The case for empire is that it has become, in a place like Iraq, the last hope for democracy and stability. America is an imperial power for a post-imperial age - but like the empires of old it faces over-extension and defeat if it does not share the burden. Even the powerful need friends and alliesby Michael Ignatieff / February 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
In a speech to cadets at West Point in June, President Bush declared, “America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish.” Speaking to veterans at the White House in November, he said: America has “no territorial ambitions. We don’t seek an empire. Our nation is committed to freedom for ourselves and for others.”
Ever since George Washington warned against foreign entanglements, empire abroad has been seen as the republic’s permanent temptation and its potential nemesis. Yet what word but “empire” describes the awesome thing that America is becoming? It is the only nation that polices the world through five global military commands; maintains more than 1m men and women at arms on four continents; guarantees the survival of countries from Israel to South Korea; drives the wheels of global trade and commerce; and fills the hearts and minds of the planet with its dreams and desires.
The historian JR Seeley once remarked that Britain acquired its empire in “a fit of absence of mind.” If Americans have an empire, they have acquired it in a state of deep denial. But 11th September was an awakening, a moment of reckoning with the extent of US power and the avenging hatreds it arouses. Americans may not have thought of the World Trade Centre or the Pentagon as the symbolic headquarters of a world empire, but the men with the box-cutters certainly did, and so do numberless millions who cheered their terrifying exercise in the propaganda of the deed.
Being an imperial power, however, is more than being the most powerful nation or just the most hated one. It means enforcing such order as there is in the world and doing so in the US interest. It means laying down the rules America wants (on everything from markets to weapons of mass destruction) while exempting itself from other rules (the Kyoto protocol on climate change and the International Criminal Court) that go against its interest. It also means carrying out imperial functions in places America has inherited from the failed empires of the 20th century-Ottoman, British and Soviet. In the 21st century, America rules alone, struggling to manage the insurgent zones-Palestine and the northwest frontier of Pakistan, to name but two-that have proved to be the nemeses of empires past.
Iraq lays bare the realities of America’s new role. The country itself is an imperial fiction, cobbled together after the first world war by the French and British. Now it is an expansionist rights violator held together with terror. The UN lay dozing like a dog before the fire, happy to ignore Saddam Hussein until a US president seized it by the scruff of the neck and made it bark. Multilateral solutions to the world’s problems are all very well, but they have no teeth unless America bares its fangs.
America’s empire is not like empires of times past, built on colonies, conquest and the white man’s burden. The 21st-century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science, an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has known. It is the imperialism of a people who remember that their country secured its independence by revolt against an empire, and who like to think of themselves as the friend of freedom everywhere. It is an empire without consciousness of itself as such, constantly shocked that its good intentions arouse resentment abroad. But that does not make it any less of an empire, with a conviction that it alone, in Herman Melville’s words, bears “the ark of the liberties of the world.”
In this vein, the president’s National Security Strategy, announced in September, commits America to lead other nations towards “the single sustainable model for national success,” by which he meant free markets and liberal democracy. This is strange rhetoric for a Texas politician who ran for office opposing nation-building abroad and calling for a more humble America overseas. But 11th September changed everyone, including a laconic and anti-rhetorical president. His messianic note may be new to him, but it is not new to his office. It has been present in America’s vocabulary at least since Woodrow Wilson went to Versailles in 1919 and told the world that he wanted to make it safe for democracy.
Even now, as President Bush manoeuvres the country toward war with Iraq, the implication of what is happening has not been fully faced: that Iraq is an imperial operation that would commit a reluctant republic to become the guarantor of peace, stability, democratisation and oil supplies in a combustible region of Islamic peoples stretching from Egypt to Afghanistan. A role once played by the Ottoman empire, then by the French and the British, will now be played by a nation that has to ask whether, in becoming an empire, it risks losing its republican soul.
