Imperial Waltz

Is American power good, bad, or distressingly reluctant?


Colossus: The Price of America's Empire, by Niall Ferguson, New York: Penguin Press, 384 pages, $25.95

An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror, by David Frum and Richard Perle, New York: Random House, 284 pages, $25.95

Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East, by Rashid Khalidi, Boston: Beacon Press, 223 pages, $23

Writing of Britain's Victorian empire, James (now Jan) Morris observed that the imperial experience released emotions "laced with the hope of profit, the pleasure of authority and the chance of doing good." He added that "the theme grows heavier as it progresses, an instinct matures into a duty, a duty curdles into a craze, a craze becomes a burden." By the end of the cycle, the empire, accepted at the start, is "utterly discredited."

Those emotions of empire, this time the American version, are captured, separately, in David Frum and Richard Perle's An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror, Rashid Khalidi's Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East, and Niall Ferguson's Colossus: The Price of America's Empire. Frum and Perle see American domination as an opportunity to do good. Khalidi fast-forwards to the discredit ultimately heaped on empire. Ferguson provides a partial synthesis of the two perspectives (minus Khalidi's animosity). Conscious of how the American empire blends the hope of profit with the desire to do good, as well as the pleasures and rights of authority, he worries that the United States may be dangerously ignorant of its imperial fate.

While only Khalidi deals solely with the Middle East, all the authors keep a steady eye on the region. A recurring theme is their concern with the spread of open societies and free markets–or the charade of that project–particularly in the Arab world. Frum and Perle are undone by speaking out of both the liberal and the illiberal sides of their mouths, even as they deny that the U.S. is an empire at all. Khalidi self-destructs thanks to his inability even to consider a benevolent aspect to empire. Ferguson, who has no doubts about America's imperialism, recognizes the liberalizing potential of its power while playing down its darker side.

Ferguson's creativity is emancipating. An inescapable conclusion about the modern Middle East is that indigenous liberal reform has been a spectacular illusion. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. As Arab countries embarked on post-colonial independence, they became less free. Most Arab civil societies have been bludgeoned into silence by their regimes, with even the more representative systems denying their citizens true political participation.

Ferguson, positing the need for a liberal American empire, suggests a possible mechanism for change from the outside, even as he wonders whether the U.S. is up to the task. And while there has been much denigration of the notion that democracy and free markets can be imposed, Ferguson suggests it is indeed possible. More pertinently, the 9/11 attacks underlined how the success of this ambition in the Middle East is intimately tied to U.S. national security.

There is of course the problem of defining empire. For former Pentagon official Richard Perle and former Bush speechwriter David Frum, America is not an empire because free societies cannot be ruthlessly expansionist–givers of freedom don't wantonly accumulate power. They write in closing that "America's vocation is not an imperial vocation. Our vocation is to support justice with power. It is a vocation that has earned us terrible enemies. It is a vocation that has made us, at our best moments, the hope of the world."

Perle and Frum banish thoughts of a U.S. empire because the motivation for American action–particularly against terrorism, the main theme of their book–is altruistic. Global American democracy is antithetical to empire, or it might vindicate those arguing that terrorism is the price the U.S. must pay for its global domination. In essence, if you're hegemonic, then why act surprised when you're attacked? Yet the two issue a call to arms: "At this dangerous moment many in the American political and media elite are losing the nerve for the fight….We can feel the will to win ebbing in Washington; we sense the reversion to the bad old habits of complacency and denial."

Perle and Frum's romantic belief in America often seems contradictory. In their blueprint for the U.S. war on terrorism, they show a readiness to suspend the liberties the republic stands for if these were somehow to limit the government's ability to advance its interests forcefully. They are far more partial to the exercise of power than they are to liberalism.

In this regard, nowhere are Perle and Frum's arguments less convincing than in how they address the Middle East, where the authors allow their pro-Israel prejudices to get the better of their judgment. They offer a robust defense of the Iraq war, which they see as a possible route to Middle Eastern democracy. While the escalation of the insurgency has overcome talk of democracy in Iraq, let alone in the wider Arab world, one can argue in defense of Perle and Frum that the ambitions of the liberalization project should not be judged by the poor execution of the occupation.

Regarding the Palestinians, the elephant in the living room of those who argue that U.S. influence in Iraq can help spread Middle Eastern liberalism, Perle and Frum side with the worst on Israel's far right. In a shallow passage they write that in the Arab and Muslim world "the Palestinian issue has never been about compassion, mercy, or even justice. First and always, the issue has been about vengeance."

