Now, America the Imperial?

Now, America the Imperial?

America's war with Iraq has altered its position in the world, bringing new responsibilities...and new dangers.

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On one thing, at least, advocates and opponents of war in Iraq can agree: The conflict has momentous implications for America and its place in the world.

Michael Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, writing in The New York Times Magazine (Jan. 5, 2003), describes war in Iraq as “an imperial operation that would commit a reluctant republic to become the guarantor of peace, stability, democratization, and oil supplies in a combustible region of Islamic peoples stretching from Egypt to Afghanistan. A role once played by the Ottoman Empire, then by the French and the British, will now be played by a nation that has to ask whether in becoming an empire it risks losing its soul as a republic.”

Backers of the war envision America’s enthusiastically taking on the imperial role in the Middle East and elsewhere for many decades. Columnist Charles Krauthammer, who in 1990 proclaimed America’s “unipolar moment” in the world, now sees that moment stretching into a “unipolar era,” in which the United States uses its unrivaled dominance to advance democracy and to preserve peace in “every region” of the globe. Successfully managing the threat posed by Iraq and other rogue states with weapons of mass destruction, he writes in The National Interest (Winter 2002–03), requires “the aggressive and confident application of unipolar power rather than falling back, as we did in the 1990s, on paralyzing multilateralism.”

But critics see an America that’s misguided and on the road to ruin, shortsightedly destroying the very international system it did so much to build up over half a century. Tony Judt, director of the Remarque Institute at New York University, writing in The New York Review of Books (Mar. 27, 2003), calls it “a tragedy of historical proportions that America’s own leaders are today corroding and dissolving the links that bind the U.S. to its closest allies in the international community.”

The likely result of that wreckage, adds David C. Hendrickson, a political scientist at Colorado College, writing in World Policy Journal (Fall 2002), will be “a fundamental delegitimation of American power.” And once lost, “the aura of legitimacy,” which required “years of patient labor” to achieve, will be “very difficult to regain.”

The “revolutionary” reorientation of U.S. foreign policy since the terrorist attacks of 9/11—toward “the acceptance of preventive war and the rejection of multilateralism”—runs counter to “fundamental values in our political tradition,” Hendrickson argues. The doctrine that unbounded power is a menace is as old as Western civilization: “In thought and experience, resistance to universal empire is coeval with the history of civil liberty.”

Yet Lawrence F. Kaplan, a senior editor at The New Republic (Mar. 3, 2003), contends that the reorientation is squarely in the liberal tradition of Woodrow Wilson—“the Wilson that pledged to make the world safe for democracy and vowed that America would ‘spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness.” That tradition, Kaplan writes, “was passed down from generation to generation—from Harry Truman . . . to John F. Kennedy—before being put to rest in the jungles of Vietnam.” Now it’s being revived by conservative George W. Bush.

In adopting a strategy of preventive war, however, argues Jack Snyder, a professor of international relations at Columbia University, America may well learn the same lesson as earlier imperial powers: that the preventive use of force was counterproductive “because it often sparked brushfire wars at the edges of the empire, internal rebellions, and opposition from powers not yet conquered or otherwise subdued.” Fearful of America’s great power, weak states “may increasingly conclude that weapons of mass destruction joined to terror tactics are the only feasible equalizer,” Snyder warns in The National Interest (Spring 2003).

Given America’s past reliance on relationships with military rulers and autocrats in the region, observes Fouad Ajami, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, few Arabs in Iraq and neighboring lands are likely to greet the American effort as “a Wilsonian campaign to spread the reign of liberty in the Arab world.” Nevertheless, he writes in Foreign Affairs (Jan.–Feb. 2003), America’s great power “can help tip the scales in favor of modernity and change in the region.” There need be no apologies for U.S. “unilateralism,” says Ajami. “The region can live with and use that unilateralism.”

Ignatieff believes that a war on Iraq will oblige the United States to take on “the reordering of the whole region” and “stick at it through many successive administrations. The burden of empire is of long duration, and democracies are impatient with long-lasting burdens—none more so than America.”

And there may be the rub, says Kraut­hammer. How long the “unipolar era” lasts “will be decided at home. It will depend largely on whether it is welcomed by Americans or seen as a burden to be shed. . . . The choice is ours. To impiously paraphrase Benjamin Franklin: History has given you an empire, if you will keep it.”

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