Bush’s Neo-Imperialist War
John B. Judis | October 22, 2007
Our Iraqi occupation not only rejects American foreign policy since Wilson, it’s a throwback to the great power imperialism that led to World War I.
In 1882 the British occupied Egypt. Although they claimed they would withdraw their troops, the British remained, they said, at the request of the khedive, the ruler they had installed. The U.S. Army Area Handbook aptly describes the British decision to stay:
At the outset of the occupation, the British government declared its intention to withdraw its troops as soon as possible. This could not be done, however, until the authority of the khedive was restored. Eventually, the British realized that these two aims were incompatible because the military intervention, which Khedive Tawfiq supported and which prevented his overthrow, had undermined the authority of the ruler. Without the British presence, the khedival government would probably have collapsed.
The British would remain in Egypt for 70 years until Gamel Abdel Nasser’s nationalist revolt tossed them out. They would grant Egypt nominal independence in 1922, but in order to maintain their hold over the Suez Canal, the gateway to British India and Asia, they would retain control over Egypt’s finances and foreign policy.
On Sept. 13, 2007, George W. Bush issued his report to the nation on the progress of “the surge” in Iraq. Echoing the British in Egypt, he promised “a reduced American presence” in Iraq, but he added ominously that “Iraqi leaders from all communities … understand that their success will require U.S. political, economic, and security engagement that extends beyond my presidency. These Iraqi leaders have asked for an enduring relationship with America. And we are ready to begin building that relationship — in a way that protects our interests in the region and requires many fewer American troops.” (Emphasis mine.) In other words, Iraqi leaders who owe their positions to the U.S. occupation want the Americans to stay indefinitely, and Bush is ready to oblige them, albeit with a smaller force.
British Prime Minister William Gladstone insisted in 1882 that the British would not make Egypt a colony. He wanted, his private secretary recorded, “to give scope to Egypt for the Egyptians were this feasible and attainable without risk.” But that appeared too risky, and Egypt quickly became part of the British Empire. Bush, too, has insisted that the United States is not engaged in imperialism. America is not “an imperial power,” but a “liberating power,” he has declared. But Bush’s denial rings as hollow as Gladstone’s. What Bush has done in Iraq, rather than what he says he has done, is to revive an imperialist foreign policy, reminiscent of the British and French in the Middle East, and of the kind that the United States practiced briefly under William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.
Bush’s foreign policy has been variously described as unilateralist, militarist, and hyper-nationalist. But the term that fits it best is imperialist. That’s not because it is the most incendiary term, but because it is the most historically accurate. Bush’s foreign policy was framed as an alternative to the liberal internationalist policies that Woodrow Wilson espoused and that presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton tried to put into effect as an alternative to the imperialist strategies that helped cause two world wars and even the Cold War. Bush’s foreign policy represents a return not to the simple unilateralism of 19th-century American foreign policy, but to the imperial strategy that the great powers of Europe — and, for a brief period, America, too — followed and that resulted in utter disaster.
There have been empires since the dawn of history, but the term “imperialism,” and its modern practice, originated in the late 19th century. During that time, Britain and the major European powers struggled to carve up the less developed world into colonies, protectorates, and spheres of influence. The new empires spawned during this period didn’t consist of “settler colonies” like the original American colonies or Australia, but indigenous possessions like British India or French Indochina. The United States got into the great game in 1898 when, after successfully ousting Spain from Cuba and the Pacific, the McKinley administration, prodded by Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, decided to annex the Philippines.
There were two kinds of imperial rule: direct, where the colonial power assigned an administrator — a viceroy or proconsul — who ran the country directly; and indirect, where the colonial power used its financial and military power to prop up a native administration that did its bidding and to prevent the rise of governments that did not. The latter kind of imperial rule was developed by the United States in Cuba in 1901 after Roosevelt’s Secretary of War Elihu Root realized that direct rule could bring war and rebellion, as it had done, to the McKinley administration’s surprise, in the Philippines. The British later adopted this kind of imperial rule in Egypt and Iraq.
The impetus for the growth of empires in the 19th century was economic. Britain and the imperial powers sought secure access to raw materials, including rubber, cotton, and foodstuffs — oil would come later — and to outlets for capital investment in railroads and other major projects. As their colonial investments grew, they tried to erect an international system of islands and port facilities and canals that could protect their trade routes. (The U.S. originally saw the Philippines as a stepping stone to the lucrative Chinese market.) But the impetus wasn’t only economic. By the early 20th century, as the countries strove to divide up the globe, the acquisition of colonies became a source of national power and prestige, and acquired its own elaborate and malignant ideological justification. It gained a life of its own.
