America’s Dreams of Empire

Pervez Hoodbhoy is professor of high-energy physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

Street opinion in Pakistan, and probably in most Muslim countries, holds that Islam is the true target of America’s new wars. The fanatical hordes spilling out of Pakistan’s madrasas are certain that a modern-day Richard the Lion-Hearted will soon bear down upon them. Swords in hand, they pray to Allah to grant war and send a modern Saladin, who can miraculously dodge cruise missiles and hurl them back to their launchers.

Even moderate Muslims are worried. They see indicators of religious war in such things as the profiling of Muslims by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the placing of Muslim states on the U.S. register of rogues and the blanket approval given to Israeli bulldozers as they level Palestinian neighborhoods.

But Muslims elevate their importance in the American cosmography. The U.S. has aspirations far beyond subjugating inconsequential Muslim states: It seeks to remake the world according to its needs, preference and convenience. The war on Iraq is but the first step.


High ambition underlies today’s American foreign policy, and its boosters are not just in Washington. Aggressive militarism has been openly endorsed by America’s corporate and media establishment. Mainstream commentators in the U.S. press now argue that, given its awesome military might, American ambition has up to now been insufficient.

Max Boot, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Wall Street Journal editor, wrote in the Weekly Standard that “Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.” Washington Post editorial writer Sebastian Mallaby, writing in Foreign Affairs magazine, noted that the current world chaos may point to the need for an “imperialist revival,” a return to the day when “orderly societies [imposed] their own institutions on disorderly ones.” Atlantic Monthly correspondent Robert Kaplan, in his book “Warrior Politics,” suggests that American policymakers should learn from the Greek, Roman and British empires. “Our future leaders could do worse,” he writes, “than be praised for their ... ability to bring prosperity to distant parts of the world under America’s soft imperial influence.”

Although many Americans still cling to the belief that their country’s new unilateralism is a reasonable outgrowth of “injured innocence,” a natural response to terrorist acts, empire has actually been part of the American way of life for more than a century. The difference since Sept. 11 -- and it is a significant one -- is that, now that there is no other superpower to keep it in check, the U.S. no longer sees a need to battle for the hearts and minds of those it would dominate. In today’s Washington, a U.S.-based diplomat recently confided to me, the United Nations has become a dirty term. International law is on the way to irrelevancy, except when it can be used to further U.S. goals.

So although extremists on all sides -- from Islamic warriors to Christian fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to the leaders of Israel’s right-wing parties -- may yearn for another crusade, the counter-evidence to a civilizational war is much stronger. Examining the list of America’s Muslim foes and friends over the years makes clear that it is perceived self-interest rather than ideology that has dictated its policy toward Muslim nations.

During the 1950s and 1960s, America’s primary foes in the Muslim world were secular nationalist leaders, not religious fundamentalists. Mohammed Mossadeq of Iran, who opposed international oil companies grabbing at Iran’s oil resources, was overthrown in a coup aided by the CIA. President Sukarno of Indonesia, accused of being a communist, was removed by U.S. intervention. Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt, who had Islamic fundamentalists like Sayyid Qutb publicly executed, fell afoul of the U.S. and Britain after the Suez crisis. On the other hand, until very recently, America’s friends were the sheiks of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, who practiced highly conservative forms of Islam but were the darlings of Western oil companies.

In Afghanistan during the early 1980s, the United States aided Islamic fundamentalists on the principle that any opposition to the Soviet occupation was welcome. Then-CIA Director William Casey launched a massive covert operation after President Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 166, which explicitly stated that Soviet forces should be driven from Afghanistan “by all means available.”


Readers browsing through book bazaars in the Pakistani cities of Rawalpindi and Peshawar can, even today, find textbooks written as part of this effort. Underwritten by a multimillion-dollar U.S. Agency for International Development grant to the University of Nebraska, the books sought to counterbalance Marxism through creating enthusiasm for Islamic militancy. They exhorted Afghan children to “pluck out the eyes of the Soviet enemy and cut off his legs.” Years after the books were first printed, they were approved by the Taliban for use in madrasas, or religious schools.

Washington now acknowledges that “mission myopia,” as such strategic errors have come to be known, helped contribute to the growth of a global jihad network in the early 1980s. But the cost of America’s mistakes has been vastly greater than most policymakers care to acknowledge. The network of Islamic militant organizations created primarily out of the need to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan did not disappear after the immediate goal was achieved: Rather, like any good military-industrial complex, it grew stronger from its victories.

The resulting damage has been far greater to Muslims than to the Americans who unleashed it. Acts of jihad -- killing tourists, bombing churches and the like -- not only rob Muslims of moral authority, they are a strategic disaster. Even the Sept. 11 operation, though perfectly planned and executed, was a colossal strategic blunder. It vastly strengthened American militarism, gave Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a license to put the Palestinian territories under virtual lockdown, and allowed pogroms directed at Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat to occur with only a hint of international condemnation.

The absence of a modern political culture and the weakness of Muslim civil society have long rendered Muslim states inconsequential players on the world stage. An encircled, enfeebled dictator is scarcely a threat to his neighbors as he struggles to save his skin. Tragically, Muslim leaders, out of fear and greed, publicly wring their hands but collude with the U.S. and offer their territory for bases as it now bears down on Iraq. Significantly, no Muslim country has proposed an oil embargo or a serious boycott of American companies.

What, then, should be the strategy for all those who believe in a just world and are appalled by America’s war on the weak? While the strong can get away with anything, the weak cannot afford missteps. They must hew to a stern regard for morality. Vietnam, to my mind, offers a uniquely successful model of resistance. Even though B-52s were carpet-bombing his country, North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh did not call for hijacking airliners or blowing up buses. On the contrary, the Vietnamese reached out to the American people, making a clear distinction between them and their government. The country’s leaders didn’t assume -- as Osama bin Laden undoubtedly would -- that Americans spoke with one voice. Jane Fonda, Joan Baez and other popular figures were invited to come and see for themselves what was happening in Vietnam, and they took what they learned back to the people at home. Had Ho thought and acted like Bin Laden, his country would surely now be a radioactive wasteland, rather than a unique victor against imperialism.

Only a global peace movement that explicitly condemns terrorism against noncombatants can slow, and perhaps halt, George Bush’s madly speeding chariot of war. Massive antiwar demonstrations in Washington, New York, London, Florence, and other Western cities have brought out tens of thousands at a time. A sense of commitment to human principles and peace -- not fear or fanaticism -- impelled these demonstrators.

It is time for people in my part of the world to ask themselves a question: Why are the streets of Islamabad, Cairo, Riyadh, Damascus and Jakarta empty? Why do only fanatics demonstrate in our cities? Let us hang our heads in shame.