Letters

Readers take issue with Andrew Sullivan's definition of imperialism.


Salon Staff
October 12, 2002 3:10AM (UTC)

[Read Andrew Sullivan's "The imperialism canard."]

If the United States does not take, deal or barter one drop of Iraqi oil after the occupation, I may review your argument. As of today, I believe that Iraq has oil. The U.S. wants some more control over the oil in the region, and to be less dependent on Saudi Arabia. My theory may be wildly off base. But if this war was not a manufactured war, the administration would not have hired an advertising agency to sell it.

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-- Wes Morden

I was disappointed not only in the puerile grandstanding of Sullivan's conveniently imposed "deeply clarifying alliance" between the antiwar right and antiwar left, but also in his thoroughly erroneous declarations regarding the meaning of imperialism.

Webster's unabridged dictionary states that imperialism is "The policy, practice, or advocacy of seeking, or acquiescing in, the extension of the control, dominion, or empire of a nation, as by the acquirement of new, esp. distant, territory or dependencies, or by the closer union of parts more or less independent of each other for operations of war, copyright, internal commerce, etc."

Note the final clauses, explicitly including the "closer union of parts ... independent of each other ... ", concluding firmly within the context of both Afghanistan ("operations of war") and the impending return to Iraq ("internal commerce").

Next time Sullivan wants to draw meaningless connections between extreme ideologies, he could at least do the two minutes of research it would've taken him to discover that his tract on imperialism only serves to further discredit an argument that hasn't legs to stand on in the first place.

I mean, Gary Kamiya and Pat Buchanan? Give me a break.

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-- Arren Frank

Let me get this straight: because Saddam Hussein is a ruthless dictator who has spawned border wars in his region, we are justified, and in fact "anti-imperialst" for waging a war to depose him and insert a puppet regime? Interesting. So was the U.S. government therefore imperialist in supporting and arming Iraq in its clash with Iran? And what does this facile argument do for our history and all the brutal regimes we've armed and propped up because they basically weren't communist? How do the Saudis fit in to that thesis?

Sullivan's level of reasoning is more elementary school than elementary, even for him. But the fact remains: prove to me that my son should die fighting in Iraq because Iraq is a threat to my nation. Prove to me, with a war on terrorists still very much unfinished, why we are slapping around a regime we've already roughed up, and boxed in through U.N. resolutions, as feeble as they may be?

Here's the bottom line: We've supported regimes as deplorable as Hussein's when it suited us. We supported Hussein when it suited us. And now Sullivan is saying that pouring 250,000 troops, and slaughtering Iraqis does not smack of imperialism in a region where America has a vital interest: oil. How's the weather in your world, Andrew?

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-- Andrew Albanese

Imperialism without cricket and gin and tonics:

Mr. Sullivan, in his article, "The imperialist canard," demonstrates himself to be rather easily (or, perhaps, conveniently) fooled. There's a very good reason that, "In the campaign, [Bush] was clearly less interventionist than Gore, asked for less defense spending and urged America to be a 'humble nation.'"

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He was lying.

-- Roger Rueff

Andrew Sullivan seems to say that unless we steam in with the Great White Fleet, overthrow Saddam, and then swan around Baghdad in linen suits -- reclining in rattan chairs, sipping gin and tonic, watching cricket matches -- then it can't be called imperialism.

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Well, imperialism, capitalism, and global domination all have a new look this millennium, so call it whatever you like. I believe the Bush administration is charting a reckless course. Their explanations include both reasoned fact and absurd conjecture, and point in as many directions as a weathervane, but their reasons have always been the same: To divert themselves and the public from domestic and international problems whose solutions are far more complicated (though far less costly), and to enjoy what they believe will be the happy bonus of gaining greater prestige and influence (and huge oil reserves!) by our clear display of muscle and intent. And, indeed, accompanied by Saddam's departure, that would seem to be a happy thing -- for Americans at and above a certain socioeconomic level, with cheap fuel for their SUVs, and cheap greeting-card patriotism for their consciences. Forget cricket -- are you ready for some FOOTBALL?!

We will also abandon American principles against aggressive action. We will further destabilize a tattered and chaotic region. The tighter we squeeze that desert sand, the more of it will slip through our fingers. We will sow more hatred among disenfranchised and embittered Arab citizens. We will produce more terrorists, who will target American citizens. To make ourselves safer, we will need higher walls and stricter surveillance. And we will never be safe, which is what I thought this was about.

How can this be, Sullivan may ask, absent all the trappings of imperialism as he defines it, and with our rosy promise of peace and democracy? Rather than comparisons to outdated ideologies, Sullivan should consider a simpler notion: a teenager who gets a sports car from his authoritarian oaf of a stepfather doesn't want the car: He wants out of that house with those rules. It's human nature, and very American at that. King George III wanted only the best for his colonies; if only we'd listened to him!

And, regardless, should fear of terrorists cause us not to act in areas of critical national interest? No, but in deciding whether to act, the administration should speak clearly and honestly about the interests for which we're acting, and we should all see with clear eyes the world we would be creating.

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-- Phil Kitchel

Andrew Sullivan is right: America isn't an imperial power in the manner of the Romans or the British. America has learned from a few of history's mistakes and has a refined version of imperialism that relies on the blinding power of American sunshine and number of foreign military bases to keep our economic interests secure and the locals in line. It's not a question of direct brute force, but the presence of it (check the number of countries where we have troops stationed). Which is fine, but don't say there's nothing imperialist about it.

-- Michael Hastings

Mr. Sullivan suffers the flaw, almost always fatal to one's career in journalism, of making sense. Please ask him to refrain from this nasty habit, in order that others may speak freely, without the constraint of logic, and not look foolish in the light of his observations. To undermine the logic of the left and right in one article is simply too much.

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Can he not pick a side and stick to it dogmatically, like a good boy should?

-- Steve

Sullivan does well to interject some nuance into this debate. It is one thing for politicians to engage in broad polemics, but journalists worth their salt should be able and willing to draw finer distinctions: between, for example, hawkish American foreign policy and British imperialism, or between Iraqi dictatorship and Jordanian oligarchy.

That said, can we really categorize war with Iraq as "anti-imperialist"? Sullivan has argued elsewhere that war with Iraq is in our national interest. If we were only concerned with human rights, or even national security, we would be better off attacking Syria or Sudan.

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-- Michael Smolinsky


Salon Staff

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