Recently the novelist John le Carré wrote in the Times of London that the United States has entered a “period of madness” that dwarfs McCarthyism or the Vietnam intervention in intensity. One generally would not pay much attention to the cynical British spy-tale weaver, never especially friendly to America. But concern about America’s mental health is more broadly in the air, spreading well beyond the usual professional anti-Americans. It is now pervasive in Europe, and growing in Asia, and when Matt Drudge posted le Carré’s piece prominently on his website, it got passed around and talked about here in ways it never would have five years ago.
The proximate cause of le Carré’s diagnosis is Washington’s plan for a pre-emptive war against Iraq, a nation whose weapons pose no threat to the United States and that has no substantial links to al-Qaeda or 9/11. The U.S. would fight this war virtually without allies, though a few countries might be dragged into the fray against the will of their populations. But mad or not, this drive toward war is not mania of sudden onset but ratification of a neo-imperialist strategy that has been germinating in neoconservative circles since the end of the Cold War.
A new war against Iraq was a gleam in the eye of a small but influential group long before 9/11. In 1998, the newly established Project for a New American Century (PNAC), an advocacy group chaired by Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, began sending open letters from prominent foreign policy hawks. First, it wrote to the Clinton administration calling upon the United States to “remove Saddam’s regime.” When its advice was ignored, PNAC asked Republican Congressional leaders to push for war. The signatories included Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz (now number two at the Pentagon), Elliott Abrams (recently appointed to the National Security Council as a director of Mid-East policy), William Bennett, John Bolton (now Undersecretary of State), and the ubiquitous Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board and often considered the central figure in the interlocking web of neoconservative think tanks.
PNAC’s ambitions go well beyond Saddam’s overthrow. Immediately after 9/11, the group began pushing to expand the war against other Muslim states, calling for the U.S. to target Hezbollah and its sponsors, Iran and Syria. PNAC also wants the U.S. to stop trying to foster a peace between Israel and the Palestinians, advocating withdrawal of the small amount of aid the U.S. gives the Palestinian Authority and granting full support to Israel’s right wing Likud government.
These tactical measures are elements within a broader vision of a more militarized U.S. foreign policy, carried out without allies if necessary. In the final year of the first Bush administration, Paul Wolfowitz penned a memo under the aegis of then Secretary of Defense Cheney, calling for the United States to ramp up its defense spending in order to deter any other country from “even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.” China, Russia, Germany, and Japan were to be intimidated from seeking more power in their own regions. After the Wolfowitz draft was leaked to the press, it received widespread ridicule, and the Bush I diplomats rushed to reassure allies that Wolfowitz’s views did not truly reflect American foreign policy.
But during the 1990s they did become the views of the neoconservatives, packaged under the slogan “benevolent global hegemony” touted by Kristol and Robert Kagan. The positions of the neoconservative foreign policy team in exile (a sort of shadow subcabinet during the Clinton years) were fleshed out in a PNAC book, Present Dangers, which called for the U.S. to “shape the international environment to its own advantage” by being “at once a European power, an Asian power, a Middle Eastern power, and of course a Western Hemisphere power” and to “act as if instability in important regions of the world … affect[s] us with almost the same immediacy as if [it] was occurring on our own doorstep.” In practice this meant assertive risk-taking virtually everywhere. Jonathan Clarke, reviewing the volume in the National Interest, wrote, “If the book’s recommendations were implemented all at once, the U.S. would risk unilaterally fighting a five-front war, while simultaneously urging Israel to abandon the peace process in favor of a new no-holds-barred confrontation with the Palestinians.” This book has become the blueprint for the foreign policy of George W. Bush.
Only recently has it become commonplace (outside of the Marxist Left) to call this new policy imperialist. President Bush himself still shuns the word, telling a Veterans Day audience, “We have no territorial ambitions. We don’t seek an empire.” But a surprising number of foreign policy analysts, in the neocon orbit and beyond, have picked up the “I” word and run with it. Max Boot, a former Wall Street Journal editor who wrote a book about America’s splendid little wars writes in the Weekly Standard about “troubled lands [that] cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.” Kristol co-author Robert Kagan prefers the term “hegenomy” to empire, and many neoconservatives stress that the new American imperialism will differ from the bad old European sort because it will be welcomed by its subjects. The American Enterprise Institute’s Joshua Muravchik has written a primer on “exporting democracy” whose phrases now pop up regularly in Bushite rhetoric.
The war for democracy is meant to bring about eternal peace. A television sound-bite of the neo-imperialists is “democracies don’t fight one another,” though the generalization seems to ignore the bloodiest war in the 19th century (America’s Civil War) and arguably the one that brought about the end of Europe’s global pre-eminence (World War I). Never mind. The coda is always Wilsonian, a claim that pre-emptive war will bring forth a springtime of power to the people of the politically stagnant region.
None of this is entirely new of course: America’s previous burst of imperial expansion at the turn of the 20th century was accompanied by plenty of talk about liberating our “brown brothers” from Spain’s evil dominion and, later, teaching Latin Americans to hold clean elections and “elect good men.” The phrases have come down to us through history class, but we do not remember the elections because, by and large, they never took place.
Nor, it should be remembered, did the older European imperialists consider themselves exploiters. The rulers and rhetoricians of France’s and Britain’s empires were quite confident that they were bringing the benefits of science, law, and rationality to poorer and backward peoples. Such claims were self-serving but not entirely fanciful. Contrary to the standard Leninist critique, imperialism was not a one-way transfer of wealth from colony to metropole: Britain and France made large investments in capital and education in their empires, in part producing the educated modernizing nationalist class that eventually threw them out. Though some American hawks have let on that establishing military bases astride the world’s major oil arteries would not be a distasteful burden, in today’s Washington the war against Iraq is not spoken of as an opportunity for plundering the region’s vital resources. The war will be fought to liberate the Iraqi people: never before in the annals of neoconservative rhetoric have Arabs been talked about so solicitously. (Cynics might note that Commentary and the Weekly Standard showed little prior interest in bringing the benefits of democracy to the three million Palestinians under Israeli occupation, where American influence could have been brought to bear readily at almost any point in the past thirty-five years.)
