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As the battle for Baghdad comes to a close in Iraq, a battle for the soul of the American republic has begun in Washington, D.C. This is a battle of ideas being waged by people with an imperial concept of American power, or "flag conservatives," with a diverse coalition of other groups. The flag conservatives have taken the view that America needs to fight a long war of self defense until the last of the cold-blooded killers of 9/11 has been hunted down and killed and until all regimes in the axis of evil have been changed. The opposing coalition does not support such an imperial expression of power. The opposing coalition counters that an imperial war will erase the very freedoms domestically that the U.S. seeks to project internationally. This coalition spans the ideological spectrum, and includes conservatives such as Pat Buchanan, libertarians such as Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute and Jacob Hornberger of the Future of Freedom Foundation, mainstream democrats and the various groups who were active in the no-war movement.
This battle will gain momentum in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election. The first shots have already been fired by some of those who are seeking the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. For example, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts began to call for regime change in Washington while the war was underway, drawing considerable flak from the proponents of war. Similarly, Governor Howard Dean of Vermont made the anti-war issue a primary topic of his speech at the recent Democratic Party convention in Sacramento and came in for sharp rebukes from the other side.
The "flag conservatives" are exultant, since their long-standing objective of gaining mastery of the Middle East appears within reach. As discussed later in this article, Paul Wolfowitz first articulated this viewpoint shortly after the First Gulf War. Facilitated by the tragic terrorist attacks of 9/11, the first campaign of the "war against terrorism" took place against the ragtag army of the Taliban whose strength did not exceed 40,000. The regime in Kabul, which boasted that it would not be crushed as easily as the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, collapsed within two months. The second campaign, which became the Second Gulf War, took place against the woefully under-fed, under-equipped and demoralized army of Saddam Hussein, whose famed Republican Guard simply became a mirage in the Iraqi desert once hostilities commenced. The Baathist regime in Baghdad, which had boasted that it was far stronger than the Taliban and would turn Iraq into a graveyard of the invading armies, collapsed within a month.
While temporarily restrained by global public opinion, the war machine being directed by the flag conservatives threatens to branch out toward the east and the west from Iraq, with campaigns directed at effecting regime change in Damascus and Teheran. In the not-too-distant future, campaigns may be directed at effecting regime change in Riyadh and Cairo. There are even rumblings of effecting regime change in Islamabad, since Pakistan is the only Muslim country with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and it is alleged to be supporting terrorism in India.
Any who doubt this grim forecast need only consult the "National Security Strategy of the United States of America," published last November by the White House. It commits the U.S. to supporting "moderate and modern government, especially in the Muslim world, to ensure that the conditions and ideologies that promote terrorism do not find fertile ground in any nation." Having both the intent and the capability to make war, the Bush administration has sent a clear message to Muslim governments throughout the world. If they do not comply with U.S. dictates, they will be forced out of power, and their leaders either killed or captured without even the pretense of due process.
Richard Perle, a key architect of the drive to topple Saddam, has declared that the war will not stop with Iraq: "We shall continue to fight against countries who harbor and develop weapons of mass destruction." He ruled out any U.N. role in the new war, since the Security Council "was created to manage classic crises such as Germany invading France with divisions of Panzer tanks. This institution is incapable of dealing with the toughest problems of our time such as terrorism or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."
Today, the global military presence of the U.S. encompasses more than a thousand bases in nearly a hundred countries. This number includes "ghost bases," which are not staffed with U.S. personnel but are important repositories of military hardware and supplies that can be tapped on a moments notice. These bases, like the forts of imperial Rome, are a perceptible indicator of Washington’s ability to force a regime change when it chooses and where it chooses. Some have argued that the bases are primarily intended to convey a political message to countries in their neighborhood and to cultivate "relationships" with the host countries. Sometimes, the existence of the bases is kept a secret from the population of the host country.
The flag conservatives have sold the long war to the American people as a necessary war of self-defense. Dick Cheney has said that the world before 9/11 looks different than the world after 9/11, "especially in terms of how we think about national security and what’s needed to defend America. Every significant threat to our country requires the most careful, deliberate and decisive response by America and our allies." Roger Morris, who was on the staff of the National Security Council under Presidents Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, notes that President Bush waged war on Iraq by asserting that Iraq posed a clear and present danger to peace. Morris says that war was waged, even though the danger was neither clear to Iraq’s Arab neighbors nor to the rest of the world; nor was it present in a one to five year time horizon. By unilaterally attacking Iraq, the president "erased long-recognized limits on the right of any nation to attack another."
