Richard H. Immerman


On his book Empire for Liberty: A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz

Cover Interview of April 27, 2010


Initially, I completed the manuscript without a concluding chapter. I just finished with Wolfowitz losing his position at the World Bank and going into “exile” at the American Enterprise Institute.  But everyone who read the draft insisted that I include a conclusion of some sort.  So I added a postscript on the “Dark Side.”

Borrowing the title from Jane Mayer’s chilling book on the Bush administration’s assault on civil liberties in the name of security—not coincidentally also Vice President Dick Cheney’s nickname within the White House—I argue that for much of the American public, the Global War on Terror has become more about enhanced interrogation techniques, extraordinary rendition, and wiretaps without warrant than about capturing Osama bin Laden and eradicating Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Photographs of the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the widely publicized denial of due process to “enemy combatants” imprisoned in Guantànamo Bay have severely challenged the narrative of America as the bastion of liberty.  Americans’ identity, their sense of self, was under assault as much as their civil liberties.

It was within this context, I wrote, that Barack Obama’s candidacy, especially his rhetoric of “change,” resonated deeply with the American electorate. Conversely, the emphasis Bush placed on liberty and freedom in his farewell address rang hollow—despite Bush’s use of the keywords nine times within thirteen minutes.

To me, Obama’s decisive victory indicated that perhaps Americans had finally lost their appetite for an Empire for Liberty.  But I don’t know how readers will evaluate this conclusion.

While I would have been inclined to end with Wolfowitz’s retreat from the public sphere, Obama’s election compelled me to close on a more optimistic note.  I quoted his inaugural address, in which he repudiated much of the “dark side.”  I stressed his pledge to shut down Guantànamo.

But Obama has not closed Guantànamo.  And, thus far, there is little evidence that his call to “change” will affect the trajectory of American’s Empire for Liberty.  Obama is swimming against the stream of history.  That’s not easy.

© 2010 Richard Immerman