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Thursday, November 21, 2002

The question of empire.

Twelve years ago, when I was a college student, I spent three months working in the "Utah Coalition Against War in the Middle East." I helped draft public statements; I designed and posted flyers all over Salt Lake City for a November 1990 antiwar march. I subscribed to the socialist In These Times, the left-liberal Nation, and other progressive antiwar periodicals; I attended teach-ins; I wrote letter after letter to government officials. By the time Congress approved the use of force to get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, however, I had dropped out of the antiwar movement.

My exposure to the hard left — the Socialist Workers Party and incipient Green Party activists who made up the coalition's base and who ended up defining the aims of Utah's antiwar movement — left me frustrated and dismayed. I withdrew over the slogan they adopted: "U.S. out of the Middle East now!" I had thought the first Bush administration was being disingenuous about its goals — stopping Iraqi aggression I could understand; protecting Kuwait's "democracy" simply insulted our intelligence — but the antiwar movement's radical goals offered no realistic alternatives.

I thought there might be more effective diplomatic measures (like strong U.N. sanctions and regional military coalitions) to force Saddam Hussein to back down. In retrospect, I have my doubts: Even if diplomatic measures had succeeded, Iraq's nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons facilities would have survived intact, and the world would arguably be a more dangerous place today. But the antiwar movement chose a more ambitious and indefensible goal: a full American retreat from the world's most explosive region. It didn't help that the antiwar activists simply reversed the most extreme anti-Iraqi rhetoric: The young Socialist Worker who manned the coalition's table at the University of Utah liked to tell students that George Bush was more like Hitler than Saddam Hussein was.

And now they're at it again. Well-meaning people who want to see a realistic alternative to the use of military force are confronted with the angry slogans and absolute demands of utopian sixties hold-outs and idealistic students. American power, to them, is the source of the problem; neutralizing it is the solution. (Click here for liberal critiques of left-wing folly.)

But American power isn't going away, and no amount of denial can absolve the U.S. of its obligations in the world. The Democrats, who have downplayed foreign policy for many years, didn't present an alternative because they haven't thought of one yet. The Republicans are divided between unilateralists and isolationists — all or nothing, in other words — with a handful of "realists." The choice isn't between isolationism and empire, as the all-or-nothing people on the political fringes want us to believe. The choice is between the responsible and irresponsible uses of American power.

Michael Ignatieff describes the U.S. government's short-sighted attempt to rebuild Afghanistan with little effort and almost no funding; he calls it "nation-building lite." We're in danger of allowing Afghanistan to relapse into civil war, which is the situation that brought us the Taliban in the first place. There are liberal and humanitarian reasons to intervene forcefully in Iraq — but only if the United States and other nations are committed to long-term reconstruction. (James Fallows describes the scenario as "the fifty-first state.") But the Bush administration says little about the aftermath of war, and is clearly not budgeting for the expense of running other people's countries. So what kind of empire is the U.S. building?

Alan Wolfe writes, "There is more to having an empire than simply the possession of great military power," and observes that for better or worse Americans "fear empire rather than welcome it." Americans are cheap when it comes to overseas adventures — a predisposition that hinders Republicans especially. "No serious empire-builder would ever cut taxes as recklessly as President Bush has," he writes. Not only is the U.S. financially unprepared to take on an empire, Americans remain blithely unconcerned about life abroad — and President Bush has done nothing to counter this. Finally, Wolfe says, U.S. policy still responds much more to domestic elections than to international concerns: If forced to choose between protecting the interests of a bloc of voters or protecting the interests of an international ally, American politicians will pick politics over empire. One thing the Bush administration is not: a concerted effort at expanding an empire.

"We resist an imperial role for America not because we are humanitarians and internationalists but because we are stingy with our government and lack genuine interest in the rest of the world." Perhaps the most important domestic political battle in the coming years will be over the meaning of America's power in the world, and whether we will develop principles that help make the world a better place.

Copyright © 2002 by Philocrites | Posted 21 November 2002 at 7:02 PM

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