This belief is not only untrue; it suggests that force alone can resolve the Palestinian problem. Perle and Frum offer little to a Palestinian state: It should be an entity that has no means of destroying Israel, that can maintain order and stop terrorism but also accept "demilitarization" and "renounce all claims to the territory of a secure and defensible Israel." The latter formulation is loaded: The dispute is essentially about land, and Israeli governments have used the "secure and defensible" caveat to annex Palestinian territory. In the end, Perle and Frum propose that, like Arab Jews who moved to Israel, "the exiled Palestinians should likewise be accepted as citizens of Arab countries in which they now live."

Swallowing disappointment is hardly a compelling cure for Palestinian-Israeli hostility, especially when Palestinians are a generation away from being a demographic majority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Moreover, the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in Arab countries is a sore point in a region where the perception is that Israel rests on a foundation of ethnic cleansing. Perle and Frum, as self-identified agents of liberal self-determination, cannot leave the matter there. What is good for the Iraqis must be good for the Palestinians. But they do leave it there, ignoring the fact that America's inability to resolve this contradiction has undermined Arab confidence in the sincerity of its democratization project in the Middle East.

Rashid Khalidi, who holds the Edward Said Chair in Arab Studies at Columbia University (and who dedicates his book to "EWS"), is one of those who doubt the sincerity of this project. His Resurrecting Empire is a tribute to the headlock of history, the idea that the lessons of the past must somehow invariably apply in the same way today. Khalidi comes to readers from the commanding heights of expertise, arguing that what "seems so painful to those with any real knowledge of the region" is the unwillingness of the U.S. to accept that it is stepping into the boots of past imperial powers, and that "this cannot under any circumstances be a good thing and cannot possibly be 'done right.'"

Khalidi thus offers a very different view from that of Perle and Frum, for whom the messenger can alter the nature of the message. Where the latter see American power as a force for good, Khalidi, who has no doubts about America's imperial bent, rejects the possibility that it might represent something potentially constructive.

If this is the use to which history is put, it is stifling indeed. Khalidi is unimaginative when it comes to seeing the possible advantages of American power in the Middle East. Instead, he falls back on a standard template of Arab criticism, arguing that the Iraq war was part of "a new form of hegemony over the region, in collaboration with Israel."

The first half of that judgment is possibly true, but the second is based on scrawny evidence–mainly that in 1996 a group of American neoconservatives, including Perle, helped write a policy paper titled "A Clean Break" for Israeli prime ministerial candidate Benjamin Netanyahu. They outlined a vision for the region very much to Israel's advantage, including going after Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah, "weakening, containing and even rolling back Syria," and bringing the Hashemites to power in Iraq.

The only problem with Khalidi's theory is that the paper sought to influence Israeli rather than American behavior. Much in it was never implemented. This was not because neocons wouldn't have liked to see a Middle East in that image but because policy is not made in the way Khalidi suggests. Position papers rarely have a direct influence on grand strategy; contending bureaucracies kick in to muddy the waters. As the neoconservative publicist Max Boot put it, describing the influence of his Bush administration brethren: "While neocons temporarily won the policy argument in some areas, the president and his inner circle are hardly marching in lockstep with their agenda. As in all administrations, there are competing factions at work, and no side will ever win all the policy arguments."

The Israeli link to Iraq is important to Khalidi because he sees it as proof that the Americans are hypocritical democratizers. The pity is that Khalidi never asks how Arabs and Palestinians have benefited from the overthrow of Saddam, arguably the worst tyrant modern Arabs have known. Was it never conceivable that a democratic and multiethnic Iraq would provide Arabs with a contrast to their usual condition under dictatorship? Or that it would highlight Israel's mistreatment of the Palestinians? Or that it would prove that Islam and democracy are compatible?

Alas, the know-how of Arab intellectuals has rarely generated democratic change in the Middle East during the last half-century. Many, like Khalidi, came to reject transformational fantasies about the region, over time becoming de facto guardians of the status quo. It was not a status quo they liked, but one they accepted after the failures of their preferred alternatives, the most obvious one being Arab nationalism. Frustration was palliated by a perception that the region was far more complex than the uninitiated suspected, and that to understand its dynamics one had to be an expert. And so Arab "expertise" slowly bred sterility–most flagrantly in Iraq.

Security is a word rarely seen in Khalidi's text, nor does one ever get a sense from him how the 9/11 attacks shaped U.S. Middle East policy. If America's war in Iraq is old-fashioned imperialism, then it cannot be a preliminary effort to change a region that, intentionally or not, dispatched 19 young men to kill 3,000 innocents. The administration botched its justifications for war in Iraq, and probably post-war revival, but underneath was a sensible view that Middle Eastern autocracy had generated frustration and much hatred for America, and that therefore it was necessary to change the situation.

