Intimations of imperial arrogance

Knight Ridder Newspapers

Why the priority and urgency of regime change in Iraq over dealing with other enemies in the “axis of evil”? North Korea has nuclear weapons and the apparent ability to deliver them to the United States.

And isn’t al-Qaida’s threat more urgent? Where is the hard evidence of a partnership between Osama bin Laden’s stateless terrorists and Baghdad? Are we prepared for retaliatory attacks after our invasion? What are our specific plans for the aftermath of a predictable victory in Iraq?

Why, finally, are President Bush and most of his advisers unmoved by the millions around the globe who are asking these questions?

Perhaps one reason these questions are not being effectively engaged is that they are not really germane. The invasion is not a response to a specific event such as the 9-11 attack or to a perceived imminent Iraqi threat. The transformation of Iraq has been on the drawing board for years.

It is part of an imperial vision for the United States promoted by such neoconservative advisers as Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense; Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy; Elliot Abrams, in the National Security Council; John Bolton, undersecretary for arms control and international security; John Negroponte, the U.N. ambassador; and Richard Perle.

These advisers advocate an interventionist U.S. role in world affairs. They are impressed with our superpower status and think in terms of a virtual American Empire. They are impatient with, often dismissive of, treaties and international organizations. They are not averse to unilateral action. They note that the world has a number of regimes that are … well, evil.

The justification for pre-emptive warfare is the defeat of evil regimes and installation of more democratic institutions under U.S. direction. The goal is to restructure political power in the Middle East. Presumably there will be ongoing initiatives to liberate other evil systems, creating new democratic enclaves around the world.

The corollary assumption of identifying the enemy as evil is identifying one’s own purposes as righteous, even pure. These “realists” with their appetite for imperialist initiatives, interestingly enough, are very moralistic. They tend to discuss issues without what others judge to be due respect for their complexity. They are willing “to speak in black-and-white terms,” to use National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s words. Thirty-seven years ago, the late U.S. Sen. William Fulbright wrote “The Arrogance of Power.” In that book he warned, “Power confuses itself with virtue and tends to take itself for omnipotence.”

History is replete with stories of powerful nations that failed to discern what was within their realm of power and what was not. In their overextended commitments they came to grief.

Only in the military realm can we perhaps, for the time being and in selected theaters, act without allies. In economics, in communications, we are enmeshed in a global web. In securing the peace in Iraq or anywhere else, we must work with others. If we desire their respect, we must respect them and not engage in bullying bluster.

Those who bring a religious squint to things should remember that a transcendent reference point is sovereign over all nation-states and empires. The challenge for any nation with power as great as ours is to balance it with wisdom. And our received tradition of republican humility should serve as a check on imperial attitude.

(Leo Sandon is distinguished teaching professor of religion and American studies at Florida State University. E-mail him at

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