At Versailles, 1919, Lloyd George, having seized oil-rich Iraq for the empire, offered Woodrow Wilson mandates over Armenia and Constantinople. “When you cease to be President we will make you Grand Turk,” laughed Clemenceau.
As there were “no oil fields there,” writes historian Thomas Bailey, “it was assumed that rich Uncle Sam would play the role of Good Samaritan.” Though unamused, Wilson accepted the mandates.
Fortunately, Harding won in 1920 and reneged on the deal. Lloyd George and Churchill were left to face the Turks all by their imperial selves. Had we accepted Constantinople, Americans would have ended up fighting Ataturk’s armies to hold today’s Istanbul.
After 9/11, however, our neoconservatives, who had been prattling on about “global hegemony” and a “crusade for democracy” since the end of the Cold War, sold President Bush on their imperial scheme: a MacArthur Regency in Baghdad.
And so it is that we have arrived at this crossroads.
What Fallujah and the Shi’ite uprisings are telling us is this: if we mean to make Iraq a pro-Western democracy, the price in blood and treasure has gone up. Shall we pay it is the question of the hour. For there are signs Americans today are no more willing to sacrifice for empire than was Harding to send his nation’s sons off to police and run provinces carved out of the Ottoman Empire.
In bringing Bush’s “world democratic revolution” to Iraq, we suffer today from four deficiencies: men, money, will, and stamina.
First, we do not have the troops in country to pacify Iraq. Some 70 percent of our combat units are committed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and South Korea already. If we are going to put more men into Iraq, U.S. military forces must expand.
Those who speak of democratizing Iraq as we did Germany tend to forget: in 1945, we had 12 million men under arms and four million soldiers in Europe. German resistance disappeared in 1945 with the death of Hitler. There was no guerrilla war against us. Today, our army is only 480,000 strong and scattered across 100 countries. And we have 129,000 troops in an Iraq that is as large as California and an escalating war against urban guerrillas.
Second, we are running out of money. The U.S. deficit is $500 billion and rising. The merchandise trade deficit is headed toward $600 billion, putting downward pressure on a dollar that has been falling for three years. Nations with declining currencies do not create empires, they give them up.
Then there is the deficit in imperial will. President Bush sold the war on Iraq on the grounds that Saddam was a man of unique evil who could not be trusted with a weapon of mass destruction. Today, whatever threat Saddam posed is gone.
While America supported the president in going to war, we have not bought into the idea that we must democratize the Islamic world or we are unsafe in our own country. Polls show that nearly half the nation believes we should start coming home.
Which brings us to our fourth deficiency, stamina. Empire requires an unshakeable belief in the superiority of one’s own race, religion, and civilization and an iron resolve to fight to impose that faith and civilization upon other peoples. We are not that kind of people. Never have been. Americans, who preach the equality of all races, creeds, and cultures, are, de facto, poor imperialists. When we attempt an imperial role as in the Philippines or Iraq, we invariably fall into squabbling over whether a republic should be imposing its ideology on another nation. A crusade for democracy is a contradiction in terms.
While it would be nice if Brazil, Bangladesh, and Burundi all embraced democracy, why should we fight them if they don’t, and why should our soldiers die to restore democracy should they lose it? Why is that our problem, if they are not threatening us?
What Iraq demonstrates is that once the cost in blood starts to rise, Americans tend to tell their government that enough is enough, put the Wilsonian idealism back on the shelf, and let’s get out.
If attacked, Americans fight ferociously. Unwise nations discover that. Threatened, as in the Cold War, we will persevere. But if our vital interests are not threatened, or our honor is not impugned, most of us are for staying out of wars.
That is our history and oldest tradition. It may be ridiculed as selfish old American isolationism, but that is who we are and that is how we came to be the last world power left standing on the bloodstained world stage after the horrific 20th century.Americans will cheer globaloney. They just won’t fight and die for it. Nor should they.