As the US faces this moment of truth, John Quincy Adams’s warning of 1821 remains pertinent: if America were tempted to “become the dictatress of the world, she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.” What empires lavish abroad, they cannot spend on good republican government at home: on hospitals or roads or schools. A distended military budget only aggravates America’s continuing failure to keep its egalitarian promise to itself. And these are not the only costs of empire. Detaining US citizens without charge or access to counsel in military brigs, maintaining illegal combatants on a foreign island in a legal limbo, keeping lawful aliens under surveillance whilst deporting others after secret hearings: these are not the actions of a republic that lives by the rule of law, but of an imperial power reluctant to trust its own liberties. Such actions may still fall short of Roosevelt’s internment of the Japanese, but that may mean only that the worst-following, say, another big attack on US citizens that produces mass casualties-is yet to come.
The impending operation in Iraq is thus a defining moment in America’s long debate with itself about whether its role as an empire threatens or strengthens its existence as a republic. The US electorate, while still backing the president, wonders whether his proclamation of a war without end against terror and tyrants may only increase its vulnerability, while endangering its liberties and its economic health at home. A nation that rarely counts the cost of what it values now must ask what the “liberation” of Iraq is worth. A republic that has paid a small burden to maintain its empire-no more than about 4 per cent of GDP-now faces a bill that is altogether steeper.
What every schoolchild also knows about empires is that they eventually face a nemesis. To call America the new Rome is at once to recall Rome’s glory and its fate at the hands of the barbarians. A confident and carefree republic-the city on a hill, whose people believed they were immune from history’s harms-now has to confront not just an unending imperial destiny but also the possibility of eventual defeat.
Iraq is not just about whether the US can retain its republican virtue in a wicked world. Virtuous disengagement is no longer a possibility. Since 11th September, the American debate has been about whether the republic can survive in safety at home without imperial policing abroad. Face-to-face with “evil empires” of the past, the republic reluctantly accepted a division of the world based on mutually assured destruction. But now it faces much less stable and reliable opponents-rogue states like Iraq and North Korea with the potential to supply weapons of mass destruction to a terrorist internationale. Iraq represents the first in a series of struggles to contain the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the first attempt to shut off the potential supply of lethal technologies to a global terrorist network.
Containment rather than war would be the better course, but the Bush administration seems to have concluded that containment has reached its limits-and the conclusion is not unreasonable. Containment is not designed to stop production of sarin, VX nerve gas, anthrax and nuclear weapons. Threatened retaliation might deter Saddam from using these weapons, but his continued ability to develop them increases his capacity to intimidate and deter others, including the US. Already his weapons have raised the cost of any invasion and, as time goes by, this could become prohibitive. The possibility that North Korea might quickly develop weapons of mass destruction makes regime change there all but unthinkable. Weapons of mass destruction would render Saddam the master of a region that holds much of the world’s oil reserves.
Iraq claims to have ceased manufacturing these weapons after 1991, but the claims are unconvincing because inspectors found evidence of activity after that date. So what to do? Efforts to embargo and sanction the regime have hurt only the Iraqi people. What is left? An inspections programme, even a permanent one, might slow down the dictator’s weapons programmes, but inspections are easily evaded. That leaves us, as a last resort, with regime change.
Regime change is an imperial task par excellence, since it assumes that the empire’s interest has a right to trump the sovereignty of a state. The Bush administration would ask: what moral authority rests with a sovereign who murders and ethnically cleanses his own people, has twice invaded neighbouring countries and usurps his people’s wealth to build palaces and weapons? Not even Kofi Annan, charged with defending the UN Charter, says that sovereignty confers impunity for such crimes, although he has made it clear he would prefer a disarmed Saddam in power rather than risk the conflagration of war.
Regime change also raises the difficult question for Americans of whether their own freedom entails a duty to defend the freedom of others. Just because Wilson and Roosevelt sent Americans to fight and die for freedom in Europe and Asia does not mean their successors are committed to this duty everywhere and forever. The war in Vietnam was sold to the US public as another battle for freedom, and it led the republic into defeat and disgrace.
