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Sole Superwar == Imperialist???

by Washington Post Monday, Aug. 27, 2001 at 5:46 PM

This article focuses on the attempt made to rehabilitate the term "imperialist.".... as well as oversite/debate of current and future US gov't policies.

Empire or Not? A Quiet Debate Over U.S. Role

By Thomas E. Ricks

Washington Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, August 21, 2001; Page A01

One in a series of occasional articles.

People who label the United States "imperialist" usually mean it as an

insult. But in recent years a handful of conservative defense

intellectuals have begun to argue that the United States is indeed acting

in an imperialist fashion -- and that it should embrace the role.

When the Cold War ended just over a decade ago, these thinkers note, the

United States actually expanded its global military presence. With the

establishment over the last decade of a semi-permanent presence of about

20,000 troops in the Persian Gulf area, they contend, the United States

is now a major military power in almost every region of the world -- the

Mideast, Europe, East Asia and the Western Hemisphere. And even though

the United States is unlikely to fight a major war anytime soon, they

believe, it remains very active militarily around the globe, keeping the

peace in Bosnia and Kosovo, garrisoning 37,000 troops in South Korea,

patroling the skies of Iraq, and seeking to balance the rise of China.

The leading advocate of this idea of enforcing a new "Pax Americana" is

Thomas Donnelly, deputy executive director of the Project for the New

American Century, a Washington think tank that advocates a vigorous,

expansionistic Reaganite foreign policy. In ways similar though not

identical to the Roman and British empires, he argues, the United States

is an empire of democracy or liberty -- it is not conquering land or

establishing colonies, but it has a dominating global presence

militarily, economically and culturally.

In some ways, the quiet debate over an imperial role goes to the basic

question now facing American foreign policymakers: Was the military

activism of President Bill Clinton -- from invading Haiti to keeping

peace in Bosnia, missile attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan, and bombing

Yugoslavia -- unique to his administration, or was it characteristic of

the post-Cold War era, and so likely to be the shape of things to come?

The discussion of an American empire also helps illuminate the running

battle for the last six months between Defense Secretary Donald H.

Rumsfeld and his Joint Chiefs of Staff over how to change the U.S.

military. The defense secretary wants to prepare the armed forces to deal

with the threats of tomorrow, and so hints at cutting conventional forces

to pay for new capabilities such as missile defense. But the Joint Chiefs

respond that they are quite busy with today's missions.

Siding with the chiefs, Donnelly, a former journalist and congressional

aide, argues that "policing the American perimeter in Europe, the Persian

Gulf and East Asia will provide the main mission for the U.S. armed

forces for decades to come." He contends that the Bush administration has

tried to sidestep this reality, and instead is trying to formulate a more

modest policy in the tradition of the "realist" or balance-of-power views

associated with Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft.

The Kissingerian course is mistaken, Donnelly says. He argues that the

sooner the U.S. government recognizes that it is managing a new empire,

the faster it can take steps to reshape its military, and its foreign

policy, to fit that mission. Events of the last six months tend to

support his argument: While Bush and his advisers talked during the

presidential election campaign about withdrawing from peacekeeping

missions in the Balkans, once in office they emphasized that they would

not leave before European allies did, and they also faced the prospect of

becoming more involved in a third Balkans mess, in Macedonia.

If Americans thought more clearly and openly about the necessity of an

imperial mission, Donnelly argues, "We'd better understand the full range

of tasks we want our military to do, from the Balkans-like constabulary

missions to the no-fly zones [over Iraq] to maintaining enough big-war

capacity" to hedge against the emergence of a major adversary.

Donnelly has few open supporters, even among conservatives. But he said

he believes many people quietly agree with him. "There's not all that

many people who will talk about it openly," he said. "It's discomforting

to a lot of Americans. So they use code phrases like 'America is the sole

superpower.' "

One of Donnelly's somewhat reluctant allies is Andrew Bacevich, a retired

Army colonel who is a professor of international relations at Boston

University. Bacevich does not much like the idea of an imperial America.

