Joshua Micah Marshall: Did the Bush Administration Create a New American Empire—Or Weaken the Old One?





Joshua Micah Marshall, writing in the New Yorker (Feb. 2, 2004):

For leftist critics of America's role in the world, it has long been a baleful article of faith that the United States is an agent of “neo-imperialism,” exerting its power through global capital and through organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. After September 11th, a left-wing accusation became a right-wing aspiration: conservatives increasingly began to espouse a world view that was unapologetically imperialist....

In “Empire,” which appeared last spring, the acclaimed historian Niall Ferguson presented the British Empire as a model of how to secure global stability, foreign investment for developing countries, and simple good government. “What the British Empire proved is that empire is a form of international government that can work—and not just for the benefit of the ruling power,” he wrote. Through more than three hundred slick, illustrated pages, Ferguson mapped the past onto the present, identifying the building blocks of Britain's empire with their contemporary American analogues. For Britain's gunboats, America's F-16s and Tomahawk missiles—always prepared to knock around troublemakers on the empire's periphery. For Britain's missionary and social-uplift societies, today's N.G.O.s. In place of Britain's long-running policing action against the slave trade, similarly high-minded campaigns against ethnic cleansing.

Why did the British imperium come to an end? The standard histories tell us about great-power rivalries, a diminishing technological gap between overlords and subjects, growing independence movements among the colonized. Some conservative scholars have suggested, however, that the British Empire fell apart because of war-induced impoverishment and national fatigue. Finally, they say, the Brits just lacked will. But in 2002 America had will in abundance, and more money and guns than the British had ever had. Ferguson was challenging us simply to face up to what we already were. In the closing pages of his book, he wrote, “Americans have taken our old role without yet facing the fact that an empire comes with it.” We were, in his view, an empire “that dare not speak its name . . . an empire in denial.”...

An “empire of bases” is what Chalmers Johnson calls it in his new book, “The Sorrows of Empire” (Metropolitan; $25). It is not, for him, an edifying spectacle. Much in Johnson's account is no different from what might be found in a host of other left-leaning critiques of American power, but the trajectory of his career sets him apart. For decades, Johnson, an Asia specialist, was one of those stock figures of the Cold War: the defense analyst and academic in constant orbit of the C.I.A. Then, late in his career, he began to reconsider his Cold War commitments, particularly in East Asia. The way America garrisoned allied countries like Japan and South Korea put him in mind of the de-facto empire that the Soviets had created in Eastern Europe. Once he made that turn, he never looked back. ...

President Clinton came to office intending to keep foreign entanglements to a minimum. That isn't what happened, of course. Despite dire predictions that every military engagement would lead to a quagmire, America found that it could strike with virtual impunity almost anywhere on the globe, and military forays became more common....

The trend was accelerated by changes in the structure of the military. The Pentagon had for decades divided the world into a series of regional commands—sometimes known as cinc doms, after the acronym for commander-in-chief, the title held, until recently, by those who command them. (The last of these— centcom , which covers the Middle East, Central and South Asia, and the Horn of Africa—was created in 1983.) But a reorganization of the Pentagon in 1986 vastly increased the power of the cinc s by having them report directly to the President as well as to the Secretary of Defense, unlike the chiefs of the military's four services, who report to civilian secretaries. By the late nineties, the officers who led these commands—men like General Wesley Clark, at the European Command; Marine General Anthony Zinni, at centcom ; and Admiral Dennis Blair, at Pacific Command—were far more powerful than the various ambassadors who conduct the nation's diplomatic business in the countries under each cinc 's oversight. Johnson notes that when, in October, 1999, General Pervez Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup in Pakistan, President Clinton called in protest and asked that his call be returned. Musharraf called Zinni instead. “Tony,” Musharraf reportedly said, “I want to tell you what I am doing.” So the trend hasn't been simply a militarization of foreign policy. It has also been a diplomatization of the American military. In the architecture of empire, the cinc s functioned like proconsuls or regional managers of Pax Americana, with plenty of money and guns and no little ingenuity.

If America, militarily unchallenged and economically dominant, indeed took on the functions of imperial governance, its empire was, for the most part, loose and consensual. In the past couple of years, however, neo-imperialism, this thing of stealth, politesse, and obliquity, has come to seem, so to speak, too neo. Especially as the war on terror began, hard-liners who were frustrated by Clinton's bumbling and hesitations saw no reason to deny that America was an imperial power, and a great one: how else to describe a country that had so easily vanquished Afghanistan, once legendary as the graveyard of empires? The only question was whether America would start running its empire with foresight and determination, rather than leaving it to chance, drift, and disaster.

 

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