This growth of imperialism eventually created the conditions for its undoing. By encouraging not merely trade rivalry, but growing competition for national power — epitomized in the pre–World War I naval arms race between Britain and Germany — imperialism helped spawn wars among the great powers themselves. The rivalry between top dog England and challenger Germany, and between Germany and Austria, on the one hand, and France and Russia, on the other, contributed to the outbreak of World War I. The Second World War also represented, among other things, an attempt by the Axis powers, a subordinate group of capitalist nations, to redivide the world at the expense of the U.S., Great Britain, France, and the USSR. And the Cold War stemmed from the attempt by the Soviet Union, one of the most vocal critics of Western imperialism, to fulfill the imperial dreams of Czarist Russia by expanding westward and to the south.
In addition, the system of imperialism spawned nationalist and anti-imperialist movements in the colonies themselves. Some of these movements, particularly in the Middle East, had a religious coloration. Others took their ideology from Soviet or Chinese communism or from the Wilsonian vision of national self-determination. These movements made it difficult, and finally impossible, for the imperial powers to maintain their control.
In the United States, Woodrow Wilson came to realize the pitfalls of imperialism not only from the six-year war with the Filipino rebels and Wilson’s own unsuccessful intervention in Mexico in 1914, but also from the outbreak of World War I, which Wilson privately blamed on imperial rivalry. After World War I, Wilson set out to create new international arrangements to replace those of imperialism. Wilson sought an agreement among the great powers through the League of Nations to prevent new conquests and wars over conquests. He wanted to phase out the existing imperialism through “mandates” that would put countries, and groups of countries, that had no vested interest in acquiring colonies in charge of assisting colonies in making the transition to self-government. And Wilson favored economic agreements to ease conflicts over access to markets and raw materials.
Wilson didn’t think the United States should abandon the leadership role it acquired at the end of World War I. But he wanted the United States to exercise it through international institutions that could ensure a peaceful world in which the United States would not have to prepare perpetually for war and in which America’s vaunted economic superiority could come to the fore. Wilson failed to win over his European counterparts and the Republicans at home. But during and after World War II, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman attempted to put Wilson’s liberal internationalism into practice. It was embodied not only in the U.N., but in the IMF, World Bank, and GATT agreements, and in America’s multilateral approach to the Cold War.
Roosevelt had planned to force Britain and France to divest themselves of their empires — the new U.N. had a “trusteeship” system for that purpose — but American resolve was blunted by the onset of the Cold War. Faced with Soviet support for anti-imperialist movements in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, the United States sided with the former colonial powers. That policy came to a disastrous culmination in the Vietnam war, which was an outgrowth of American support for French colonialism. The American defeat in Vietnam dealt a fatal blow to U.S. attempts to prop up the Western imperialism. Subsequently, Portugal’s colonies in Africa gained their independence. That left only the Soviet empire. When it collapsed in the early 1990s, the age of empire was over.
There were still colonies and quasi-colonies like Chechnya or Tibet, but they were contested extensions of the larger power itself. Some political scientists in the United States and Europe claimed that America remained an imperial power because of its worldwide system of military bases and its clout in international financial institutions, but while America was capable of influencing governments, it could no longer exercise a veto over critical regimes coming to power. The invasion of Panama in 1989 appeared to be the last gasp of America’s indirect imperialism.
Indeed, the 1990s became a high water mark of liberal internationalism. George H.W. Bush’s administration built a coalition through the U.N. to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. Acting through NATO, the Clinton administration built a coalition to end the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo and to oversee the transition to a peaceful breakup of former Yugoslavia. The United States also took leadership in the formation of the World Trade Organization — which, whatever its imperfections, was designed to prevent the kind of rival trade blocs that could eventually lead to war. At Maastricht, Western Europe, once the center of imperial rivalry, became a model of post-imperial integration. And the world’s nations seemed on the verge of agreeing to a new set of accords, including the Kyoto Protocol, that would address problems Wilson never dreamed of — problems that could not be addressed except through international agreements.