The prospects of this new militarized imperialism ought to be gauged by how well it might succeed. Would it make Americans more secure? What are its chances of democratizing the Middle East?
The strongest neo-imperialist case study is Japan, re-fashioned under American military occupation from a semi-feudal militaristic dictatorship that waged aggressive war into a semi-capitalist, reasonably democratic, and very peaceable ally and trading partner of the United States. But the differences between Japan and the Islamic nations our present-day imperialists want to occupy are stark. Appreciation for the West and democratic ideas was well rooted in Japan. The Japanese began to borrow furiously from the West once Commodore Perry landed in 1853, in science and military technology of course, but also in the world of ideas. Reading the Western philosophes became a fad during the Meiji Restoration, which initiated voting for Parliament in 1889 and had universal male suffrage by the 1920s. Pushing the process along was an indigenous “liberty and popular rights movement,” which spawned dozens of autonomous political groups. “Loyal opposition” was not an alien idea. Moreover, Japan’s bureaucracy—a samurai-based elite class that pre-dated the Meiji Restoration—was ready to implement democratic reforms and put its own stamp on the new regime. General MacArthur had much on which to build. Moreover, every country in Asia wanted Japan transformed. The imposition of an entirely new order from outside—MacArthur and his crew ended up writing the internal laws, redistributing property, re-shaping the economy, and imposing a constitution—was considered legitimate throughout the region. The circumstances in the Mid-East, where American invasion is opposed vigorously in the region and by three of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, could not be more different.
If prior conditions made Japan receptive to the imposition of democracy from without, the general success rate of imperial powers in molding occupations to their liking is poor. Both Britain and France tried mightily to form a suitable “indigenous” elite in their colonies, neither with much success. The ascending middle classes demanded access to education, but British and French administrators quickly learned the more natives were educated, the more colonial rule angered them. Britain gave up its empire without too much strife, but France was driven out of Indochina by a bloody guerilla war and from an Algerian colony (bound to the mother country with “indissoluble links” according to the language of the time) by a fierce campaign of terror. One hears echoes of the arguments made by colonialist Frenchmen in the mouths of America’s neo-imperialists: if the Algerian nationalists prevailed, they would subject the Algerians to all the horrors of autocratic, quasi-fascist domination. Such arguments were, as Raymond Aron wrote at the time, true but irrelevant: colonized people rated national independence more highly than they did the rights of the individual.
This is especially true in the Islamic world. Roger Scruton in The West and the Rest comes to this conclusion on the deeper divergences in political culture that seem to flow from Islam and Christianity respectively: “The virtues of Western political systems are, to a certain kind of Islamic mind, imperceptible—or perceptible, as they were to Qutb and Atta, only as hideous moral failings. Even while enjoying the peace, prosperity, and freedom that issue from a secular rule of law, a person who regards the shari‘a as the unique path to salvation may see these things only as signs of spiritual emptiness or corruption.” Perhaps skeptical thinkers like Aron and Scruton are wrong and the neocon cheerleaders for imperialistic democracy-imposition are right, but one would not want to bet America’s future on it.
Then there is the reaction of the world to consider, after the United States rains cruise missiles on Baghdad, seizes the Iraqi oil fields and “the next day” (as Ariel Sharon urges) prepares for war against Iran. One can imagine that the Saudis will fall into a political panic, that Europe will be enraged, that Russia and China will be cooly hostile and begin to make plans. What impact would the Iraq invasion have on the international system?
During the Clinton years, quite a few international affairs specialists wondered why American pre-eminence had not given rise to the kind of counterbalancing and ganging up against the leading power that classic international relations theory and diplomatic history would lead one to expect. Russia and China briefly eyed one another as allies, the Europeans griped, but nowhere did major countries come close to forming real military alliances to counter America’s strength. Why not?
The most persuasive answer came from Joseph Joffe, a conservative pro-Atlanticist German. He wrote that while there was plenty of smoldering resentment of American power, no one felt it necessary to ally against it. The United States was a hegemon “different from all its predecessors. America annoys and antagonizes, but it does not conquer. … This is a critical departure from the traditional ways of the high and mighty. For the balance of power machinery to crank up, it makes a difference whether the rest of the world faces a huge but unusually placid elephant or a caniverous tyrannosaurus rex.” America is an elephant that lumbers but does not crush and that uses its hegemony to create “public goods”—institutions that the rest needs for security and economic growth.
If America invades Iraq, the bottom will fall out of this argument. The first consequence would probably be sharp drop in international co-operation against terrorism, especially terrorism directed against the United States. After that, we can contemplate new alliances: Russia and China, Europe and the (unoccupied) Middle East, an international system in rapid flux but increasingly focused on restraining American power. Of course, the United States will always have Israel as its friend.
Consider America’s international situation: a country rich and technologicially advanced, blessed with unusually stable political system, separated from hostile countries by huge oceans, and still retaining durable long term friendships with the world’s most powerful and successful democratic states, and requiring serious international police and intelligence cooperation to deal with its most pressing enemy, al-Qaeda. For such a nation suddenly to decide that its best and only option to “save itself” is to embark on a course of imperial expansion, one that will be opposed vigorously by the rest of the world, seems almost a form of madness.