Featured Post

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Our new empire

For about 45 years, from Nasser's seizure of power in Egypt in the early 1950s until 9/11, the United States essentially lived with the Middle East and the broader Muslim world as they were. During that period openly hostile regimes ruled Egypt (until about 1974), Syria (almost without exception), Iraq (after 1957), parts of Yemen, and, after 1979, Iran. Egypt became an American client in the late 1970s after making peace with Israel, and promptly lost its leadership position in the Arab world. Iran had been by far our strongest Muslim ally in the region from 1953 until 1979 but then, not coincidentally, became our bitterest enemy. An anti-American regime took power in Afghanistan in 1996 after we assisted the Afghans in expelling the Soviets. When our two biggest enemies clashed in the 1980s, we helped both of them at different times and in different ways. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 the first Bush Administration contented itself with restoring the status quo ante. The Palestinian Authority seemed on its way to becoming an American client at the height of the peace process in the 1990s, but the failure of that process in 2000 helped set things on another path. Meanwhile, the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan and collapsed, and Central Asia saw the founding of a number of newly independent Muslim "stans."

Many of the leading intellectual lights of the Bush Administration had favored a more active policy during the 1990s, and they evidently began discussing one as soon as they came into office. 9/11 gave them their chance. George W. Bush's mantra--that those who sheltered or aided terrorists would "share their fate"--was in effect a declaration of unlimited war on all our enemies in the region, since Iraq and Iran (as well as Saudi Arabia) had all helped terrorist groups. The imposition of new American client governments began in Afghanistan and spread to Iraq. Bush also proclaimed that no unfriendly nation would be allowed to secure nuclear weapons. Now Bush has been out of office for more than eighteen months--and all those policies remain orthodoxy. We are launched, indeed, on the most ambitious imperial project since that of the British in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Thus, in Afghanistan--one of the remotest, poorest countries on earth--more than 50,000 American troops are trying to prop up an inept, corrupt client government against a well-organized insurgency that enjoys the support of much of the neighboring Pakistani government. Numerous stories last week suggest that we shall remain in Iraq, in one way or another, for decades to come, and that we are committed to building a new Iraqi Army with American weapons so that Iraq can defend itself conventionally against its neighbors. (The market for arms races in the Middle East, apparently, never dies.) We are doing whatever we can to strengthen the Palestinian authority on the West Bank, even though we can't stop Israel from building more settlements. Nor is this all. The New York Times magazine recently published an article suggesting that Yemen, one of Al Queda's new homes, would be the next Afghanistan. And the US military is deeply involved in many African governments, looking for new sources of radical extremism and trying to find ways to head them off. Lastly, the new Administration, like the old, continues to argue that we have a right and a duty to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. And as a result, President Obama's popularity in the Muslim world has plummeted.

Our new enterprise as other dimensions explored in this Sunday's New York Times. After we occupied Iraq I commented to a colleague that the US had now acquired its own much larger West Bank--a more or less ungovernable territory that we would have to police violently for as long as we remained there. The Times story shows that this new West Bank now includes Yemen, Somalia, and unspecified North African territory as well. Copying the Israelis, we are identifying hostile militants in those countries and trying to kill them with precision strikes from drones or cruise missiles. One could argue at length whether this is war or rather a new form of international law enforcement based on summary executions without trial and, inevitably, with considerable collateral damage and killing of innocents. I do not believe that a stable world can be built with such tactics, and indeed, the story concludes with a reference to a new book about them by Micali Zenko that analyzes their use and concludes that "such operations seldom achieve either their military or political objectives."

During and after the Cold War, Presidents did from time to time successfully change their rhetorical thrust and their policy. President Kennedy announced in effect at American University in June 1963 that we did not seek the downfall of the Soviet Union, but rather merely to live in peace. His great rival Richard Nixon did something similar, albeit with less grace, during his first term, and reaped great short-term political benefits. So did Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush in response to Mikhail Gorbachev. In his Cairo speech President Obama seemed to want to reverse course, but he had already selected an entirely conventional foreign policy team. Secretary Clinton's policies have not differed in any fundamental way from Secretary Rice's. This weekend the President endorsed the construction of the Muslim cultural center in downtown Manhattan, a courageous gesture towards Muslims here in America. He has not made any new similar gestures towards Muslims abroad. [Note: on Saturday the President backed away somewhat from his original statement, declining to pass judgment on the "wisdom" of constructing the center while re-affirming the rights of all religions.]

