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The Necessities of Empire: Iraq and Beyond

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Though I am 100% certain that regime change in Iraq is our only viable course of action, that does not mean I do not see the physical and moral dangers of American power imposing itself afar.

In today’s NY Times Magazine Michael Ignatieff presents the most complete, logical, balanced, informative, rational, and thought-provoking study of the realities of American empire, “empire lite” he deems it, and after exploring with a palpable urgency the alternatives to America exerting its military strength in Iraq, he concludes that it is in fact the necessary and prudent course of action:

    Ever since George Washington warned his countrymen against foreign entanglements, empire abroad has been seen as the republic’s permanent temptation and its potential nemesis. Yet what word but ”empire” describes the awesome thing that America is becoming? It is the only nation that polices the world through five global military commands; maintains more than a million men and women at arms on four continents; deploys carrier battle groups on watch in every ocean; guarantees the survival of countries from Israel to South Korea; drives the wheels of global trade and commerce; and fills the hearts and minds of an entire planet with its dreams and desires.

    ….The 21st century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science, an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known. 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.”

So we are a reluctant empire, an empire of necessity, forced into renewed “empirical” action by the realization that there are no more backwaters in the world, that American soil is the roost where the world’s resentment and discontent will ultimately alight. But what of Iraq?

    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. Even if victory is rapid, a war in Iraq and a postwar occupation may cost anywhere from $120 billion to $200 billion.

    ….Iraq is not just about whether the United States can retain its republican virtue in a wicked world. Virtuous disengagement is no longer a possibility. Since Sept. 11, it has been about whether the republic can survive in safety at home without imperial policing abroad. 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.

    ….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.

    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.

But Ignatieff contends – and I completely agree – that regime change is not enough: we must do what is necessary to set Iraq upon the road to democratic self-determination – for its own sake, and for the sake of example in the Arab/Islamic world.

    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

    ….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.N.-mandated peacekeepers to provide security for Israelis and Palestinians. 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.

We are in a very difficult position: damned if we do, damned if we don’t, but the dangers of “don’t” are greater. We must overthrow Saddam in Iraq, chase the dominoes throughout the corrupt autocratic regimes of the area, AND resolve the Palestinian-Israeli mess in order to both make the world a better place AND increase our own security. This will not be easy, quick, or without great risk, but half measures, in Ignatieff’s astute assessment, do not reduce the risk or even the effort. There are times when all or nothing are the only options; “nothing” has has been eliminated for us as an option by 9/11, leaving only “all.” All it is.

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