But like it or not, he says, it is what we have.

"I would prefer a non-imperial America," Bacevich said in an e-mail

interview. "Shorn of global responsibilities, a global military, and our

preposterous expectations of remaking the world in our image, we would, I

think, have a much better chance of keeping faith with the intentions and

hopes of the Founders."

But he went on to dismiss that as wishful thinking. Rightly or wrongly,

he said, maintaining American power globally already has become the

unspoken basis of U.S. strategy. "In all of American public life there is

hardly a single prominent figure who finds fault with the notion of the

United States remaining the world's sole military superpower until the

end of time," he wrote in the current issue of the National Interest, a

conservative foreign policy journal that has been the major venue of the

imperial debate.

So, Bacevich concluded, "The practical question is not whether or not we

will be a global hegemon -- but what sort of hegemon we'll be."

Until American policymakers candidly acknowledge they are playing an

imperial role on the world stage, Donnelly and Bacevich argue, U.S.

strategy will be muddled, the American people frequently will be

surprised by the resentment the United States meets overseas, and the

military will not be given the resources necessary to carry out its

missions -- such as more troops trained for a "constabulary" role of

peacekeeping and suppressing minor attacks, along the lines of the 19th

century British military.

But Donnelly and Bacevich split on the ultimate cost of taking an

imperialist course. Like many critics of empire, such as conservative

commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, who in 1999 wrote a book called "A

Republic, Not an Empire," Bacevich worries that imperialism abroad could

carry a high cost at home.

"Tom Donnelly sees all of that as really neat, exciting, return-of-the-

Raj adventure," he said. "I see it as merely unavoidable, and suspect

that we'll end up paying a higher cost, morally and materially, than we

currently can imagine."

Donnelly responds that such concerns lack historical basis. He notes that

as America has grown more powerful over the last 150 years, so too has it

expanded domestic liberties, freeing its slaves and extending voting and

other rights to women and minorities.

For an idea with so few public adherents, there are a surprising number

of critics of taking up the imperialist burden. In a 1999 speech at the

Council on Foreign Relations, for example, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, then

Clinton's national security adviser, argued that "we are the first global

power in history that is not an imperial power."

Many of the critics believe that embracing an imperial stance would

backfire precisely because of the foreign reaction it would provoke, or

maybe already is provoking. "People have got our number," said Chalmers

Johnson, president of the Japan Policy Research Institute, an independent

think tank outside San Diego. He believes that the United States is

pursuing an imperialist course, and that "Coalitions are forming left and

right around the world to thwart it." He points to closer cooperation

between Russia and China, to a united Europe that is becoming less of an

ally and more of a competitor, and to the swift rise of the anti-

globalization movement. Last year, Johnson published a book titled

"Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire." It was, he

said, "ignored" in this country.

Joseph Nye, a former official in the Clinton-era Pentagon who is dean of

Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, has just completed another book

denouncing the idea. In "Soft Power: The Illusion of American Empire," to

be published next year, he argues that the notion that the United States

is, and should strive to remain, the world's only superpower has become

widely accepted among conservative commentators.

Nye says this hegemonic view pays too much attention to military might.

"I think that people who talk about 'benign hegemony' and 'accepting an

imperial role' are focusing too much on one dimension of power and are

neglecting the other forms of power -- economic and cultural and

ideological," he said. Overemphasizing U.S. military strength, he

continued, ultimately would undercut those less tangible forms of power,

and so curtail any effort to maintain an empire.

Along the same lines, Richard Kohn, a University of North Carolina

historian, argues that most Americans wisely would reject an imperial

role if it were put to them openly. "The American people don't have the

interest, the stomach or the perseverance to do it," Kohn said. "A few

bloody noses and they'll want to pack it in. They recognize that it would

cost us our soul, not to speak of the moral high ground -- in our own

minds most of all."

To his critics, Donnelly responds that they are arguing with reality, not

with him: "I think Americans have become used to running the world and

would be very reluctant to give it up, if they realized there were a

serious challenge to it."

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