When the British extended their control over greater India, Egypt, much of East Africa, and much of the Middle East in the years 1857-1925, western civilization was more self-confident and relatively more advanced, and the populations of those territories were much, much smaller. The British relied mostly on native troops, something which we have not been able to do. Only in India and some parts of Africa was their influence very lasting. In sharp contrast to either 1940-1 or the early stages of the Cold War, we have assumed this enormous new role without any real national debate. The rest of the western world has abandoned formal imperialism on this scale. I am looking forward to reading my friend Andy Bacevich's new book on Washington's permanent war mentality. Meanwhile, I wonder what effect a successful terrorist attack in the US will have on all this, and whether I will live to see a Middle East free of substantial American forces. I will not be surprised if the answer is no.


Bozon said...


Thanks for the article.

Great capsule, in the most compressed possible compass.

Re last sentence, I would not be surprised either.

I came out questioning the wisdom of the mosque, partly because we here weren't historically, or constitutionally, set up really for toleration of Islam, in spite of Jefferson's jestures;

and as you have summarized it, so much of recent foreign policy makes such a jesture ridiculous.

Maybe someone will disagree with me. I haven't had that happen much.

all the best,

Anonymous said...

British power internally was long since consolidated and their current crisis war (Crimean war) was a new start to a colonial expansion cycle as you have described above till 1925. The British Imperial Navy and the pound sterling controlled trade and finance and English was the lingua franca. Britain went bankrupt on this programme of global domination, particularly in WWI and US Dollar and Naval power gradually took on the mantle of the global trade and financial empire by 1945. Troops in Germany, Japan and then the Korean/Vietnam wars were expansion of Anglo Saxon empire .US capitalism/ industrialism was then able to expand after collapse of the Soviet bloc and de facto collapse of communism in Asia . This was the signal for a rapid expansion of US power into the Middle East/Africa with withdrawal of Soviet support and ideology. The US right wing had a free hand abroad. Whereas internally the country remained divided between right/left, imperial expansion, particularly after 911 was supported by most of the population. Similar to imperial Britain, where between 1857-1925 while internally a labour opposition to blueblood / industrialists coalition became slowly established, in the USA after WWII the civil rights movement, a broad welfare state and environmentalist movement gained ground in opposition to a military financial industrial complex led by wealthy, arch conservatives, bluebloods, and religious right wingers. Similar to Imperial Britain the USA military and Dollar as reserve currency have developed feet of clay. Due to trade deficit and overreach and awaits the next country to inherits its title as global leader. However this time a seamless and peaceful transition is not possible. As USA elite were related to British elite and allied with similar cultural values, the current situation between USA and China, a possible successor is distinctly different. More likely is the USA trying to maintain its power to the bitter end. The USD as reserve currency and its naval/air technology would take decades for China to be able to effectively challenge on a one to one basis. China however has created missiles to destroy the US fleet within 1000 miles of Chinese shores and they are buying influence with Arabs, Africans and Latin Americans as well as leveraging influence in the USA directly by purchasing USA debt.
Internally the USA seems divided to the point of completely ineffectual governance or effective reform. This is similar to the situation ion the 1850s USA where fundamental structural problems then (slavery) after a massive national expansion to the west (Mexican American War) compares to the current situation with a structural problem of massive over consumption at all levels, (social welfare state, consumer culture), based on easy credit and imports of finished goods from Asia and petroleum from abroad in unsustainable manner supported by the military expansion into the Middle East. As in the 1850s the Southern conservatives then and now the Neocons and industrial apparatus (oil companies/ military industrial complex) they represent, have a backwards looking vision towards maintaining an industrial consumer society using 25% of global resources for 5% of global population by importing capital and raw materials on credit.
A progressive vision which the Democrats only partially embrace and understand would be a low energy, low consumption, no debt society, with minimal dependence on the state by the individual and no foreign empire. This is a vision of a sustainable America. However SUVS, Suburbia, shopping malls, USD as reserve currency, together with US global military pre-eminence is seen as the “Nonnegotiable American Way of Life.” The Right supports this way of life most of all, but almost all Americans support unsustainable consumption, which is essentially supporting dictatorships in the Middle East, provoking a rise in Islamism and accelerating China’s rise to power, parallel to the USA’s decline. America is providing the tools and weapons to fuel its successors and maybe destroyer.