Yet it remains a fact-disagreeable to many both on the left and the right-that there are many peoples who owe their freedom to an exercise of US military power. It is not just the Japanese and the Germans, who became democrats under the watchful eye of Generals MacArthur and Clay. There are the Bosnians, whose nation survived because US air power and diplomacy forced an end to a war the Europeans couldn’t stop. There are the Kosovars, who would still be imprisoned in Serbia if not for the US air force. The list also includes the Afghans and, most inconveniently of all, the Iraqis.
The moral evaluation of empire gets complicated when one of its benefits might be freedom for the oppressed. Iraqi exiles are adamant: even if the Iraqi people might be the immediate victims of an American attack, they would also be its ultimate beneficiaries. It would make the case for military intervention easier, of course, if the Iraqi exiles cut a more impressive figure. They feud and squabble and hate one another nearly as much as they hate Saddam. But what else is to be expected from a political culture pulverised by 40 years of state terror?
If only invasion, and not containment, can build democracy in Iraq, then the question becomes whether the Bush administration actually has any real intention of doing so. Some exiles fear that a mere change of regime, a coup in which one Ba’athist thug replaces another, would suit US interests just as well, provided the thug complied with the interests of the Pentagon and US oil companies. Whenever it has exerted power overseas, America has never been sure whether it values stability-which means not only political stability but also the steady, profitable flow of goods and raw materials-more than it values its own rhetoric about democracy. Where the two values have collided, US power has come down on the side of stability, toppling elected leaders from Mossadegh in Iran to Allende in Chile. Iraq is yet another test of this choice. Next door in Iran, from the 1950s to the 1970s, America backed stability over democracy, propping up the Shah, only to reap the whirlwind of an Islamic fundamentalist revolution in 1979 that delivered neither stability nor real democracy. Does the same fate await an American operation in Iraq?
International human rights groups like Amnesty International are dismayed at the way both the British government and the Bush administration are citing the human rights abuses of Saddam to defend the idea of regime change. Certainly both governments maintained a dishonourable silence when Saddam gassed the Kurds in 1988. Yet now that they are taking decisive action, human rights groups seem more outraged by the prospect of action than they are by the abuses they once denounced.
The disagreeable reality for those who believe in human rights is that there are some occasions-and Iraq may be one of them-when war is the only remedy for regimes that live by terror. This does not mean the choice is unproblematic. The choice is between two evils, between containing a tyrant and, on the other hand, the targeted use of force which will kill people but free a nation from his grip.
Still, the claim that a free republic may sense a duty to help other people attain their freedom does not answer the question of whether the republic should run such risks. For the risks are huge, and they are imperial. Order, let alone democracy, will take a decade to consolidate in Iraq. The Iraqi opposition’s blueprints for a democratic, secular federation of its peoples-Shi’ites, Sunnis, Kurds, Turkomans and others-are noble documents, but they are just paper unless US and then international troops, under UN mandate, remain to keep the peace until Iraqis trust one another enough to police themselves. Like all imperial exercises in creating order, it will work only if the puppets the US installs cease to be such and build independent political legitimacy of their own.
If America takes on Iraq, it takes on the re-ordering of the whole region. It will have to stick at it through successive administrations. The burden of empire is of long duration, and democracies are impatient with long-lasting burdens-none more so than America. These burdens include opening a dialogue with the Iranians, who appear to be in a political upsurge themselves, so that they do not feel threatened by a US-led democracy on their border. The Turks will have to be reassured, and the Kurds will have to be instructed that the aim of US policy is not the creation of a Kurdish state. The Syrians will have to be coaxed into abandoning their claims against the Israelis and making peace. The Saudis, once democracy takes root in Iraq, will have to be coaxed into embracing democratic change themselves.
