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It is the imperialism of a people who remember that their country secured its independence by revolt against an empire, and who like to think of themselves as the friend of freedom everywhere. It is an empire without consciousness of itself as such, constantly shocked that its good intentions arouse resentment abroad. But that does not make it any less of an empire, with a conviction that it alone, in Herman Melville's words, bears ''the ark of the liberties of the world. In this vein, the president's National Security Strategy, announced in September, commits America to lead other nations toward ''the single sustainable model for national success,'' by which he meant free markets and liberal democracy.

This is strange rhetoric for a Texas politician who ran for office opposing nation-building abroad and calling for a more humble America overseas. His messianic note may be new to him, but it is not new to his office. It has been present in the American vocabulary at least since Woodrow Wilson went to Versailles in and told the world that he wanted to make it safe for democracy. Ever since Wilson, presidents have sounded the same redemptive note while ''frantically avoiding recognition of the imperialism that we in fact exercise,'' as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said in Even now, as President Bush appears to be maneuvering the country toward war with Iraq, the deepest implication of what is happening has not been fully faced: that Iraq is 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. As the United States faces this moment of truth, John Quincy Adams's warning of remains stark and pertinent: if America were tempted to ''become the dictatress of the world, she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.

A distended military budget only aggravates America's continuing failure to keep its egalitarian promise to itself. And these are not the only costs of empire. Detaining two American citizens without charge or access to counsel in military brigs, maintaining illegal combatants on a foreign island in a legal limbo, keeping lawful aliens under permanent surveillance while deporting others after secret hearings: these are not the actions of a republic that lives by the rule of law but of an imperial power reluctant to trust its own liberties.

Such actions may still be a long way short of Roosevelt's internment of the Japanese, but that may mean only that the worst -- following, say, another large attack on United States citizens that produces mass casualties -- is yet to come. The impending operation in Iraq is thus a defining moment in America's long debate with itself about whether its overseas role as an empire threatens or strengthens its existence as a republic. The American electorate, while still supporting the president, wonders whether his proclamation of a war without end against terrorists and tyrants may only increase its vulnerability while endangering its liberties and its economic health at home.

A nation that rarely counts the cost of what it really values now must ask what the ''liberation'' of Iraq is worth. A republic that has paid a tiny burden to maintain its empire -- no more than about 4 percent of its gross domestic product -- now contemplates a bill that is altogether steeper. What every schoolchild also knows about empires is that they eventually face nemeses. To call America the new Rome is at once to recall Rome's glory and its eventual fate at the hands of the barbarians.

A confident and carefree republic -- the city on a hill, whose people have always believed they are immune from history's harms -- now has to confront not just an unending imperial destiny but also a remote possibility that seems to haunt the history of empire: hubris followed by defeat.

The American Military After 9/11

Even at this late date, it is still possible to ask: Why should a republic take on the risks of empire? Won't it run a chance of endangering its identity as a free people?


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The problem is that this implies innocent options that in the case of Iraq may no longer exist. Iraq is not just about whether the United States can retain its republican virtue in a wicked world.

George W Bush delivers his first public speech after 9/11 attack

Virtuous disengagement is no longer a possibility. Since Sept. Face to face with ''evil empires'' of the past, the republic reluctantly accepted a division of the world based on mutually assured destruction. But now it faces much less stable and reliable opponents -- rogue states like Iraq and North Korea with the potential to supply weapons of mass destruction to a terrorist internationale. Iraq represents the first in a series of struggles to contain the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the first attempt to shut off the potential supply of lethal technologies to a global terrorist network.

Containment rather than war would be the better course, but the Bush administration seems to have concluded that containment has reached its limits -- and the conclusion is not unreasonable. Containment is not designed to stop production of sarin, VX nerve gas, anthrax and nuclear weapons. Threatened retaliation might deter Saddam from using these weapons, but his continued development of them increases his capacity to intimidate and deter others, including the United States. Already his weapons have sharply raised the cost of any invasion, and as time goes by this could become prohibitive.

The possibility that North Korea might quickly develop weapons of mass destruction makes regime change on the Korean peninsula all but unthinkable. Weapons of mass destruction would render Saddam the master of a region that, because it has so much of the world's proven oil reserves, makes it what a military strategist would call the empire's center of gravity. Iraq may claim to have ceased manufacturing these weapons after , but these claims remain unconvincing, because inspectors found evidence of activity after that date.

So what to do? Efforts to embargo and sanction the regime have hurt only the Iraqi people. What is left? An inspections program, even a permanent one, might slow the dictator's weapons programs down, but inspections are easily evaded. That leaves us, but only as a reluctant last resort, with regime change. Regime change is an imperial task par excellence, since it assumes that the empire's interest has a right to trump the sovereignty of a state. The Bush administration would ask, What moral authority rests with a sovereign who murders and ethnically cleanses his own people, has twice invaded neighboring countries and usurps his people's wealth in order to build palaces and lethal weapons?

