In Modern Imperialism, U.S. Needs to Walk Softly

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

With the Coalition Provisional Authority disbanded and L. Paul Bremer III back at home, it’s time to ponder the future of American imperialism. Many, of course, will huffily reply that U.S. imperialism has no future, and they will point to all the troubles we’ve encountered in Iraq during the last year as evidence.

But whatever happens in Iraq, there will continue to be strong demand for U.S. interventions around the world. Failed states and rogue states constitute the biggest threats to world peace in the foreseeable future, and only the United States has the will and the resources to do anything about them. Even many of those who detested the invasion of Iraq plead for the U.S. to bring order to places like Darfur, a province in Sudan where genocide is occurring. The U.S. cannot shrug off the burden of global leadership, at least not without catastrophic cost to the entire world, but it can exercise its power more wisely than it did in Iraq over the past year.

One of Bremer’s chief failings was that he tried to act the part of an imperial proconsul. He and his spokesmen hogged the media spotlight, which only exacerbated Iraqis’ tendency to blame them for everything that went wrong, from too many car bombings to not enough electricity. It was almost as if Bremer were Lord Curzon, the notoriously vain viceroy of India from 1898 to 1905, who delighted in pomp and circumstance, such as the grandiose festival he staged in 1903 to mark Edward VII’s coronation as king of Britain and emperor of India. For obvious reasons -- the rise of nationalism, the fall of traditional European empires -- that approach doesn’t work well today. No one is going to crown George II emperor of Mesopotamia.


Yet the infinitely adaptable British had different ways of ruling different parts of their empire, and some of them are applicable today. There was, for instance, Lord Cromer (born Evelyn Baring), who effectively ruled Egypt from 1883 to 1907 with the modest titles of British agent and consul general.

The British came to dominate Egypt in 1879 when they, along with the French, imposed financial controls to ensure that foreign bond-holders would be repaid by a bankrupt government. (Shades of the International Monetary Fund!) The British occupied the country on their own in 1882 after a nationalist revolt. But they refrained from formally annexing it, which would only have stirred up nationalist sentiment.

The Ottoman rulers, styled as khedives, were kept in office while Cromer pulled the strings from behind the scenes. This became known as the “veiled protectorate,” and it essentially continued even after Egypt was granted full independence and proclaimed a constitutional monarchy in 1922. The system worked until 1952, when a group of army officers led by Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser deposed the king and seized power for themselves. The Nasserite coup showed that the British approach had run its course, but it had allowed Britain to dominate the biggest nation in the Middle East for more than 70 years. It wasn’t a bad deal for Egypt, either, which enjoyed more freedom and better government than it received from Nasser and his dictatorial successors.

The U.S. today doesn’t need the same level of control in Iraq that the British had in Egypt, and it needs to be much more serious about promoting democracy than the British were. Formal empire isn’t our destiny. But, while fostering self-rule, the U.S. must also ensure that Iraq will not dissolve into civil war or become a haven for terrorists or weapons proliferators. This will require a long-term U.S. presence -- a presence that will be much more palatable to Iraqis now that the U.S. has moved to its own form of a “veiled protectorate,” with an Iraqi president and prime minister playing highly visible roles and the new U.S. envoy, John Negroponte, fading into the background.

The only wonder is that it took so long. In Afghanistan, the U.S. wisely settled on the indirect approach from the start with the appointment of Hamid Karzai as president. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad exercises a lot of influence, but he does so quietly, without generating the backlash that would occur if he proclaimed himself the administrator of Afghanistan.

Another successful model of modern-day imperialism can be found in Bosnia and Kosovo, which the U.S. and its allies run through an international protectorate similar to the one that Britain and France imposed on Egypt in 1879. The blessing of the United Nations confers welcome legitimacy.

Whether we like it or not, liberal imperialism is needed today to deal with the most troubled regions of the planet. But if we are going to be effective imperialists, we need to follow the Cromer, not the Curzon, model.