All this is possible, but there is a larger challenge still. Unseating Saddam while leaving the Palestinians to face Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships is a guarantee of unending Islamic wrath against the US. The chief danger in the Iraqi gamble lies here-in supposing that victory over Saddam, in the absence of a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, would leave the US with a stable hegemony over the middle east.
The Americans have played imperial guarantor in the region since Roosevelt met with Ibn Saud in 1945 and Truman recognised Ben-Gurion’s Israel in 1948. But it paid little or no price for its imperial pre-eminence until the rise of an armed Palestinian resistance after 1987. Now, with every day that US power appears complicit in Israeli attacks that kill civilians in the West Bank and in Gaza, and with the Arab nations giving their tacit support to Palestinian suicide bombers, the imperial guarantor finds itself dragged into a regional conflict that is one long haemorrhage of its diplomatic and military authority.
Properly understood, then, the operation in Iraq entails a commitment, so far unstated, to enforce a peace on the Palestinians and Israelis. Such a peace must, at a minimum, give the Palestinians a viable, contiguous state capable of providing land and employment for 3m people, possibly supported by a UN transitional administration with UN-mandated peacekeepers. This is a tall order, but if America cannot find the will to enforce this minimum of justice, neither it nor Israel will have any safety from terror. This remains true even if you accept that there are terrorists in the Arab world who will never be content unless Israel is driven into the sea. A successful US political strategy against terror depends on providing enough peace for both Israelis and Palestinians that extremists on either side begin to lose the support that keeps violence alive.
If an invasion of Iraq is delinked from middle east peace, then all that America will gain for victory in Iraq is more terror cells in the Muslim world. Even if America does go on to help the Palestinians achieve a state, the result will not win over those, like Osama bin Laden, who hate America for what it is. But at least it would address the rage of those who hate it for what it does.
This is finally what makes an invasion of Iraq an imperial act: for it to succeed, it will have to build freedom, not just for the Iraqis but also for the Palestinians, along with greater security for Israel. Again, the paradox of the Iraq operation is that half measures are more dangerous than whole measures.
The question, then, is not whether America is too powerful, but whether it is powerful enough. Does it have what it takes to be grandmaster of what Colin Powell has called the chessboard of the world’s most inflammable region?
America has been more successful than most great powers in understanding its limitations as well as its strengths. It has become adept at using “soft power”-influence, example and persuasion-in preference to hard power. Adepts of soft power understand that even the most powerful country in the world cannot get its way all the time. Even client states have to be deferred to. When an ally like Saudi Arabia asks the US to avoid flying over its country when bombing Afghanistan, America complies. When America seeks to use Turkey as a base for hostilities in Iraq, it must accept Turkish preconditions. Being an empire does not mean being omnipotent.
Nowhere is this clearer than in America’s relations with Israel. Its prime minister has refused direct orders from the president of the US in the past, and he can be counted on to do so again. An Iraq operation requires the US not merely to prevent Israel from entering the fray but to make peace with a bitter enemy. Since 1948, US and Israeli security interests have been at one. But as the death struggle in Palestine continues, it exposes the US to global hatreds that make it impossible for it to align its interests with those Israelis who are opposed to any settlement with the Palestinians that does not amount, in effect, to Palestinian capitulation. The issue is not whether the US should continue to support the state of Israel, but which state, with which borders and which set of relations with its neighbours, it is willing to risk its imperial authority to secure. The apocalyptic violence of one side and the justified refusal to negotiate under fire on the other side leave precious little time to salvage a two-state solution for the middle east. But this, even more than rescuing Iraq, is the supreme task-and test-of American leadership.
What assets does US leadership have at its disposal? At a time when an imperial peace in the middle east requires diplomats, aid workers and civilians with all the skills in rebuilding shattered societies, US power projection in the area overwhelmingly wears a military uniform. In President Kennedy’s time, the US spent 1 per cent of its GDP on the nonmilitary aspects of promoting its influence overseas-state department, foreign aid, the UN, information programmes. Under Bush’s presidency, the number has declined to just 0.2 per cent.