When George W. Bush took office in January 2001, however, his foreign policy echoed not only that of neo-isolationist Republicans like former Majority Leader Dick Armey, but also that of America’s foreign policy before we decided in 1898 that we had to get involved in the struggle for empire. That was an America that not only scorned empire but was oblivious to much of the outside world. Bush disdained international organizations. He withdrew the United States from the Kyoto climate treaty and whatever other international agreements had yet to be ratified. He was a unilateralist, but he was reluctant to use America’s singular power to affect the governments of other countries. His highest defense priority was the erection of an anti-missile system, the purpose of which was not only to make the United States impregnable from foreign attack, but also to reduce the reliance of the U.S. on other countries for its security.
All that changed after September 11. Bush retained his unilateralism, but he now wedded it to an aggressive strategy for dealing with America’s enemies.
In developing a response to September 11, Bush fell under the influence of neo-conservatives in his administration and in Washington policy circles. These neo-conservatives believed that the United States should use its superior military power to intimidate and overthrow the regimes of “rogue states” like Iraq that challenged American hegemony. (One typical slogan was “rogue state rollback.”) The neocons didn’t favor colonialism, but believed that by exerting its power the United States could produce regimes that did its bidding. After September 11, they spoke openly of creating a new American empire. “People are now coming out of the closet on the word ‘empire,'” Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer exulted.
The neo-conservatives found common cause with Bush officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who were concerned about protecting American access to foreign oil in a period of rising demand and stagnating supply. That made them particularly interested in ousting Saddam Hussein, whose government sat atop the third largest oil reserve in the world, and in installing a regime more friendly to the United States.
In the buildup to the war, and during the invasion and occupation, Bush officials, who were eager to advertise Iraq’s nuclear threat, were reluctant to talk about oil, but in off-the-record interviews I conducted in December 2002, neo-conservatives waxed poetic about using Iraq’s oil wealth to undermine OPEC. After he left office, former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill recounted National Security Council discussions about Iraqi oil. And in his recently published memoir, Alan Greenspan wrote, “I’m saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows — the Iraq war is largely about oil.”
Bush and other administration officials denied that the United States was trying to create a new empire. But they were less guarded in their private communications. When the White House offered former Sen. Bob Kerrey the job of head of the Provisional Authority in Iraq — the job that eventually went to Paul Bremer — officials asked him if he were interested in being “viceroy.” Kerrey, taken aback, turned down the job.
The administration’s actions also belied its denials. In March 2004, the Chicago Tribune reported that the U.S. Army was constructing what it called 14 “enduring bases” in Iraq. These would provide a continuing American military presence in Iraq. And the administration continues work on these bases, including a new one perched on the Iranian border, even as it professes to be committed to turning Iraq over to its government and army.
Though opposition to the American presence in Iraq has grown both there and in the U.S., Bush’s televised address and Gen. David Petraeus’ congressional testimony in September made clear that the administration has grown even more determined to remain there. As Spencer Ackerman points out, Bush’s promise to stay in Iraq “as long as necessary, not one day longer” has given way to the promise of an “enduring relationship.” And American projections of troop presence in Iraq now extend indefinitely into the future. If the administration’s experience in Iraq does not parallel that of the British in Egypt, it won’t be for lack of trying.
Indeed, this brand of imperialism, as practiced by the Bush administration, is remarkably similar to the older European variety. Its outward veneer is optimistic and even triumphalist, when articulated by a neo-conservative like Max Boot or William Kristol, and is usually accompanied by a vision of global moral-religious-social transformation. The British boasted of bringing Christianity and civilization to the heathens; America’s neo-conservatives trumpet the virtues of free-market capitalism and democracy. And like the older imperialism, Bush’s policy toward Iraq and the Middle East has been driven by a fear of losing out on scarce natural resources. Ultimately, his policy is as much a product of the relative decline of American power brought about by the increasingly fierce international competition for resources and markets as it is of America’s “unipolar moment.”
Bush and Cheney were hardly unique in worrying about the dwindling supply of oil. Bush’s father and Bill Clinton also worried about it. But George H.W. Bush and Clinton acted on the premise that petroleum and natural gas were international commodities to which any purchaser should have access. Oil companies, which pressed for the removal of sanctions on Iraq and Iran, shared this view. When the elder Bush and Clinton sought to prevent Iraq from monopolizing the region’s oil — and using it as a political instrument — they did so through the United Nations.
