In Imperial Grunts, Robert Kaplan returns to his roots as a travel writer. Now, though, the travelers and the guides are the officers and enlisted men who form the backbone of the American military. The longtime correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly is particularly interested in the young mid-level officers and senior noncoms who represent “the true agents of the imperium.” Judging from the stories compiled in this book, these men have only one overarching complaint: they don’t get to do their job nearly enough. “It’s a great life,” effuses a National Guardsman from Florida, “You get to see the places tourists never do. We’re like tourists with guns.”

Kaplan, who once served in the Israeli military, celebrates the heroism, selflessness, and ingenuity of America’s armed forces. What’s more, Kaplan’s adoration of these men is infectious: you come to like nearly every person profiled in this book. But while his writing is evocative and fresh, and while his respect and admiration for America’s fighting men is genuine, Kaplan’s approach to U.S. foreign policy is dangerously flawed.

His thesis is relatively straightforward: the United States is an empire, Americans should celebrate it as such, and the best way to appreciate American hegemony in all its glory is by following the men who are responsible for sustaining it—the troops, the grunts, men who “saw themselves as American nationalists, even if the role they performed was imperial.” In an age when some still consider it un-American to liken the U.S. global military presence to empire, Kaplan presents it as a given. Empire is what we have. The civilian leadership has deemed it necessary, and they have left it to the Pentagon to work out the details.

It is time for Americans to become accustomed to this role, he argues, even if they continue to resist the moral and intellectual baggage associated with the term. Given that the threats are so numerous and so grave, and given that the proficiency gap between the U.S. military and that of every other country on the planet—but especially those studied in this book: Yemen, Colombia, Mongolia, the Philippines, Afghanistan, and Iraq—cannot possibly be surmounted, Americans had best become comfortable with the reality of American empire as quickly as possible.

In nearly every place that Kaplan visits, he finds evidence to support his claim:

  • “Even as U.S. leaders denied that America had imperial intentions, Colombia … illustrated the imperial reality of America’s global situation.”
  • “The fact that America did, in fact, constitute a world empire was best demonstrated by distant Mongolia’s inclusion in it.”
  • “Anyone who doubts that America is, or was, an imperial power should come to the Philippines.”
  • “In Afghanistan the United States had found itself in a situation for which the only comparisons were with other empires of the past.”

For Kaplan, the entire globe equates to the American West in the 19th century. His travels take him into “Injun Country,” a land of potentially hostile peoples that must be guided, managed, or subdued by the long arm of the American military. The Pentagon set out to accomplish this daunting task by dividing the globe between five area commands. “This map bore uncanny resemblance to one drawn in 1931 for the German military,” Kaplan explains. “The United States, having vanquished Germany’s budding world empire in World War II, now had operational requirements for maintaining its own.” For Kaplan, this map serves as the organizing vision for his entire book. “After I first saw the map in the Pentagon, I stared at it for days on and off, transfixed,” he writes, “How could the U.S. not constitute a global military empire?”

The American moment at the dawning of the 21st century, Kaplan explains, is just that, “a grand and fleeting moment, a moment that even if it lasted for several more decades would constitute but a flicker among the long march of hegemons that had calmed broad swaths of the globe.” But the American brand of imperialism might be “particularly short-lived.” “Because it was a fomenter of dynamic change,” Kaplan explains, “a liberal empire like the United States was likely to create the conditions for its own demise.”

And we should embrace this, a foreign policy that may spell our own demise? The mere suggestion seems preposterous, but it is based upon Kaplan’s unshakable belief that we have no choice but to fight disorder and lawlessness everywhere around the world.

This is not to say that all forms of imperialism are created equal. Kaplan takes great pains to differentiate the American empire from those of the Spaniards in the Philippines, the French in Djibouti, or the Soviets in Afghanistan. The key difference, however, may be one more of style than of substance. Cognizant of the general human tendency to resist foreign meddling, Kaplan would prefer that the United States perform its imperial role behind the fig leaf of indigenous forces. He explains, “Imperialism was less about conquest than about the training of local armies.”

But even Kaplan’s empire-in-disguise bumps up against a troublesome Catch-22: the would-be beneficiaries of our largesse will not tolerate an indefinite U.S. military presence in their countries, but the governments of these same nations are often equally reluctant to see the training mission ever end. As we are now learning in Iraq, training with the expectation that security responsibilities will eventually be handed over to the locals is easier said than done, and the longer we stay, the harder it becomes to extricate ourselves.

