Reply to Dan Drezner

More on U.S. imperialistic policies and the foreign policy community.

Glenn Greenwald
August 20, 2007 10:30PM (UTC)

Daniel Drezner has replied to my post below, and has done so in a way that raises several worthwhile issues. Thus, I'll respond to his points in order, with his points blockquoted followed by my replies:

1) As I explained in my updated post, I was wrong to label Greenwald a "pacifist", and I apologize to Greenwald for the incorrect labeling. "Non-interventionism" or perhaps "Jeffersonian" would have been better terms. That was a poor word choice by me on an important point, and unfortunately it seems to have distracted many from the primary points of disagreement. Sorry.

Fair enough; I accept and appreciate that. But I still think the use of that term was revealing here. Even in the one post of mine to which Drezner replied, I said nothing that would indicate I subscribed to pacifism and said much that would make plain that I do not. But anyone who challenges the general entitlement of the U.S. to intervene at will is generally relegated to the leftist fringes, and "pacifist" is a nice dismissive slur that accomplishes that.


By stark contrast, I use the term "imperialist" because it accurately describes the predominant foreign policy ideology, not because it is intended to demonize. As Newsweek's Jon Alter put it in explaining that he previously rejected the term "imperialistic" to describe U.S. foreign policy but now uses it: "The 'I word' is not a left-wing epithet but a straightforward description of policy aims."

2) Greenwald is using an overly expansive definition of imperialism. "[T]he belief that military force can be used whenever we decide that our vaguely defined 'national interests' would be served by such a war" is a necessary but not sufficient condition for an imperial power. Indeed, by that definition, China, India, Russia, the European Union (the UK and France in particular), Australia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Nigeria are also imperial powers. Greenwald's definition is way too permissive, in that it characterizes pretty includes all states that have used force in the past few decades. Using the word "imperial" to describe what great powers have been doing for decades pretty much strips the term of any concrete meaning.

I think this is the heart of the matter. Put simply, there is no reasonable way to compare the use of military force by the U.S. to any other country on the planet. We spend more on our military than every other country combined. We spend six times more on our military than China, the next largest military spender. And it is a bipartisan consensus that, even as the sole remaining superpower, we should increase both military spending and the size of our military further still.

No country can even remotely compare to us in terms of the sheer magnitude of invasions, bombing campaigns, regime changes, occupations and other forms of direct interference via military force in sovereign countries. We have military bases in well over 100 nations. In the last 10 years alone, we bombed Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Sudan, Afghanistan again, Somalia, and Iraq again. Even after the end of the Cold War, we changed the governments of multiple countries from Panama to Iraq, and we've attempted (or are attempting) to do so in Iran and Venezuela. We single-handedly prop up tyrannical governments in scores of nations using financial and military aid. No other country can hold a candle to the breadth and frequency of our involvement in the affairs of other countries. That is just fact.

Obviously, that we intervene, bomb and invade far more than any other country is not, standing alone, proof that our various military campaigns are unjust. But it is rather compelling evidence that we have a far lower hair-trigger for when we use military force than any other country in the world, and we use our military force in far more places and with a far wider range of motives and reasons than any other country.

Drezner is right that a mere willingness to intervene in order to promote one's interests is merely a necessary, but not a sufficient, behavioral attribute for an empire. But we define when our "interests" are promoted by war far more broadly than any other nation, have far fewer restraints on when such wars are justifiable (if we have any such restraints at all), and are plainly willing to act militarily simply in order to enforce our will in the world and maintain our dominion. That, most certainly, is the defining attribute of an empire, and there is no other nation, certainly not now, for which that is true.

For useful (and academic) debates on whether the United States is an empire, click here and here. It's worth observing that the article more sympathetic to Greenwald's position on imperialism nevertheless concludes that: "Decades-long geopolitical developments have, in fact, tended to render American relations less, rather than more, imperial in character.... the salience of even informal imperial relations in American foreign policy, as we noted earlier, may be in decline." So much for the powerful influence of the imperialist foreign policy community.

As I indicated in the prior post (see Update II), many foreign policy elites (including Gideon Rose) now openly admit that the U.S. acts as an empire around the world and we debate the optimal means of imperial management. Moreover, there is a fundamental difference between the actions we took to check Soviet influence and the same actions now when we are the sole superpower. That is the distinction that persuaded Alter that the term "imperial" is now apt.


What possible attribute is missing from our actions in the world that would preclude the use of the term "imperial"? What defining acts have past empires undertaken that we refuse to undertake? I don't see any.

3) Greenwald is conflating an awful lot of disparate but "mainstream" views within his definition of the "foreign policy community." There is a big difference between not taking force off the table as a policy option and vigorously advocating its use. As I said in my previous post, there are vigorous debates about what constitutes a "vital national interest" Greenwald himself acknowledges that force should be an option when other countries "directly threaten your national security" or harbor terrorist groups that will do the same. How does one define direct threats to national security? For the United States, would civil war in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan qualify? Should the use of force be categorically rejected in both cases? Does Iran's links to the Khobar Towers bombing justify the use of force against Teheran, as per Greenwald's criteria?

What is missing from the debate in the Foreign Policy Community is any discussion of the right to intervene -- when is it justifiable to slaughter innocent people in order to advance our "interests"? Is it justifiable to invade and/or bomb other countries even when they are not threatening our national security?