Nur-al-Cubicle said...

Thank you Prof. Kaiser as well as commenters Gerald and surfer.

I don't understand how you can have an empire without a) conquering the place, b) establishing your own social order, c) importing your institutions, d) colonizing, with US citizens running manufacturing, trade, plantations and mines and homesteading, e) building the infrastructure, f) creating a vast colonial administration, including the schools to supply them at home and abroad, etc., g) having a mass of "half-breeds" (pardon) reporting to creole masters to run your police and intelligence, h) a rigorously stratified society in the colonies (you'll note that Israel fulfills many of these imperial requirements) with the indigents recognizing they are on the lowest rung, with the exception of a few lucky fellows, etc. and the colonials seeing themselves as a gift from God.

Whatever the strategists in Washington are up to, it is going to be expensive and last for generations. (Clearly, there is no "pullout" from Iraq as there will be 20 US permanent bases and 50,000 troops there.) Perhaps they're operating on a new, untried "trickle-down" imperial lite strategy: i.e. just being there with our military, material and our plenty is going to reform the indigents. I suppose the strategists have also set out to destroy Islam.

BTW, I note that the successful 1950-1960 counterinsurgencies -Malaya and Algeria- were successes precisely because the British and French had already become the colonial masters. What you can accomplish with skill-less empire on the cheap remains to be seen.

Anonymous said...


Petraeus Opposes a Rapid Pullout in Afghanistan


Anonymous said...

David , While I would agree that what is going on is no way to build a peaceful world , I would at the same time take issue with your " ambitious imperial project" The USA while certainly hegemonic does not fit any standard definition of being an imperial power. It aims to control the foreign policy of other nations but I do think even Bush /Cheney recognized that in the era of globalization that even USa can not manage the whole globe on its own . They have the military power to win any conflict but still need allies to help ensure the peace in the aftermath of open warfare .

Anonymous said...

The Ecstasy of Empire


Bruce said...

The American empire is but a result of our love of war. In this regard, I commend to your attention James Hillman's book "A Terrible Love of War." In it, he delves into the historical human predisposition and thirst for war. Afterall, if it were so terrible, why have we as a species been unable or unwilling to leash its furies?

Because he claims that "war does not yield to the human mind's day-world comprehension," Hillman develops a deep hermeneutic -- a penetration and understanding -- of the mythic, psychological and religious foundations of the on-going war culture.

As a part-time theologian, I was especially struck by this passage:

"Ceremonies of military service, the coercion by and obedience to a supreme command, the confrontation with death in battle as a last rite on earth, war's promise of transcendence and its sacrificial love, the test of all human virtues and the presence of all human evils, the slaughter of blood victims, impersonally, collectively, in the name of a higher cause and blessed by ministers of several faiths -- all drive home the conclusion that 'War is religion.'"

He adds, "War is religion' takes us only halfway. Beyond is a far graver proposition: 'Religion is war.'"

In this regard, take a look at Rene Girard's "Violence and the Sacred", which examines the links between the archaic roots of the blood sacrifice of a victim and the eventual development of religious ritual and liturgy.

an80sreaganite said...

I guess it’s all about perspective. I see the role of the US as the bearers of liberty and freedom from tyranny. Of course, one could argue that we never invaded South Africa to free people from apartheid, but we will freely invade a country based on their perceived ability to produce nuclear weapons. The permanent war mentality from my perspective is a result of our willingness as a nation to end tyranny around the world rather than for imperialism.

Clearly, we have ulterior motives in the Middle East. Protecting the free flow of oil at market prices is at least as important (one could argue more important) than freeing people from tyranny of a ruthless dictator. There are several benefits to the US being in permanent war, as well. We get to be viewed as the leader and protector of freedom in the world, build a floor to our economy (based on the military industrial complex) and we can choose at least for the short-term foreign leaders who will be friendly to the US.

I like to think the American blood spilled on foreign soil is ultimately for the greater good. I firmly believe every modern era war (say from the Civil War on) was fought for just that reason - not for imperialism like the British Empire. I have not ever viewed the motives of the US as imperialist, though I'll admit; protecting the free flow of oil at market prices is pretty close to imperialism...

Chris said...

Outstanding post. I look forward to your analysis of generations in the context of two conflicting flawed ideaologies.