But George W. Bush has differed from his predecessors in both his concerns and his methods. Bush, prodded by Cheney, sought to win privileged access to Iraq’s oil — not necessarily for any particular company (although Cheney clearly wanted a role for Halliburton in building Iraq’s oil infrastructure), but for American producers and consumers in general. That is similar to the strategy of the older imperial powers. And the method they employed was unilateral invasion — oh yes, with the support of Britain, the former great imperial power in the region.
Bush’s imperial strategy is sparking a new phase in oil diplomacy, where oil consumers like China are trying to lock up long-term deals with countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and where the producers — notably at this point Venezuela — are beginning to use their oil wealth as a political weapon. The eventual outcome — if this rivalry is not regulated through new international agreements — could be the kind of tension that gave rise to World War I.
As the war in Iraq has turned into a quagmire, neo-conservatives who had goaded the president into action have blamed the war’s failure on the administration’s flawed strategy. They have propounded a series of “if only’s”: If only the administration had sent more troops, if only it had not disbanded the Ba’ath army, if only it had handed the leadership of Iraq over immediately to con man Ahmed Chalabi. Of these, only the addition of more troops might have quelled the insurgency, and then only temporarily. If there is any lesson from the 130-year history of imperialism, it is that the natives eventually grow restless. Since World War II, the peoples of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa have been throwing off rather than welcoming foreign control.
The Middle East, where Muslims still blanch at the Crusades and later British and French attempts to divide and rule, is particularly sensitive to outside attempts at domination. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda didn’t spring from Mecca but from the battlefield in Afghanistan, from resentment of American support for Israel and of American bases on Arab soil. Bush’s policy in the region has reflected a profound ignorance of this history. Wrote former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski in January 2007, “America is acting like a colonial power in Iraq. But the age of colonialism is over. Waging a colonial war in the post-colonial age is self-defeating.”
What, then, should the United States be doing in Iraq and elsewhere to repair the damage wrought by Bush’s exercise in neo-imperialism? On one level, this is an enormously complicated question that is beyond my capacity to answer. But on a simple, much less specific level, the answer is obvious: A new administration has to repudiate Bush’s policy of imperialism and reaffirm America’s commitment to liberal internationalism. That will entail at least these three kinds of initiatives:
* The new administration needs to repudiate Bush’s strategy of preemptive regime change and reaffirm the United Nations charter, which allows nations to act unilaterally only in their own immediate self-defense. That would have an immediate effect on American policy toward Iran, whose regime the United States is now officially trying to overthrow.
* The new administration needs to reaffirm the idea behind internationally sanctioned and administered “mandates” and “trusteeship” for countries and peoples going through a difficult transition toward independence and statehood. If countries intervene to prevent war or genocide, they must do so in a manner that assures the peoples targeted that their right of self-determination will be respected. If the United States, for instance, had tried to intervene in the Balkans by itself, it might still be fighting an insurgency there.
* The new administration needs to reaffirm the importance of international action and agreements — through the U.N. and other bodies — to aid in the prevention of wars, pandemics, and environmental catastrophe, and to ease the struggle over scarce resources, including oil and water. That means at a minimum returning to the negotiations over global warming; and attempting to revive the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which the U.S. undermined in signing a nuclear deal with India.
But what about Iraq? Should the U.S. withdraw immediately? Should it leave a rump force in place to fight international terrorists? These questions — now at the forefront of the debate in Washington — are secondary to questions of diplomacy. A new administration should declare the invasion and occupation of Iraq a mistake and pledge to remove American troops from the country. It should not do so, however, with any hope of ending the civil war there, but rather of gaining international support for a “trusteeship” that would guide Iraq back toward genuine self-government and independence. The U.S. can contribute financially, but it will have to take a subordinate role in any international peace-keeping force that enters the country.
None of this will be easy. At this point, the Bush administration might have dug such a huge hole in the region that nothing the United States does will prevent more war and greater chaos. But it is certain that the Bush administration will not change course, and, equally, that a new administration will enjoy a honeymoon not only with American voters, but with the rest of the world in which it could advance a new foreign policy that breaks decisively with that of the Bush administration. If it doesn’t do this — if it equivocates and seeks half-measures, or if it tries (as some Republican candidates threaten) to reinforce the American occupation — then its actions will not lead to an enduring relationship with the Iraqis and the peoples of the Middle East, but to an enduring nightmare.
John B. Judis, is a senior editor at The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is author most recently of The Folly of Empire.