This is hardly unique to Iraq, even if the level of violence there vastly exceeds anything confronting the American military elsewhere in the world. In Imperial Grunts, Kaplan documents the repeated frustrations of American military personnel attempting to assist fragile and/or incompetent governments. For example, when the Americans put forward a plan to attack and destroy a pocket of Abu Sayyaf terrorists operating on the tiny Philippine island of Jolo, a key Philippine general was nowhere to be found. “He was not interested in getting out of bed,” an American officer told Kaplan. But why should Americans be more concerned about security in the Philippines than are the Filipinos? Why should American taxpayers bear the financial burdens, why should our soldiers risk their lives, when Filipino military leaders don’t have the will even to get out of bed? Kaplan never answers these questions, but he implies that, given such fecklessness on the part of client states, Americans have no choice.

But what of the problem of dependency? Why should a foreign government go to the expense of maintaining a genuine army when it can count on Uncle Sam to do the work instead? When he discovers that Colombian soldiers were tipping off the narco-terrorists they were supposed to be fighting, an exasperated American explained, “we’re not going to get anywhere in this war … if they [the Colombian government] can’t even confiscate cell phones from their privates.” The government’s refusal to implement so simple a policy suggests that the Colombians really don’t want their problems to go away, particularly if this will also entail the departure of American troops.

Through these demonstrations of ineptitude, the governments being aided by the U.S. military often reveal one authentic proficiency: they are particularly adept at concocting plausible arguments for why they are incapable of defending themselves. The only way to ensure that the indigenous forces being trained by American troops will eventually be capable of standing on their own will be to take off the training wheels. When that occurs, there will be some skinned knees, some bruised egos, but at least we won’t be the only ones doing the pedaling.

Yet the training wheels almost never come off, and some reject the notion that they ever should. Kaplan quotes one American noncom who declared emphatically that there was “No freaking way we’re depending on the Filipino military.”
While no one should expect us Americans to stake our security on the good offices of others, why should we care more about other countries’ security than their own leaders do? For Kaplan, the answer is obvious: there are no purely indigenous threats. Their security is synonymous with our own. Challenges to fragile governments anywhere in the world are, ipso facto, threats to the United States.

But insecurity anywhere does not pose a threat everywhere. Policymakers and military leaders must address the urgent before they tackle the important, much less the peripheral. They must differentiate between those threats that we must address and those that are best left to others. A sensible foreign policy is conducted according to a sense of priorities guided by certain criteria; Kaplan’s global empire implies that there are no criteria.

Yet that is unsustainable. The American public has only a limited appetite for risky—not to mention unnecessary—military missions. At one point in the book, Kaplan dismisses such instincts as “semi-isolationist ignorance,” when in fact they are eminently sensible. If Americans can be convinced that the costs of empire are modest, they are likely to go along for the ride, particularly if they sense that someone else, or someone else’s son or daughter, will be the one drawing hostile fire. But when Americans are forced to confront the costs, and when they compare the costs with the benefits, they can be expected to withdraw their support. That is what is now occurring with regard to the Iraq mission.

The American officers and noncoms—Kaplan’s “imperial grunts”—are industrious, flexible, and completely dedicated to the mission. But they don’t dictate the mission, the civilian leadership does. For too long, both major parties have pursued empire even as they avoided the term. Kaplan would have the politicians embrace it, but his imperial advocacy strikes a discordant note. American opinion is moving in a very different direction, and an astute politician would be wise to get ahead of this building wave. In coming years, we should expect that the public will demand a restrained and prudent foreign policy pledged to safeguarding and advancing American security.

The harm that has come to our nation through the reckless interventionism of the past 15 years cannot be quickly reversed, but the path to recovery must begin with an urgent commitment to stop the bleeding. Of the ten or so major military operations since the end of the Cold War, the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan stands alone as a legitimate and wise exercise of American military power. And yet, even here, Kaplan admits to the difficult challenges we face. “Everything was possible in Afghanistan—with years and patience,” he explains. “The empires that had succeeded in bringing order and a better material life to their colonies had had both of these elements. But it was unclear if the Americans did.”
It is not unclear any longer. Americans are fast losing patience with empire, even when it is romanticized and euphemized, because they accurately sense that the benefits do not outweigh the costs. Even as talented a raconteur as Robert Kaplan cannot reverse this trend, and for that we should be thankful
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Christopher Preble is director of foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute and a founding member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.