Special Forces are more in evidence in the world’s developing nations than Peace Corps volunteers and USAID food experts. As Dana Priest demonstrates in her book The Mission, the Pentagon’s regional commanders exercise more overseas diplomatic and political leverage than the state department’s ambassadors. Even if you accept that generals can make good diplomats and Special Forces captains can make friends for the US, it still remains true that the American presence overseas is increasingly armed, in uniform and behind barbed wire and high walls. With every US embassy now hardened against terrorist attack, the empire’s outposts look increasingly like Fort Apache. US power is visible to the world in carrier battle groups patrolling offshore and F-16s whistling overhead. In southern Afghanistan, it is the 82nd Airborne, bulked up in body armour, helmets and weapons, that Pashtun peasants see, not American aid workers and water engineers. Each month the US spends $1 billion on military operations in Afghanistan and only $25m on aid.
This sort of projection of power, hunkered down against attack, can earn fear and respect, but not admiration and affection. America’s very strength cannot conceal its weakness in the areas that really matter: the elements of power that do not subdue by force of arms but inspire by force of example.
It is not surprising that force projection overseas should awaken resentment among America’s enemies. More troubling is the hostility it arouses amongst friends, even those whose security is guaranteed by American power. This is most obvious in Europe. At a moment when the costs of empire are mounting for America, her rich European allies matter financially. But in America’s emerging global strategy, they have been demoted to reluctant junior partners. This makes them resentful and unwilling allies, less and less able to understand the nation that liberated them in 1945.
For 50 years, Europe rebuilt itself economically while passing on the costs of its defence to the US. This was a matter of more than just reducing its armed forces and the proportion of national income spent on the military. All western European countries reduced the martial elements in their national identities. In the process, European identity (with the partial exception of Britain and France) became post-military and post-national. This opened a widening gap with the US. It remained a nation in which flag, sacrifice and martial honour are central to national identity. Europeans, who had once invented the idea of the martial nation state, now looked at American patriotism, the last example of the form, and no longer recognised it as anything but flag-waving extremism. The world’s only empire was isolated, not just because it was the biggest power, but also because it was the west’s last military nation state.
September 11th rubbed in the lesson that global power is still measured by military capability. The Europeans discovered that they lacked the military instruments to be taken seriously and that their erstwhile defenders, the Americans, regarded them, in a moment of crisis, with suspicious contempt.
Yet the Americans cannot afford to create a global order all on their own. European participation in peacekeeping, nation-building and humanitarian reconstruction is so important that the Americans are required, even when they are unwilling to do so, to include Europeans in the governance of their evolving imperial project. The Americans essentially dictate Europe’s place in this new grand design. The US is multilateral when it wants to be, unilateral when it must be; and it enforces a new division of labour in which America does the fighting, the French, British and Germans do the police patrols in the border zones and the Dutch, Swiss and Scandinavians provide the humanitarian aid.
This is a very different picture of the world than the one entertained by liberal international lawyers and human rights activists, who had hoped to see American power integrated into a transnational legal and economic order organised around the UN, the WTO, the International Criminal Court (ICC) and other such institutions and mechanisms. Successive US administrations have signed on to those pieces of the transnational legal order that suit their purposes (the WTO, for example) while ignoring or even sabotaging those parts that do not (the ICC or Kyoto). A new international order is emerging, but it is designed to suit US imperial objectives. America’s allies want a multilateral order that will constrain American power. But the empire will not be tied down like Gulliver with a thousand legal strings.