Ironically, Khalidi and his comrades long blamed Washington for failing to do just that. So how does Khalidi react to America's ambitions in Iraq? He says that if American support for democracy and human rights were "lasting and consistent throughout the region," it would be welcomed. But sweeping change doesn't occur in a flash; piecemeal progress is necessary. Yet accepting this would mean that Khalidi would have to embrace the transitory advantages of the U.S. invasion of Iraq (advantages that may be more difficult to discern today thanks to bungling post-war policy), which would imply that American imperialism might occasionally be a force for good. Yet he has already made clear that this proposition is unacceptable. The sage has boxed himself in.

Unlike Khalidi, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson rarely follows his arguments into a dead end. His Colossus is a report on the condition of America today, not a history of American imperialism. It is also a sound blend of Perle and Frum's optimism about American power and Khalidi's more historical approach to American behavior. Ferguson is known for the line that "America is an empire in denial," which sums up his thoughts fairly well. Like Perle and Frum, he aims to stiffen America's back at a time of volatility, particularly in Iraq. But more important, Ferguson wants to make the U.S. conscious of its imperial destiny.

"I believe the world needs an effective liberal empire and that the United States is the best candidate for the job," Ferguson writes. But he is skeptical that the Americans will play along, warning, "For all its colossal economic, military and cultural power, the United States still looks unlikely to be an effective liberal empire without some profound changes in its economic structure, its social makeup and its political culture."

This is Ferguson's gentle way of saying that the Americans aren't cut from imperial cloth. As Iraq has shown, they're not good at holding overseas territories (though they seize them quickly enough), have developed no effective imperial governing class, seem to believe what they say when promising "liberation" to peoples they have conquered, and have a tendency to become impatient to leave once the bullets start flying and American blood is shed.

Ferguson's model is the British Empire, particularly the favorable economic impact of its former colonial system. Gazing at the wreckage of many a post-colonial state, he observes: "In many cases of economic 'backwardness,' a liberal empire can do better than [an independent] nation-state….The evidence that, in an increasingly protectionist world, Britain's continued policy of free trade was beneficial to its colonies seems unequivocal. Between the 1870s and the 1920s the colonies' share of Britain's imports rose from a quarter to a third." And everyone benefited: "The British Empire was an engine for the integration of international capital markets. Between 1865 and 1914 more than ?4 billion flowed from Britain to the rest of the world, giving the country a historically unprecedented and since unequaled position as global net creditor, the 'world's banker' indeed, or, to be exact, the world's bond market."

But Ferguson is not out to gloat; rather, he seeks a mechanism of both order and greater openness in an unruly world. And like American neocons, he believes the U.S. should not bar the use of force in spreading capitalism and democracy. Khalidi would protest, though not against Ferguson's observation that "learning from the history of other empires, Americans will learn not arrogance but…humility."

It is very much a burden Ferguson is describing, one he believes the U.S. must shoulder. His views of empire are far less normative than they might seem. While Ferguson is sympathetic to American values, his point is that the U.S., whether one likes it or not, is the global "hegemon," so the world must deal with it. This is as much an affirmation of the raw reality of power as it is an appreciation of America.

Ferguson's baldly neo-imperial approach is daring and novel, but it suffers from his downplaying the abuses that historically accompanied imperial ventures. Whether it was the British Empire or its more anemic American counterpart at the turn of the 20th century, the practice of power could be very bloody indeed. American behavior in the Philippines, for example, is hardly something one would want the U.S. to repeat. The same goes for Britain's performance in South Africa, India, or Ireland.

In concentrating on what a liberal empire can and should be, Ferguson does not mention what it should not be–and recent imperial history presents many foul examples of how burgeoning democratic systems could also be remarkably brutal in their overseas territories. Had Colossus provided some insight into this phenomenon, Ferguson could have avoided having the deficiency turned against his broader argument.????????

Ferguson ends his book with an intriguing hypothesis: that America's decline will come not from outside but "as it came to Gibbon's Rome, from within." He argues the empire is more likely to collapse because of a ballooning fiscal crisis nourished by the American propensity to consume much and save little than because of motley "barbarians at the gates." The U.S., he warns, faces an impending Social Security crisis because Americans are living longer and the fiscal system remains entirely inadequate to pay for future generations. The self-defeating ways to deal with this, he continues, are to engage in massive increases in income and payroll taxes, to slash Social Security benefits by equally dramatic amounts, or to cut discretionary spending to zero.

It would be a fitting end for this most contested of global entities: to close up shop thanks to consumer-induced bankruptcy. It is equally fitting that it takes a Scotsman, stepchild to a former empire, to raise such a possibility, even as America presses on, atop a wave of (sometimes vulnerable) self-confidence, cash registers frittering imperium away.?