Furthermore, the president’s writ went unchallenged on Capitol Hill, "another sign that any internal democratic restraint on the President’s war-making was a dead letter." Morris notes that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 transformed the president’s image from being the butt of satire to that of a commanding leader in the mold of Winston Churchill: "Mr. Bush took on his own reconstruction with earnest determination, even gusto, finding his yet undefined political destiny in an expansively defined war of terror."
Norman Mailer, one of America’s leading men of letters, says that the war has gratified the need of the flag conservatives to avenge 9/11. He argues that it is of no consequence that Iraq was not the culprit for 9/11, and President Bush proved that he would not let the lack of evidence get in the way of implementing his grand vision: "9/11 was evil; Saddam is evil; all evil is connected. Ergo, Iraq." Bush has also promised the American people a bonus from the war, which will begin to accrue once democracy and free markets permeate the Arab world.
The casus belli
Learned American scholars such as Yale’s Paul Kennedy and Harvard’s Joseph Nye have argued that this long war, based on "hard" military power, is not going to serve the vital interests of the U.S. So why is it being waged? At least four reasons suggest themselves.
First, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a special interest group in this country found itself marooned from reality. Its raison d’etre had disappeared. President Eisenhower was the first man to suggest the existence of this special interest group, and he dubbed it the military-industrial complex. Being a former military man, he knew better than most the tenacity of this complex. As the Cold War came to a close with the fall of the Berlin Wall, members of this complex were seriously concerned that any "peace dividend" would drive them out of business. The "evil empire" of the Soviet Union had provided an eminent rationale for continued U.S. military spending, and a new enemy had to be found quickly. After a process of trial and error, this enemy appeared in the face of militant Islam.
Second, the state of Israel was gripped with insecurity flowing from its 30-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It retreated from Lebanon and now faced an increasingly belligerent second intifada in the Occupied Territories that had begun to intrude into Israel. Israel turned to its patrons in Washington for assistance, using the ethnic ties of its leaders to the leaders of the neo-conservative movement in the Republican Party. In the views of Norman Mailer, President Bush regards the protection of Israel as obligatory for strategic reasons having to do with his re-election in 2004, but also because of tactical military reasons. The Mossad has the finest intelligence service in the Middle East at a time when there was a paucity of Arab spies in its American counterpart. Mailer argues that by threatening to go to war against any Arab country that poses a threat to Israel, the president can also satisfy the more serious polemical needs of a great many neocons in his administration that believe "Islam will yet be Hitler Redux to Israel."
Third, U.S. dependence on imported oil, especially from the Middle East, has continued to grow as Americans having few incentive to invest in energy efficiency continue to buy increasingly larger and heavier sports utility vehicles typified by the Hummer, a civilian variant of the Army’s Humvee. The U.S. consumes a quarter of the world’s oil consumption, and is forced to import more than half of its requirements. Much of this comes from the Persian Gulf, and this dependency is likely to grow over time as domestic production dries up. The surest way for the U.S. to sustain its overwhelming dependence on oil is to control 67% of the world’s proven oil reserves that lie in the Gulf.
Fourth, and most importantly, a small group of people began to argue for the virtual American takeover of the globe within a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As mentioned in the beginning of this article, the leading exponent of this position was Paul Wolfowitz, at the time a little-known defense under-secretary for policy reporting to Dick Cheney, then defense secretary. Wolfowitz drafted a document that envisioned the United States would be "a Colossus astride the world, imposing its will and keeping world peace through military and economic power." Not in so many words, he called for the establishment of Pax Americana. The proposal drew so much criticism that it was withdrawn hastily and repudiated by then President George H. W. Bush. The document was re-issued in the fall of 2000 during the presidential election campaign. It laid out in plain English a game plan and script for the Americanization of the globe under an ambitious rubric, the Project for a New American Century (PNAC). PNAC, which described U.S. armed forces abroad as "the cavalry on the new American frontier," became U.S. foreign policy after 9/11.
En masse regime change in the Middle East
Norman Podhoretz, the godfather of the neocons, has called for en masse regime change in the Middle East. Podhoretz’s list of the "axis of evil" goes beyond the three countries cited by President Bush in his January 2002 State of the Union speech, and includes Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, the Palestinian National Authority, Saudi Arabia and Syria. He wants the U.S. to unilaterally overthrow these regimes in the Arab world and replace them with democracies cast in the mold of Jefferson and Wilson.
