War Stories

Delusions of Empire

How is Paul Wolfowitz keeping a straight face these days?

The question of the moment is not “When will the MET-Alpha team find Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction?” (we’ve all long ago exhaled on that one), but rather “When will the neo-imperialist intellectuals go into hiding?” George W. Bush may be mildly vexed over the failure thus far to unearth vats of VX and anthrax. But Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, William Kristol, and the other strategic brains behind the operation should be absolutely mortified over the past few weeks of Iraq’s unraveling and America’s postwar failure to secure and consolidate its dazzling military victory.

The president, after all, can deal with his WMD embarrassment by noting that the absence of evidence doesn’t prove the stuff was never there; besides, public opinion—the true gauge of a politician’s success—considers that ousting Saddam made the war worthwhile anyway.

But the president’s high-concept guys are in a tougher spot. The currency of intellectuals is measured in the worth of their ideas, and the swaggering ambitions behind their advocacy of invading Iraq—to establish civil authority in Baghdad quickly after the war, then move on to redraw the map of the Middle East, and finally spread democracy around the globe—are looking particularly delusional just now.

If they so badly miscalculated the ease of controlling a country that (as Donald Rumsfeld often reminds us) is the size of California, then how do they intend to change the planet? More to the point, how do they continue to offer advice on the subject while keeping a straight face?

The unipolar world has its bright points (especially if you’re a member of what was once called the English-speaking races), but it has also bred an insouciant arrogance not just within the power centers but among their academic annexes and recruiting grounds. Read Niall Ferguson pleading for America to settle into its imperial destiny, or Max Boot calling for a new “Pax Americana,” or Robert D. Kaplan (no relation) waxing in the new Atlantic Monthly for a return to “the old rules”—meaning “the pre-Vietnam rules by which small groups of quiet professionals … help stabilize or destabilize a regime”—and for the promotion of American power “as an organizing principle for the worldwide expansion of a liberal civil society.”

You don’t need to be Rip Van Winkle waking from a pre-W slumber—you have only to scan the past week’s newspapers, with their stories of Iraqi ambush and mayhem—to wonder what the hell these people are talking about.

It must be embarrassing enough for a prime mover like William Kristol to go back and read, say, his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, from Feb. 7, 2002, in which he offered assurances that, after a war to topple Saddam, “American and allied forces will be welcomed in Baghdad as liberators. Indeed, reconstructing Iraq may prove to be a less difficult task than the challenge of building a viable state in Afghanistan.” The example of postwar modernization in Iraq, he went on, will foster “the principles of liberty and justice in the Islamic world” generally.

Kristol—who headed the movement of analysts (some of them now administration officials) that most avidly and persistently made the case for invading Iraq—need not retire from the field of public policy for such utterly wrongheaded predictions; creaky skeletons lurk in every pundit’s archival dungeon. However, he and other analysts like him should be held as responsible for their words as politicians are for their deeds. And so, before Kristol is taken seriously on his call to “take the fight to Iran” or “to change the North Korean regime” (“not simply to contain it or coexist with it”), someone should at least check out his track record. More to the point, someone should examine the assumptions underlying this track record. The key assumption is not only that the American military is strong enough to overwhelm enemy armies decisively and rapidly (which turned out, at least in Iraq’s case, to be truer than many critics cautioned), but also that swift victory on the battlefield would translate, almost perforce, to an orderly “regime change” and an emulation—if not outright adoption—of our socio-political values.

Amid the fashionable nostalgia for past empires and the permissibility of their “small wars,” some awkward historical details often get lost in the haze. Robert D. Kaplan, in his Atlantic article, unironically titled “Supremacy by Stealth: Ten Rules for Managing the World,” cites, rather remarkably, America’s 1890s adventure in the Philippines as a model for contemporary imperial rule. In that section of his article (titled “Rule No. 7: Remember the Philippines”), Kaplan quotes Max Boot’s description of the Philippines campaign, from his book The Savage Wars of Peace, as “one of the most successful counter-insurgencies waged by a Western army in modern time.”

Yet take a full look at Boot’s chapter on the Philippines incursion. Its three years of fighting killed 4,234 American soldiers, 16,000 Filipino combatants, and as many as 200,000 Filipino civilians. The ultimately successful U.S. strategy—isolating the Filipino guerrillas—was accomplished by forcing the civilian population out of their towns and into “protected zones.” (Any able-bodied male found outside these zones without a pass was arrested or shot.) Other tactics included burning, pillaging, and torturing. By 1902, the guerrillas were decisively defeated. Even so, sporadic conflicts persisted, and American forces continued to occupy the place, for another 44 years.

Boot wrote, “By the standards of the day, the conduct of U.S. soldiers was better than average for colonial wars,” adding that “it is not entirely fair to apply 21st-century morality to the actions of 19th-century soldiers.” He may well be right. By the same token, though, R.D. Kaplan is a bit out of line for extolling the campaign as an exemplar, if an admittedly somewhat brutal one, for 21st-century American Imperialism.

The larger point is that empire is a tough, bloody business. It is also a business requiring immersion. The British willingly took, and dealt, thousands of casualties for the sake of its preservation. They set up whole ministries devoted to the study of their holdings (the India desk, the Arabian desk, and so forth). And yet, as David Fromkin points out in A Peace to End All Peace—his ceaselessly fascinating (and, at this moment, vital) book about Britain’s attempt to remake the map of the Middle East before and during the First World War—they still bungled the whole enterprise, badly misreading major events, and allowing themselves to be led disastrously down primrose paths by local, power-hungry charlatans. Sound familiar?