic works.