The imperialism canard

The far right and far left find agreement on the Iraq war. And couldn't be more wrong.

Published October 8, 2002 10:49PM (EDT)

At some point, given the increasing desperation of the antiwar polemicists, the code word "imperialism" had to come up. And so it has. In what is to me a deeply clarifying alliance, the hard right and the hard left agree on this: The war on Iraq is an imperialist war.

In the inaugural issue of his new magazine, American Conservative, Pat Buchanan bemoans the history of imperialism, and how overreach undid "the Ottoman, Russian Austro-Hungarian, and German empires in World War I, the Japanese in World War II, the French and the British the morning after." Which leads Buchanan to the following prediction: "We will soon launch an imperial war on Iraq with all the 'On-to-Berlin!' bravado with which French poilus and British Tommies marched in August 1914."

Not to be outdone, Gary Kamiya, yet another Salon lefty boomer, vies with Buchanan in his isolationist fears: "By word and deed -- breaking treaties, disdaining allies, declaring America exempt from international law, announcing a new doctrine of preemptive force -- the Bush administration has shown its desire to establish the United States as, in effect, an imperial power, the new Rome. After Sept. 11, an angry and triumphalist America is to be answerable to no one. Flaunting our 3,000 dead like a crusader's banner, we will march against foes wherever we may find them, our unchallengeable military and invincible rectitude giving us the right and might to do whatever we want. Deus lo volt!"

The political corollary to this fast-accelerating meme is Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., fresh from his tour of Baghdad, where he did all he could to give aid and comfort to one of the most brutal dictators in world history. "This president is trying to bring to himself all the power to become an emperor -- to create Empire America," McDermott pronounced last Sunday. He was referring to Bush, not Saddam, natch.

But is the United States these days anything like an actual empire? Being an empire, after all, does not merely mean that you are extremely powerful, militarily, economically or culturally. It means, if it is to mean anything concrete, the appropriation of others' territory, goods and people at the barrel of a gun. Even one of the milder empires in world history, the British Empire, was essentially an imposition of brute force on large parts of the globe in order to generate wealth and cheap goods for the domestic market. The people subject to such imperialism have no role in their own future, no sovereignty over their own country, no right to their own goods and services. Under any viable definition of imperialism, the colonies provide tribute to the center, as the fledgling American colonies once did to London. And they have no choice.

Once you spend a couple of minutes thinking about this, you realize that the notion of "Imperial America" is dangerous nonsense. Take Afghanistan. Has the United States annexed the country, as the Soviets and British once did? Have the Americans put large numbers of troops in there to control the entire country? Did they impose a government by force? Are they busy plundering the place for its natural resources? Nope. They liberated the country from an invader, they helped set up a domestic council for a democratic Afghanistan and, far from bilking the place for treasure, they have actually spent millions rebuilding the country, with no direct quid pro quo. An exception? Hardly. Remember Germany and Japan? How many imperial powers have sunk fortunes into colonies only to allow them complete independence, even to the point of resisting American foreign policy?

Some leftists and rightists concede this but argue rather that free trade itself is a form of imperialism. But, as the 19th century protectionist and imperialist Tories could have told you, the critical point about free trade -- once fiercely defended by anti-imperialist liberals -- is that it's voluntary. No one is being forced to trade right now with the United States, or anyone else, for that matter. Without military coercion in order to appropriate goods, there's no imperialism by any reasonable definition of the same.

What about McDermott's implicit point: Is Bush trying to exercise powers of war and peace in ways that make him a de facto Caesar of the New World?

He is asking for no more powers to wage war than many other presidents before him, and Congress has a huge say in what emerges. Bush couldn't even get the networks to cover his major war address Monday. Somehow, I think Caesar had an easier time of it.

And remember how reluctant this president once was to wage war at all. In the campaign, he was clearly less interventionist than Gore, asked for less defense spending and urged America to be a "humble nation." He changed because war was declared on us. And his current war proposal is, if anything, explicitly anti-imperialist.

Who, after all, is Saddam? He's a man who presides over a fake nation, contrived by British imperialists; a man who tried to invade and annex Iran; and then tried to invade and annex Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. He, unlike Bush, has no constitutional authority and will never be subject to popular criticism or resistance. Deposing him is therefore the precise opposite of what Buchanan and Kamiya and McDermott claim. It's an anti-imperialist venture. And because such ventures invariably have the people on their side, this is yet another war that the anti-imperialist hegemon, America, will almost certainly win.

By Andrew Sullivan

Salon columnist Andrew Sullivan's commentary appears daily on his own Web site.

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