But what the neocons seek is not just a political transformation of the Middle East. Their end game is to bring about "the long-overdue internal reform and modernization of Islam." These ideologues are fundamentally confrontational in nature. They recognize that American military intervention in the Middle East will provoke terrorist attacks on Americans, both at home and abroad. They would welcome such an attack, since the terrorists would provide the U.S. with the pretext for even stronger military intervention. Neocons believe that the U.S. will emerge triumphant in the end, provided that it shows the will to fight the war against militant Islam to a successful conclusion, and provided too, that it has "the stomach to impose a new political culture on the defeated parties." All of these policies suggest that the neocons believe they have liberated the U.S. from the constraints of history in a post-9/11 world.
Contrarians in the true sense of the word, the neocons pride themselves on being politically incorrect. Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, provides a particularly horrific example on the magazine’s web site. He argues that if terrorists from Muslim countries detonate a "dirty bomb" in the United States, the U.S. should launch a nuclear attack on Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Lowry justifies this outrageous proposal by portraying it as a deterrent to terrorist attacks, believing that Muslim militants would not want to risk the destruction of their holiest shrine.
Professor Elliot Cohen is the most influential neocon in academe. From his perch at John Hopkins, Cohen refers to the war against terrorism by a chilling name: World War IV (citing the Cold War as WWIII). His viewpoint is diametrically opposed to that of the distinguished historian of war, Sir Michael Howard, who has cautioned that the fight against terrorism is not even a war, let alone a world war. Cohen claims America is on the good side in this war, just like it has been in all prior world wars, and the enemy is militant Islam, not some abstract concept of "terrorism."
Cohen argues that the U.S. should throw its weight behind pro-Western and anticlerical forces in the Muslim world, beginning with the overthrow of the theocratic state in Iran and its replacement by a "moderate or secular" government. He was one of the first neocons to call for an attack on Iraq, even though there was no credible evidence linking Iraq with 9/11 or al-Qaida.
A few months prior to the invasion of Iraq, the neocons launched a bipartisan Committee for the Liberation of Iraq with much fanfare. One of its prominent members is the 81-year old George Schulz, a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. Schulz served as Secretary of State in the Reagan administration and Treasury Secretary in the Nixon administration. Several key members of the Bush administration have worked for him-including Dick Cheney, Paul O’Neill (the former Treasury Secretary) and Donald Rumsfeld-while Colin Powell worked at the National Security Council when Schulz was Secretary of State. Schulz began to call Saddam Hussain a menace to peace for months prior to the war, and forecasted that the U.S. would attack Iraq by the end of January. His words confirmed the suspicion of many scholars and peace activists that the Bush administration merely wanted to use U.N. Resolution 1441 as a cover to attack Iraq.
For President Bush, overthrowing Saddam Hussein served a political, ideological and personal agenda. Politically, Saddam was the best available substitute for the un-locatable bin Laden and even if the U.S. could not find Saddam, it could at least depose him and say, "Saddam can no longer threaten us with his weapons of mass destruction." Ideologically, this long war and the doctrine of preemption express the militarism, unilateralism and fear of international institutions that characterize much of the Republican power base in the South and the Mountain States.
Conventional wisdom had argued that a U.S. attack on Saddam would fuel popular uprising against other Arab governments. But the neocons turned this argument on its head. Regime change in Baghdad could stimulate regime change elsewhere in the region, and that would be all to the good. Notes Victor Davis Hanson, a professor of Classics at California State University, Fresno and an advisor to President Bush, "Baghdad for the Bush administration was never the end. It was the beginning. And that’s why it’s such a controversial move because it threatens every idea of stability, every idea of normality, every idea of who’s friendly and who’s not in the entire post-war world. It’s the most revolutionary event, I think, in our times. At least, it rivals the change in the map in eastern Europe."
The original imperialists
As we begin the 21st century, are we witnessing a re-enactment of the 20th century? The ideas of World War I British imperialists such as Mark Sykes and Leo Amery bear an uncanny resemblance to those of today’s American neocons. As Yale historian Paul Kennedy puts it, they "wanted to diminish French, Russian and German influence in the region. They sought secure access to Middle East oil, and to sites for staging posts and air bases. They also believed that British genius could reconcile Arab and Jewish interests in Palestine. All this turned out to be a romantic delusion"
Baghdad experienced its first liberation in 1917. The liberator was Lieutenant-General Sir Stanley Maude. The Mesopotamian provinces of Baghdad and Basra were the first to be liberated by the British from the Ottoman Empire. Palestine was next, followed by Syria and Lebanon. In a few years, the Arabs were rioting in Palestine and rebelling in Iraq.