On the new imperial frontier, in places like Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo, US military power, together with European money and humanitarianism, is producing a form of imperial rule for a post-imperial age. If this sounds contradictory, it is because the impulses that have gone into this new exercise of power are contradictory. On the one hand, the semi- official ideology of the western world-human rights-sustains the principle of self-determination, the right of each people to rule themselves free of outside interference. This was the principle that inspired the decolonisation of Asia and Africa after the second world war. Now we are living through the collapse of many of these former colonial states. Into the vacuum of chaos and massacres a new imperialism has reluctantly stepped-reluctantly because these places are dangerous and because they seemed, at least until 11th September, to be marginal to the interests of the powers concerned. But gradually, this reluctance has been replaced by an understanding of why order needs to be brought to these places.
After all, few places could have been more distant than Afghanistan, yet that remote and desperate place was where the attacks of 11th September were prepared. Terror has collapsed distance, and with this collapse has come a sharpened American focus on the necessity of bringing order to the frontier zones. Bringing order is the paradigmatic imperial task, but it is essential, for reasons of both economy and principle, to do so without denying local peoples their rights to some degree of self-determination.
The old European imperialism justified itself as a mission to civilise the “lesser breeds” in the habits of self-discipline necessary for the exercise of self-rule. Self-rule did not necessarily have to happen soon, but it was held out as a distant incentive, and the incentive was crucial in co-opting local elites and preventing them from passing into open rebellion. In the new imperialism, this promise of self-rule cannot be kept so distant, for local elites are all creations of modern nationalism, and modern nationalism’s central idea is self-determination. If there is an invasion of Iraq, local elites must be “empowered” to take over as soon as the US imperial forces have restored order and the European humanitarians have rebuilt the roads, schools and houses. Nation-building seeks to reconcile imperial power and local self-determination through the medium of an exit strategy. This is imperialism in a hurry: to spend money, to get results, to turn the place back to the locals and get out. But it is similar to the old imperialism in the sense that real power in these zones-Kosovo, Bosnia, Afghanistan and soon, perhaps, Iraq-will remain in Washington.
At the beginning of the first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in 1776, Edward Gibbon remarked that empires endure only so long as their rulers take care not to over-extend their borders. The characteristic delusion of imperial power is to confuse global power with global domination. The US may have the former, but it does not have the latter. It cannot rebuild each failed state or appease each anti-American hatred, and the more it tries, the more it exposes itself to the overreach that eventually undermined the classical empires.
The secretary of defence may be right when he warns the North Koreans that America is capable of fighting on two fronts-in Korea and Iraq-simultaneously, but Americans at home cannot be overjoyed at such a prospect, and if two fronts are possible at once, a much larger number of fronts is not. If conflict in Iraq, North Korea or both becomes a possibility, al Qaeda can be counted on to seek to strike a busy and over-extended empire in the back. What this suggests is not just that overwhelming power never confers the security it promises, but also that even the overwhelmingly powerful need friends and allies. In the cold war, the road to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, led through Moscow and Beijing. Now America needs its old cold war adversaries more than ever to control the breakaway, bankrupt communist rogue that is threatening America and her clients from Tokyo to Seoul.
Empires survive when they understand that diplomacy, backed by force, is always to be preferred to force alone. Looking into the still more distant future, say a generation ahead, resurgent Russia and China will demand recognition both as world powers and as regional hegemons. As the North Korean case shows, America needs to share the policing of nonproliferation and other threats with these powers, and if it tries, as the current National Security Strategy suggests, to prevent the emergence of any competitor to American global dominance, it risks everything that Gibbon predicted: over-extension followed by defeat.
America will also remain vulnerable, despite its military power, because its primary enemy, Iraq and North Korea notwithstanding, is not a state, susceptible to deterrence and coercion, but a shadowy cell of fanatics who have proved that they cannot be deterred and coerced and who have hijacked a global ideology-Islam-that gives them a bottomless supply of recruits. In many countries in the Islamic world, America is caught in the middle of a civil war raging between incompetent and authoritarian regimes and the Islamic revolutionaries who want to return the Arab world to the time of the prophet. It is a civil war between the politics of pure reaction…