The topic is featured regularly on the covers of national newsmagazines, is discussed in popular books and is celebrated on newspaper op-ed pages.
In fact, some of those who once shied from the word “empire,” even as they advocated policies to that effect, now embrace the label with varying degrees of fervor.
”We need to err on the side of being strong,” says Bill Kristol, the neoconservative editor of the Weekly Standard and chairman of the Project for a New American Century. ”And if people want to say we’re an imperial power, fine.”
That newfound candor reflects two realities. First, the fiction that we are not an empire had simply become impossible to sustain, and not merely because we now occupy Iraq. Just last week, news broke that the United States would be building new military bases in Romania, Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria, all former Warsaw Pact nations.
In addition, we already have troops in more than 130 nations by the Pentagon’s unofficial count, permanent bases in roughly 40 of those countries and basing rights in many more, with ambitions to expand still further into places such as the Philippines and even Vietnam.
Second, in the warm and fuzzy aftermath of military victory in Iraq, the need to be coy about our intentions has evaporated. Triumph has a way of making people feel, well, triumphant. Many who previously shrank from the concept of empire now find it attractive; many who found it attractive but feared public reaction now feel free to be more honest.
It is fair to say, however, that this reality has caught most Americans unprepared, and for good reason. In the case of Iraq, we were sold war against Saddam Hussein on many different grounds, including an alleged close link with al-Qaida that has yet to be documented and the alleged presence of hundreds of tons of chemical and biological weapons, none of them yet found.
In reality, it is now clear that we fought this war to place ourselves in the midst of the Middle East in a very big way. In part, we hoped to try to “drain the swamp” of Islamic terrorism. In part, we were motivated by concern for our oil supply.
As a report by the Project for a New American Century stated in September 2000, “While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.”
The true scope of U.S. ambitions to remake the Middle East in our image was never articulated beforehand to the American people. As a result, the Bush administration has committed this country to a major international obligation without having the “buy-in” of the American people needed to support it.
Even the administration itself seems torn by the resulting schizophrenia, rhetorically embracing the difficult work ahead while shrinking from the actual task itself.
While the president notes that “the transition from dictatorship to democracy will take time, but it is worth every effort,” administration officials admit that they don’t have enough troops in Iraq to maintain order today, and talk in terms of reducing troop levels by 75 percent — to roughly 30,000 — by the fall.
While Pentagon officials acknowledge that our military manpower is stretched thin by Iraq and the demands of empire elsewhere, we obstinately refuse to ease that burden by inviting the United Nations to help in policing Iraq.
And while we boast with good reason about the high-tech weaponry fielded by our military, at last report the civilian Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Baghdad doesn’t even have working telephones almost a month after we occupied the city.
We are, in other words, a half-hearted empire, pleased with the power and prestige it brings but unwilling to spend the money, time and manpower to manage it. And half-hearted empires have a very short life expectancy.
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor, firstname.lastname@example.org