WASHINGTON May 7 —
The word "empire" is being used more often these days to describe
America's global role. With Saddam Hussein out of the way, President
Bush wants to transform not only Iraq but neighboring countries as
Mop-up operations had barely begun in Iraq when pundits began
asking: "Who's next?"
That is not an unrealistic question to ask about a country that
has worldwide interests, produces 22 percent of the world's wealth
and dwarfs all other countries militarily.
But, as author and New York University professor Niall Ferguson
sees it, the United States lacks at least one ingredient needed for
prolonged imperial adventures: people to run them.
"America's educational institutions excel at producing young men
and women who are both academically and professionally very well
trained," he wrote recently in The New York Times Magazine. "It's
just that the young elites have no desire to spend their lives
running a screwed-up, sun-scorched sandpit like Iraq."
Ferguson contrasts the American lack of stamina in far-flung
ventures with Britain of a century ago, when its occupation of
foreign lands was taken seriously. That often meant decades, and as
Ferguson points out, Britons by the thousands eagerly signed up for
duty on these "civilizing missions" in Iraq and elsewhere.
When the British left Iraq after 40 years, it was clear their
mission had not been accomplished. Instead of an Iraqi Jefferson, it
produced Saddam Hussein. Recalling the British experience, many
analysts are skeptical about whether the United States can do any
better in Iraq, especially given the American reputation for
"The odds are not good," says Paul Kennedy of Yale
Inevitably, when the United States makes a military commitment,
public discourse on withdrawal scenarios begins. Indeed, the day
after a Baghdad statue of Saddam was pulled down last month, Bush
promised in a message to the Iraqi people that American forces will
depart following the installation of a "peaceful and representative
Two weeks later, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld responded
incredulously when he was asked by al-Jazeera television whether the
United States was "empire building" in Iraq.
"We don't seek empires," he replied. "We're not imperialistic. We
never have been."
Rumsfeld has a point. The United States occupied Germany and
Japan after World War II and left behind democracies that to this
day are vibrant, prosperous and peaceful. When Panama and the
Philippines wearied of the American military presence in their
countries, U.S. forces packed up and left.
Compare this with the Soviet Union, which insisted on knee-jerk
obedience from allies in East Europe and elsewhere. Soviet troops
spent decades in several of these countries, leaving only with
communism's collapse in the late 1980s.
Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations has his own
definition of "imperialism" and says the United States has practiced
it for two centuries, generally with favorable results.
Shameful episodes aside, including treatment of American Indians,
"U.S. imperialism has been the greatest force for good in the world
during the past century," says Boot, writing in USA Today.
"It has defeated the monstrous evils of communism and Naziism and
lesser evils such as the Taliban and Serbian ethnic cleansing. Along
the way, it has helped spread liberal institutions to countries as
diverse as South Korea and Panama."
In Iraq, the administration faces a tough call. A brief U.S
presence would be welcomed, at least publicly, in many of the Muslim
countries because it would mean the restoration of Iraqi
An early exit could be costly, however, if an unstable Iraq
hostile to the United States should emerge.
Bush vows to stay the course. "The transition from dictatorship
to democracy will take time, but it is worth every effort," he says.
"Our coalition will stay until our work is done. And then we will
leave and we will leave behind a free Iraq."
EDITOR'S NOTE George Gedda has covered foreign affairs for The
Associated Press since 1968.
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