Yes, Drezner is correct that there are debates about whether there is net utility to our "interests" in each specific intervention. Those debates are allowed. But debates about whether there is legitimacy or justification to using our military force to kill civilians even when our national security is not at risk is precisely what we do not debate. We are an empire, and hence our right to use military force (when in our interests) is simply assumed (hence, pre-Iraq, the mainstream "debate" included arguments that our occupation strategy was wrong and/or that we should delay an invasion of Iraq pending the inspection process and/or even the argument that invading Iraq would distract from Afghanistan, but not that invading Iraq was per se illegitimate because they did not attack us or threaten our national security).

4) Greenwald did not address some of the points I made in my my (sic) last post, so I'll rephrase them here:

a) Do you believe that analysts like O'Hanlon and Pollack have the same credibility now that they did in 2002?

For the first time ever, I think O'Hanlon and Pollack's credibility has taken some genuine hits -- as a result of their Op-Ed and media tour and largely due to the work of the blogosphere, and now as a result of the seven-soldiers-Op-Ed. But the credibility hits are still relatively minor -- they can still walk onto the Op-Ed pages of the NYT, WP and cable news shows at will, will still be treated as "serious experts," and almost certainly will occupy key national security positions in the next Democratic administration, particularly in a Clinton administration. That is rather extraordinary, given how consistently, unrepentantly, dishonestly, destructively and fundamentally wrong they have been about the single most important foreign policy question of our time.


To read what that duo has said and written over the past four years about Iraq is to read a grotesque comedy of errors. Yet until the past few weeks, when -- out of desperation to save their professional reputations by salvaging this war -- they finally breached a credibility line so transparent that it could not be ignored, they were completely unscathed. There is virtually never any accountability in the Foreign Policy Community for being wrong; being Serious is more important than being right.

b) Do you believe that the "foreign policy community" enabled the Iraq War? Given the political facts of life in the fall of 2002, do you really think that think tank protests would have derailed the war? Is a failure to oppose Iraq the same thing as cheerleading the invasion? In response to InstaPutz, this difference matters. It is one thing to chastise an analyst for getting his or her analysis of invading Iraq wrong. It is an entirely different (and, yes, more egregious) thing to accuse them of "taking us to war" or "has nontrivial responsibility for the hundreds of thousands dead."

The Bush administration would have invaded Iraq no matter who was on board. They only sought an AUMF from Congress once Congress promised to vote in favor of it (I recall Joe Biden at a 2002 Senate Foreign Relations hearing begging the administration to allow Congress to authorize the war by promising they would win the vote). Had Congress refused, the administration would simply have claimed they had inherent authority to do so (the Yoo Memorandum unmistakably asserted that power, a theory which has equal applicability to Iran). So in that regard, Drezner's point is correct that the war would have happened even without the FPC "scholars" cheering it on.

But in another, very meaningful sense, the FPC "scholars" -- especially the "liberal" ones -- played a critical role in empowering the Bush administration. By convincing scores of good liberals that this invasion was just and necessary, people like Pollack and O'Hanlon vested George Bush with enormous political power, an environment where he had large approval ratings and bipartisan support and opponents were relegated to the fringes.


That environment was indispensable in enabling the virtual absence of any real skepticism about the administration's claims about Iraq both prior and subsequent to the invasion, as well as their ability to operate in virtually complete secrecy and with no oversight of any kind, a lack of oversight which enabled some of the worst abuses in our country's history. Americans rely on their "experts" and their establishment to sound the alarm when things have gone terribly awry, and the establishment failed profoundly in that duty, sitting by (at best) acquiescing to the range of abuses and, more often than not, enabling them and providing their justification.

c) Do you believe that the political and policy conditions that made the Iraq war possible in 2002 are still present today? You point to Pollack and (Fred) Kagan getting together, but what about the universe of wonks and analysts beyond Pollack, Kagan, and O'Hanlon? Do you really believe that the rest of the "foreign policy community" has the same view of the costs and benefits of military action that they held five years ago. I certainly don't. For example, the ridicule that Rudy Giuliani's essay received in "mainstream" quarters suggests that the ground has shifted. This doesn't mean I categorically reject the use of force either -- but, as I said above, there's a difference between considering force as a viable policy option and then deciding to use it.

There are, as a result of the Iraq disaster and its widespread political unpopularity, some rhetorical changes on the margins. But the central premises that led us into Iraq -- particularly the right of the U.S. to use military force even against countries that have not attacked us and the placement of faith in the ability of wars to achieve complex ends -- seem as strong as ever. Compare who the "experts" are and what they are saying now (about, for instance, Iran and Iraq) to the ones who were predominant in 2003 and one sees very little difference. And most significantly, compare the rather hawkish and rather indistinguishable foreign policy positions of the leading presidential candidates of both parties to see that those orthodoxies are still very firmly in place.

d) You accuse the foreign policy community of holding "rigid ideological views." After hearing reports about, say, YearlyKos, in what way are the outsiders you want included in the coversation (sic) more ideologically diverse? Indeed, would a netroots-driven foreign policy community be any more tolerant of ideas than the group you've been lambasting?

Personally, I would not want a foreign policy community composed solely or predominantly of netroots ideologues. Debates benefit from a clash of ideas, from inclusion of the full spectrum of positions. That is precisely the point. Our Foreign Policy Establishment (with some acknowledged exceptions, like everything) actively excludes anyone who does not subscribe to the right and wisdom of the U.S. to rule the world by military force and its accompanying orthodoxies, and our disastrous policies of the last six years, at least, are directly due to this enforced homogeneity, and most inexcusably of all, to the continued dominance of this Community by people who have proven themselves to be completely devoid of judgment, insight and expertise.


Glenn Greenwald

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