And the administration is not alone. Not even Kofi Annan, the secretary general, charged with defending the United Nations Charter, says that sovereignty confers impunity for such crimes, though he has made it clear he would prefer to leave a disarmed Saddam in power rather than risk the conflagration of war to unseat him. Regime change also raises the difficult question for Americans of whether their own freedom entails a duty to defend the freedom of others beyond their borders.

The precedents here are inconclusive. Just because Wilson and Roosevelt sent Americans to fight and die for freedom in Europe and Asia doesn't mean their successors are committed to this duty everywhere and forever. The war in Vietnam was sold to a skeptical American public as another battle for freedom, and it led the republic into defeat and disgrace. Yet it remains a fact -- as disagreeable to those left wingers who regard American imperialism as the root of all evil as it is to the right-wing isolationists, who believe that the world beyond our shores is none of our business -- that there are many peoples who owe their freedom to an exercise of American military power.

It's not just the Japanese and the Germans, who became democrats under the watchful eye of Generals MacArthur and Clay. There are the Bosnians, whose nation survived because American air power and diplomacy forced an end to a war the Europeans couldn't stop. There are the Kosovars, who would still be imprisoned in Serbia if not for Gen. Wesley Clark and the Air Force. The list of people whose freedom depends on American air and ground power also includes the Afghans and, most inconveniently of all, the Iraqis. The moral evaluation of empire gets complicated when one of its benefits might be freedom for the oppressed.

Ethnographies of U.S. Empire

Iraqi exiles are adamant: even if the Iraqi people might be the immediate victims of an American attack, they would also be its ultimate beneficiaries. It would make the case for military intervention easier, of course, if the Iraqi exiles cut a more impressive figure. They feud and squabble and hate one another nearly as much as they hate Saddam. But what else is to be expected from a political culture pulverized by 40 years of state terror? If only invasion, and not containment, can build democracy in Iraq, then the question becomes whether the Bush administration actually has any real intention of doing so.

Society, State, and Empire

The exiles fear that a mere change of regime, a coup in which one Baathist thug replaces another, would suit American interests just as well, provided the thug complied with the interests of the Pentagon and American oil companies. Whenever it has exerted power overseas, America has never been sure whether it values stability -- which means not only political stability but also the steady, profitable flow of goods and raw materials -- more than it values its own rhetoric about democracy.

Where the two values have collided, American power has come down heavily on the side of stability, for example, toppling democratically elected leaders from Mossadegh in Iran to Allende in Chile. Iraq is yet another test of this choice. Next door in Iran, from the 's to the 's, America backed stability over democracy, propping up the autocratic rule of the shah, only to reap the whirlwind of an Islamic fundamentalist revolution in that delivered neither stability nor real democracy.

Does the same fate await an American operation in Iraq? International human rights groups, like Amnesty International, are dismayed at the way both the British government of Tony Blair and the Bush administration are citing the human rights abuses of Saddam to defend the idea of regime change. Certainly the British and the American governments maintained a complicit and dishonorable silence when Saddam gassed the Kurds in Yet now that the two governments are taking decisive action, human rights groups seem more outraged by the prospect of action than they are by the abuses they once denounced.

The fact that states are both late and hypocritical in their adoption of human rights does not deprive them of the right to use force to defend them. The disagreeable reality for those who believe in human rights is that there are some occasions -- and Iraq may be one of them -- when war is the only real remedy for regimes that live by terror. This does not mean the choice is morally unproblematic. The choice is one between two evils, between containing and leaving a tyrant in place and the targeted use of force, which will kill people but free a nation from the tyrant's grip.

Still, the claim that a free republic may sense a duty to help other people attain their freedom does not answer the prudential question of whether the republic should run such risks. For the risks are huge, and they are imperial. Order, let alone democracy, will take a decade to consolidate in Iraq. The Iraqi opposition's blueprints for a democratic and secular federation of Iraq's component peoples -- Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Turkomans and others -- are noble documents, but they are just paper unless American and then international troops, under United Nations mandate, remain to keep the peace until Iraqis trust one another sufficiently to police themselves.

Like all imperial exercises in creating order, it will work only if the puppets the Americans install cease to be puppets and build independent political legitimacy of their own. If America takes on Iraq, it takes on the reordering of the whole region. It will have to 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. These burdens include opening up a dialogue with the Iranians, who appear to be in a political upsurge themselves, so that they do not feel threatened by a United States-led democracy on their border.

The Turks will have to be reassured, and the Kurds will have to be instructed that the real aim of United States policy is not the creation of a Kurdish state that goes on to dismember Turkey. The Syrians will have to be coaxed into abandoning their claims against the Israelis and making peace. The Saudis, once democracy takes root next door in Iraq, will have to be coaxed into embracing democratic change themselves.

