Republic or Empire?

by Joseph Wilson

The Nation magazine, March 3, 2003


As the senior American diplomat in Baghdad during Desert I Shield, I advocated a muscular US response to Saddam's brutal annexation of Kuwait in flagrant violation of the United Nations charter. Only the credible threat of force could hope to reverse his invasion. Our in-your-face strategy secured the release of the 150 American "human shields"-hostages-but ultimately it took war to drive Iraq from Kuwait. I was disconsolate at the failure of diplomacy, but Desert Storm was necessitated by Saddam's intransigence, it was sanctioned by the UN and it was conducted with a broad international military coalition. The goal was explicit and focused; war was the last resort.

The upcoming military operation also has one objective, though different from the several offered by the Bush Administration. This war is not about weapons of mass destruction. The intrusive inspections are disrupting Saddam's programs, as even the Administration has acknowledged. Nor is it about terrorism. Virtually all agree war will spawn more terrorism, not less. It is not even about liberation of an oppressed people. Killing innocent Iraqi civilians in a full frontal assault is hardly the only or best way to liberate a people. The underlying objective of this war is the imposition of a Pax Americana on the region and installation of vassal regimes that will control restive populations.

Without the firing of a single cruise missile, the Administration has already established a massive footprint in the Gulf and Southwest Asia from which to project power. US generals, admirals and diplomats have crisscrossed the region like modern-day proconsuls, cajoling fragile governments to permit American access and operations from their territories.

Bases have been established as stepping stones to Afghanistan and Iraq, but also as tripwires in countries that fear their neighbors. Northern Kuwait has been ceded to American forces and a significant military presence established in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. The over-the-horizon posture of a decade ago has given way to boots on the ground and forward command headquarters. Nations in the region, having contracted with the United States for their security umbrella, will now listen when Washington tells them to tailor policies and curb anti-Western dissent. Hegemony in the Arab nations of the Gulf has been achieved.

Meanwhile, Saddam might well squirm, but even without an invasion, he's finished. He is surrounded, foreigners are swarming through his palaces, and as Colin Powell so compellingly showed at the UN, we are watching and we are listening. International will to disarm Iraq will not wane as it did in the 1990s, for the simple reason that George W. Bush keeps challenging the organization to remain relevant by keeping pressure on Saddam. Nations that worry that, as John le Carre puts it, "America has entered one of its periods of historical madness" will not want to jettison the one institution that, absent a competing military power, might constrain US ambition.

Then what's the point of this new American imperialism? The neoconservatives with a stranglehold on the foreign policy of the Republican Party, a party that traditionally eschewed foreign military adventures, want to go beyond expanding US global influence to force revolutionary change on the region. American preeminence in the Gulf is necessary but not sufficient for the hawks. Nothing short of conquest, occupation and imposition of handpicked leaders on a vanquished population will suffice. Iraq is the linchpin for this broader assault on the region. The new imperialists will not rest until governments that ape our worldview are implanted throughout the region, a breathtakingly ambitious undertaking, smacking of hubris in the extreme. Arabs who complain about American-supported antidemocratic regimes today will find us in even more direct control tomorrow. The leader of the future in the Arab world will look a lot more like Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf than Thomas Jefferson.

There is a huge risk of overreach in this tack. The projection of influence and power through the use of force will breed resistance in the Arab world that will sorely test our political will and stamina. Passion for independence is as great in the Arab world as it is elsewhere. The hawks compare this mission to Japan and Germany after World War II. It could easily look like Lebanon, Somalia and Northern Ireland instead.

Our global leadership will be undermined as fear gives way to resentment and strategies to weaken our stranglehold. American businessmen already complain about hostility when overseas, and Arabs speak openly of boycotting American products. Foreign capital is fleeing American stocks and bonds; the United States is no longer a friendly destination for international investors. For a borrow-and-spend Administration, as this one is, the effects on our economic growth will be felt for a long time to come. Essential trust has been seriously damaged and will be difficult to repair.

Even in the unlikely event that war does not come to pass, the would-be imperialists have achieved much of what they sought, some of it good. It is encouraging that the international community is looking hard at terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. But the upcoming battle for Baghdad and the lengthy occupation of Iraq will utterly undermine any steps forward. And with the costs to our military, our treasury and our international standing, we will be forced to learn whether our republican roots and traditions can accommodate the Administration's imperial ambitions. It may be a bitter lesson.


Joseph Wilson, charge d 'affaires at the US Embassy in Baghdad during Desert Shield, was the last US diplomat to meet with Saddam Hussein. He is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.

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