Wages of Empire
To the acolytes of American empire, the invasion of Iraq is but Act I in the exhilarating unfolding drama of the 21st century. All the “Islamo-fascist” regimes of the Middle East and northern Africa -- Iran, Syria, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Libya -- are to follow Saddam Hussein’s onto the landfill of history. As democracy was imposed on Japan by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, so shall it be imposed upon them all.
That is the vision of the neoconservatives to whom George W. Bush incarnates their Woodrow Wilson, FDR and Winston Churchill. Yet, their disillusionment is certain, for they misread the man and the times.
True, the relative power of the United States exceeds Britain’s at the height of its empire. But this war to “liberate” Iraq and reshape it in our own image has already called into existence countervailing forces that stand athwart our path to empire.
The first is the force of world opinion. To protest a U.S. war on Iraq without U.N. Security Council sanction, there were million-person marches last week in the streets of the capitals of our staunchest allies, Spain, Italy, Britain. Polls show that huge majorities of Europeans oppose a U.S. war without U.N. sanction. Among Arabs and Turks, the opposition is visceral and well-nigh universal. We are as isolated as the Brits at the time of the Boer War. It is the height of hubris to believe America can indefinitely defy the whole world.
Even if Iraqis initially welcome U.S. soldiers as liberators, within months there will be Islamic bombers willing to die to drive us out, as they drove the French out of Algeria, the Israelis out of Lebanon, the Marines out of Beirut. While the Arab and Islamic worlds did not succeed in many endeavors in the 20th century, they did excel in terrorizing and expelling all the old imperial powers. Our turn is next.
Neoconservatives came to their editors’ cubicles a century too late. Peoples everywhere have internalized Thomas Jefferson’s dictum that all governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and Wilson’s gospel about all peoples being entitled to self-determination. This idea has taken root in the hearts of men: better to fight than be ruled by foreigners.
We may see American hegemony as benevolent. Is it not clear the world does not?
Already, Cold War friends and allies are revisiting the issue of whether the protection afforded by the presence of U.S. troops on their national soil is worth the price paid in alienation from their own peoples.
According to the New York Times, Crown Prince Abdullah will ask for withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia at the end of the Iraq war.
The new president of South Korea was elected on a pledge to review the U.S. troop presence there. The Pakistanis want us out, and, after 60 years of occupation, even the Okinawans wish to be rid of us.
Nor should we resist the eviction orders, for the terrorists are only over here because we are over there.
Worldwide, the anti-American card has become a trump. Herr Gerhard Schroeder played it deftly to rescue himself from certain defeat in the German elections. And while Americans may be boycotting French wines, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin is a more celebrated figure in Old Europe than Colin L. Powell, let alone Bush.
And the staggering bill for empire has just begun to come in. Not only are Japan, Germany and Saudi Arabia unwilling to pay the cost of this war, as they did for Desert Storm, they are not in any condition to do so. Nor does the United States, staring at deficits of $300 billion to $400 billion, have the means to subsidize an empire.
The cost of invading and rebuilding Iraq has been put at $100 billion to $200 billion by Bush’s former economic advisor. That was last year.
More recent estimates have soared. Will Americans pay this immense sum to reconstruct and “democratize” Iraq?
With California mulling higher taxes and firing workers to cover a $35-billion deficit, how long will taxpayers tolerate shakedowns like Ankara’s demand for as much as $30 billion for U.S. troops to transit Turkey and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s demand for $15 billion in foreign aid and loan guarantees to hold our coat?
Neoconservatives assure us that once Arab peoples see our destructive power rain down on Iraq, they will line up with the winner and accept our hegemony. But if such power has not brought respect for Israel in Lebanon or on the West Bank, what guarantee is there it will make American occupiers revered or loved?
History teaches otherwise. Five years after the United States had reduced to smoldering ashes the greatest empire Asia had seen in centuries, little North Korea, which did not even exist in 1945, launched an invasion to throw the Americans off the peninsula and out of Asia. World champions never lack for challengers.
Our own history teaches us this. A dozen years after the British army had defeated our enemies in the French and Indian War, American patriots were shooting British soldiers on the Concord Road.
George Washington wept with joy at America’s alliance with France in 1777, but a year after Yorktown, American agents were back-channeling Brits in Paris to conclude a separate peace.
As for the Bush Doctrine -- “We will not allow the world’s worst dictators to get the world’s worst weapons” -- it is already going the way of William McKinley’s “open door.” With Russian assistance, Iran is building nuclear plants it does not need and mining uranium. North Korea, with a secret uranium- enrichment program running and a plutonium reactor being refired, is openly taunting and defying the president. The American response to date: repeated assurances that neither sanctions nor military strikes are being considered.
Given the immense time, energy, resources and costs -- financial and political -- of Bush’s drive to disarm a weak, isolated Iraq, will the president, when Baghdad is occupied, press on against other regimes, which are not under U.N. sanction?
Where will he get his authority to go after Iran, Syria or Libya, as Sharon and his Amen Corner demand? In Iraq, the president has the cover of U.N. resolutions. Will the Brits be with us when we go after Iran?
Will British Prime Minister Tony Blair be up for a second adventure? Who will be with us if we attack North Korea to disarm it? Can the United States tread alone the path to empire in a world where the United States is believed by much of mankind to be itself the great threat to world peace?
Imperialism is an idea whose time has come and gone, and, in any event, we Americans were lousy imperialists. We lacked the tradition, the will to rule other peoples, the perseverance required. We had not occupied the Philippines a few years before Theodore Roosevelt, champion of annexation, wished to be rid of it.
No, empire is not our future, or our fate. The braying Beltway interventionists are only advancing the day when this generation too will rid itself of empire and America returns to the foreign policy written in its history and heart: the friend to freedom everywhere but the vindicator only of our own.
That way lies long life for the republic. To hell with empire.