All this is possible, but there is a larger challenge still. Unseating an Arab government in Iraq while leaving the Palestinians to face Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships is a virtual guarantee of unending Islamic wrath against the United States. The chief danger in the whole Iraqi gamble lies here -- in supposing that victory over Saddam, in the absence of a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, would leave the United States with a stable hegemony over the Middle East.

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Absent a Middle East peace, victory in Iraq would still leave the Palestinians face to face with the Israelis in a conflict in which they would destroy not only each other but American authority in the Islamic world as well. The Americans have played imperial guarantor in the region since Roosevelt met with Ibn Saud in and Truman recognized Ben-Gurion's Israel in But it paid little or no price for its imperial pre-eminence until the rise of an armed Palestinian resistance after Now, with every day that American power appears complicit in Israeli attacks that kill civilians in the West Bank and in Gaza, and with the Arab nations giving their tacit support to Palestinian suicide bombers, the imperial guarantor finds itself dragged into a regional conflict that is one long hemorrhage of its diplomatic and military authority.

Properly understood, then, the operation in Iraq entails a commitment, so far unstated, to enforce a peace on the Palestinians and Israelis. Such a peace must, at a minimum, give the Palestinians a viable, contiguous state capable of providing land and employment for three million people. It must include a commitment to rebuild their shattered government infrastructure, possibly through a United Nations transitional administration, with U.

This is an awesomely tall order, but if America cannot find the will to enforce this minimum of justice, neither it nor Israel will have any safety from terror. This remains true even if you accept that there are terrorists in the Arab world who will never be content unless Israel is driven into the sea. A successful American political strategy against terror depends on providing enough peace for both Israelis and Palestinians that extremists on either side begin to lose the support that keeps violence alive.

Paradoxically, reducing the size of the task does not reduce the risks. If an invasion of Iraq is delinked from Middle East peace, then all America will gain for victory in Iraq is more terror cells in the Muslim world. If America goes on to help the Palestinians achieve a state, the result will not win over those, like Osama bin Laden, who hate America for what it is.

But at least it would address the rage of those who hate it for what it does. This is finally what makes an invasion of Iraq an imperial act: for it to succeed, it will have to build freedom, not just for the Iraqis but also for the Palestinians, along with a greater sense of security for Israel.

Again, the paradox of the Iraq operation is that half measures are more dangerous than whole measures. Imperial powers do not have the luxury of timidity, for timidity is not prudence; it is a confession of weakness. The question, then, is not whether America is too powerful but whether it is powerful enough. Does it have what it takes to be grandmaster of what Colin Powell has called the chessboard of the world's most inflammable region?

America has been more successful than most great powers in understanding its strengths as well as its limitations. It has become adept at using what is called soft power -- influence, example and persuasion -- in preference to hard power. Adepts of soft power understand that even the most powerful country in the world can't get its way all the time. Even client states have to be deferred to.

When an ally like Saudi Arabia asks the United States to avoid flying over its country when bombing Afghanistan, America complies. When America seeks to use Turkey as a base for hostilities in Iraq, it must accept Turkish preconditions. Being an empire doesn't mean being omnipotent. Nowhere is this clearer than in America's relations with Israel. America's ally is anything but a client state. Its prime minister has refused direct orders from the president of the United States in the past, and he can be counted on to do so again.

An Iraq operation requires the United States not merely to prevent Israel from entering the fray but to make peace with a bitter enemy. Since , American and Israeli security interests have been at one. But as the death struggle in Palestine continues, it exposes the United States to global hatreds that make it impossible for it to align its interests with those Israelis who are opposed to any settlement with the Palestinians that does not amount, in effect, to Palestinian capitulation. The issue is not whether the United States should continue to support the state of Israel, but which state, with which borders and which set of relations with its neighbors, it is willing to risk its imperial authority to secure.

The government is destabilizing the economy, destroying the national infrastructure through neglect and a lack of resources, and turning taxpayer dollars into blood money with its endless wars, drone strikes and mounting death tolls. As Martin Luther King Jr. Similarly, President Dwight Eisenhower warned us not to let the profit-driven war machine endanger our liberties or democratic processes. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.

It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60, population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat.

We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8, people. This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

The illicit merger of the armaments industry and the government that Eisenhower warned against has come to represent perhaps the greatest threat to the nation today. Eventually, inevitably, military empires fall and fail by spreading themselves too thin and spending themselves to death. It happened in Rome. John W. Fearless Muckraking Since Where President Trump fits into that scenario, you decide. Simply put, the government cannot afford to maintain its over-extended military empire. The transformation of America into a battlefield is blowback. The America empire is already breaking down. So who will save us?

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