An uprising of more than 100,000 armed tribesmen against the British occupation swept through Iraq in the summer of 1920. Air Commodore Harris, reacting to the Palestinian revolt, declared, "the only thing the Arab understands is the heavy hand, and sooner or later it will have to be applied." The Royal Air Force was brought into action, and thwarted the rebellion by killing nearly 9,000 Iraqis. But there was great concern in Westminster, since the operation had cost more than the entire British-funded Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire in 1917-18. Winston Churchill suggested the use of chemical weapons against "recalcitrant Arabs as an experiment." Specifically, he suggested the use of poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes "to spread a lively terror."
All of this came at a bad time. The economy of the Empire was collapsing and the Crown’s time, energy and resources were needed to revive it. An exasperated Winston Churchill told His Majesty’s government that it was spending millions for the privilege of sitting atop a volcano. Lamenting on the British experience in Palestine, the "last lion" was to write, "At first, the steps were wide and shallow, covered with a carpet, but in the end the very stones crumbled under their feet."
Much has changed during the past century. A former colony across the Atlantic has eclipsed Great Britain, and is the new home to an empire on which the sun never sets. The armies of the new empire have invaded Baghdad, with the armies of the old empire in tow in Basra, bearing this time the gift of democracy.
The tactics of liberation have changed as the empires have changed places, but the objectives remain the same. Iraq remains the lynchpin to the Middle East, and whoever controls Baghdad will control the Middle East. As the French say, "Plus çà change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same)."
In the same year that Baghdad fell to the imperial British army, Vladimir Lenin published a trenchant piece, "Imperialism, The Highest Stage Of Capitalism." In it, Lenin wrote, "I trust that this pamphlet will help the reader to understand the fundamental economic question, that of the economic essence of imperialism. For unless this is studied, it will be impossible to understand and appraise modern war and modern politics."
This year, as Baghdad is liberated for a second time, Niall Ferguson, an economist and historian at New York University and Oxford, has published a book with a very different message. Noting that the British Empire was the chief promoter of progressive thought around the globe for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Ferguson suggests that the world would do well to get itself another essentially "good" empire to maintain order. The good empire he’s talking about is exactly what the flag conservatives want to establish in the U.S.
Ferguson believes that the U.S. should sustain networks of trade, aid, investment and defense that will mimic the British world order. Rogue states will be curbed, failed nations healed and brushfire wars smothered-by aid and investment where possible, by arms where necessary.
It will, of course, be an imperialism that dare not speak its name. Some of the imperialists in progressive non-governmental organizations will even believe that they are anti-imperialist. And the logos under which they operate will be derived from the United Nations or the International Monetary Fund rather than from the U.S. But the underlying networks of cooperation that sustain this new imperialism are likely to link the U.S. with such "Anglosphere" nations as Britain and Australia and perhaps, in due course, India and South Africa, which share the same liberal heritage.
In a widely quoted speech that he gave recently at the University of California, Los Angeles, former CIA director James Woolsey addressed Arab leaders directly, "We want you [to be] nervous. We want you to realize now, for the fourth time in a hundred years, this country and its allies are on the march and that we are on the side of those whom you-the Mubaraks, the Saudi Royal family-most fear: We’re on the side of your own people." Woolsey noted proudly that the U.S. was engaged in fighting World War IV.
The import of his remarks will not be lost on Muslim and Arab leaders. A fundamental change has occurred in the tactics of implementing regime change. What was formerly accomplished through covert "black" operations is now being accomplished through overt military operations. In the near future, regime change may be expanded to include not just those un-elected despots with access to WMDs but any rulers who stand in the way of the neocon agenda of global domination.
In words that echo the logic that was used for striking Baghdad, well-known Islamaphobe Daniel Pipes issued a report in the year 2000 that warned Damascus was developing weapons of mass destruction and encouraged swift preemption by the U.S. Pipes co-chaired the task force that produced this report with Ziad Abdelnour, an investment banker who since 1997 has led an organization called the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon (USCFL). "If there is to be decisive action, it will have to be sooner rather than later," warns the document, which was signed by a task force of 31 members, including several people who now hold senior foreign policy positions in the Bush administration.
