Hey, It Worked for the Romans

Listen up, foreign nations: Meet Uncle Sam's demand for tribute or he'll pay you a little visit.

Jonathan Chait

Los Angeles Times

January 7, 2005

The Bush administration's foreign policy is centered around fighting a highly expensive counterinsurgency in Iraq. The administration's domestic policy is centered around driving federal tax revenues to ever-lower levels.

Some observers say there's an unsolvable contradiction here. I say those people just aren't thinking creatively enough. There's a simple, logical way to reconcile President Bush's foreign and domestic policies: Start demanding tribute from foreign countries.

In the old days, before the rise of fuzzy-minded liberal internationalists, it was considered utterly normal for powerful states to force their weaker neighbors to hand over money or material goods as a price for avoiding military punishment. Although unfair, it was a reasonably effective method for preventing wars.

Rather than go through the full invade-kill-burn-plunder cycle, which took a lot out of invader and invadee alike, both sides found it easier and more humane to simply skip straight ahead to the last stage. It worked for the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans and the various peoples fortunate enough to share borders with them.

Implementing the policy would be quite simple. We would inform heads of militarily vulnerable states that if they did not wish to have their regime changed — or, at least, to have large chunks of it blown to smithereens — they had better make an annual contribution to the U.S. Treasury. I envision receiving sums more than sufficient to cover our budget deficit.

Sure, this may strain diplomatic relations. But most of the world hates us anyway. How much worse can it get? If we're going to be an international pariah, we might as well enjoy some benefit from it.

Some might object that demanding tribute is a hoary, barbaric practice long ago repudiated by civilized countries. Well, sure, but so is torturing enemy combatants, or those suspected of being enemy combatants, or those merely living in the same general vicinity as enemy combatants. The administration understands that, if we're going to win the war on terror, we can't allow our hands to be tied by the quaint and obsolete requirements of the so-called civilized world. The war isn't going to pay for itself, you know.

Yes, you say, but shouldn't we American taxpayers have to bear the burden of paying for our own wars? That sentiment would seem at first blush to have a certain earnest pre-Sept. 11 logic to it. But it has proved decisively unable to penetrate the brains of our governing party or its intellectual courtiers.

In the last three months, for instance, the conservative Weekly Standard has published articles urging the White House to, variously, foment regime change in North Korea, bomb nuclear sites in Iran, attack Syria and begin confronting China. These demands for a more aggressive military posture come at a time when the Pentagon is scrambling to meet demands to cut its budget, and when the general in charge of the Army Reserve complains in a memo that overuse threatens to turn the Reserve into a "broken force."

The Weekly Standard is, of course, the same magazine that endorsed every Bush tax cut, and has published novel defenses of the administration's high-spending, low-taxing policies. (The publication calls it "big government conservatism.") The Standard and other Republican hawks betray not even the faintest glimmer of awareness of tension between their foreign and domestic policies.

Indeed, all the intellectual energy on the right is directed toward deepening the contradiction. When not pushing for new military actions around the globe, neoconservatives like Newt Gingrich and Jack Kemp have urged Bush to pile on additional trillions in debt by diverting tax dollars into Social Security private accounts without any offsetting benefit cuts.

Reason has failed. It's time to think outside the box. (Or, in this case, the century.) Can a return to tribute actually happen? I don't see why not. The particular genius of the conservative movement has been to make the unthinkable thinkable. A few decades ago, ideas like supply-side economics and privatizing Social Security were confined to the lunatic fringe. Today they're conventional wisdom within the GOP.

I'm not optimistic enough to believe that the U.S. government can begin demanding tribute tomorrow. The idea has to incubate for a while. I propose a well-placed Op-Ed article in the Wall Street Journal, followed by a conference at the American Enterprise Institute ("Paying Tribute to Tribute"), followed by a resolution in Congress (is Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn interested?), followed by a talk-radio blitz. Soon enough, we will be regarding opponents of tribute as anachronistic, if not vaguely anti-American.