Some experienced Washington journalists have spent time with the neocons and come back to report that growing Islamic militancy in the Arab world is precisely what the neocons want. It justifies the United States in extending the conflict to other nations until the entire region is transformed. In a sense, this parallels the beliefs of the growing number of evangelical Christians who see chaos in the Middle East as a prelude to the coming rapture. It’s hard to say which idea is more dangerous.
Will they succeed?
It is important to note that while the recent U.S. victories in Afghanistan and Iraq were apparently achieved at low cost, the real cost was considerably higher. Firstly, they were achieved at low human cost to the U.S., but considerably higher human cost to the Afghans and Iraqis, a fact that has led to rising anti-Americanism throughout the globe. Secondly, they were achieved at considerable economic cost to the American taxpayer even though the enemies were primitive third world nations. In the recent war on Saddam Hussein’s regime, part or all of the eight of the 10 infantry divisions of the army were either tied down by the war or were standing by to go to the war zone. Five of the 12 aircraft carriers were actively engaged in operations. All this military muscle had to be used to subdue a regime that spent about $1.4 billion a year on defense, compared with the $400 billion a year spent by the U.S.
George Magnus, chief economist at UBS Warburg, estimates that the continuation of the ongoing war could see defense spending rise from 4.0% of GDP to as much as 9.0% in the coming years. This development will not impress the financial markets, since it comes on the heels of the largest budget and trade deficits in U.S. history and continuing high rates of unemployment. Comments David Hale of Hale Advisors, an economics consultancy, "It is unclear if America is truly prepared to accept an imperial role on a sustained basis." Despite the 9/11 attacks, the sustained threat to the U.S. from terrorism is less obvious than the threat from the U.S.S.R. David Landes, a Harvard economic historian, found that even in Great Britain-where attachment to empire ran deep-economic necessity meant that the rapid liquidation of imperial liabilities in India and the Middle East after the Second World War met with little opposition. "Once the potential cost becomes apparent, the willingness of the American public to pay for their country’s new security strategy will be tested to the limit."
Speaking of the neocon desire for changing the Arab world, Paul Kennedy reminds Americans of the failed British experience and questions whether the U.S. fare any better. And lest anyone say that America is not Britain, he cites America’s poor track record of trying to transform the societies of Central America, Cuba and the Philippines. "We took over the latter two territories more than a century ago, yet Cuba’s history has been a shambles and the Philippines is now receiving fresh cohorts of U.S. military advisers. Why do we think we will do better in Syria or Iraq or Saudi Arabia?"
In the wake of the easy Iraqi conquest, the American generals who led the war have touted their campaign as one of the most successful in military history. For example, Marine Lieutenant General Earl Hailston declared from his headquarters in Bahrain, "We fought like we’d never fought before," citing the campaign highlighted the military’s lethal technological advantage and the ability of U.S. forces to conduct operations seamlessly across the military branches that historically had been riven with age-old rivalries. Such statements lend credence to the desire of the flag conservatives to have the American military serve as the cavalry along America’s frontiers.
Historian and political analyst Francis Fukuyama has noted that the U.S. conquest of Iraq is likely to mark the zenith of its perceived strength, both in a military and political sense. He advises the U.S. to exploit this moment of strength not by thinking of moving against Syria, Iran or North Korea, but by contracting its empire. He goes so far as to suggest the U.S. withdraw all of its military forces from Saudi Arabia, where their presence has been exploited by Osama bin Laden to pursue his campaign of terrorism. In a similar vein, Seyom Brown of Brandeis University argues that the world’s only superpower needs to restrain itself. He comments, "Rather than loosening the constraints against the resort to war, we ought to be retightening them."
Even a nation as uniquely powerful as the U.S. cannot remake the political systems at the heart of the Islamic world. Last December, the Financial Times editorialized that "dropping a big enough stone in the Iraqi pool" would not unleash a wave of democracy in the region." It is likely that the Muslim world will view a string of U.S. military attacks on Muslim countries as the aggression of an oil-thirsty superpower on the Muslim world, not a march to liberate people from tyranny. And, were democracy to arrive miraculously in the Arab countries, it will result in the election of openly anti-American leaders. Robert Baer, a former field officer of the CIA in the Middle East, notes that Osama bin Laden would be elected in a landslide in Saudi Arabia if a free and fair election were held there tomorrow.
Policy makers in Washington, including those with an open mind in the administration and the Congress, should seriously consider the dangers in pursuing a hubris-laden Middle Eastern policy that has strategic myopia written all over it.
This article originally appeared in Asia Times.
Copyright, Asia Times, 2003.