And the Apologists for the Iraq War Think Their Critics Are Living in the Past?





Mr. Schroeder is Professor Emeritus of History, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The comparison is often made between the current American venture in Iraq and the Middle East and British imperialism a century ago. Advocates of an American-led empire of liberty, however, reject the comparison, particularly the suggestion that a Pax Americana today will meet the fate of the so-called Pax Britannica then. The world, they argue, is entirely different, especially since 9/11. Today's threats were unknown then--international terrorist organizations and movements, fanatical ideologies, rogue regimes, and proliferating weapons of mass destruction—and must be dealt with proactively and preventively.

Moreover, the military supremacy of the United States today and its ability to project its power globally is so unprecedented, and the “soft power” it possesses in economic strength and political and cultural influence world so effective in penetrating other countries and societies that so-called historical lessons about the fall of past empires mean nothing. Those who cite them are living in the past.

Let us therefore reverse the question from, “Does history show that the current American policy of informal empire is bound to fail?” to the converse, “Does history shed any light on how it could conceivably succeed?” That is, could historical experience help tell us under what conditions America might be able, having conquered Iraq, to restore order, set up a durable government it approves of, and then turn the country over to local administrators, with an American military presence to keep them in power and protect American strategic interests in the region? Could it suggest circumstances whereby the rest of the international community would come to terms with this situation and even help America maintain it? Can history further indicate under what conditions the change in Iraq might help transform the politics of the whole region in a way favorable to American interests? Are there historical examples of durable success in the sort of project the United States is now undertaking?

Certainly there are. The best example among several possible is offered by the British experience in Egypt in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. British intervention in Egypt in 1882 was initially more reluctant and less determined on military conquest. But when the Gladstone government finally decided to intervene militarily, it also like the Bush administration claimed moral and humanitarian reasons for doing so, and though the critical stakes in the venture were obviously strategic (control of the Suez Canal and the routes to India and the maintenance of British prestige), Gladstone's slogan of “Egypt for the Egyptians” remained its official goal and justification. After a swift and easy victory, order was readily restored. Egypt's head of state proved a subservient puppet, the professional and commercial classes were willing to serve their new masters, British advisers could set policy behind the scenes, the masses turned out to be inert rather than nationalist as feared, and the financial burdens of the British occupation and of protecting the British and European financial interests and British imperial and strategic interests were imposed on the wretched but powerless Egyptian peasantry.

International complications proved more difficult, but ultimately the British triumphed all along the line—first ignoring French pressure to restore their earlier partnership in Egypt, then ignoring and violating their own repeated promises to evacuate it, next using Egypt to conquer the Sudan in 1898 and forcing the French to back down at Fashoda, and then making a deal with France over Morocco freeing Britain from problems with the European bondholders and the international Treasury of the Ottoman Debt. As a result, by 1914 Britain was fully in charge of Egypt at little or no cost to itself, had brought most of East Africa under British control from Egypt outwards, and had even made friends with France against Germany in the process. The British ascribed their imperial success in Egypt, which lasted beyond the First World War and helped promote the expansion of the British Empire in the Middle East in 1919-20, to their unmatched power and wealth, their special virtue, and their indispensable role as leaders of the international system.

There is then a good, simple historical recipe for durable, successful American informal empire in Iraq and the Middle East : restore the general world conditions prevailing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That is, eliminate Iraqi and Arab nationalism, or at least reduce it to an inchoate proto-nationalism; eliminate militant Islamist movements and regimes (the one in the Sudan was destroyed by the British in 1898); eliminate Iraq and other entities in the Middle East (including Israel) as independent states, returning them to the status of loosely-governed provinces of decaying regimes easy prey for Western imperialism; eliminate the present international system with the UN, NATO, and all the other international and transnational institutions and organizations that now interfere with empire-building; eliminate radio, TV, the Internet, and other means of mass communications; reverse the globalization of industry, commerce, science and technology, and culture in the twentieth century; and restore an intense international competition in alliances, arms, and imperialism such as prevailed among the great powers of the late nineteenth century--do these simple things, and the venture will probably succeed.

This tells us something important about both the architects of current American policy and those who defend it, claiming that historical evidence pointing to the impossibility of durable empire in today's world within the existing international system is irrelevant because the world has changed, and because the United States has such unprecedented power that it can do almost anything if it sets its mind to it. These people, not historically-minded critics like me, are living in the past. While professing to meet new threats and dangers (which are not really new) and boasting of America's new, unprecedented power and global reach, they ignore the enormous international dangers and threats familiar from history that this policy will create and exacerbate and disregard the effective limits on American power and the severe constraints on its useful employment that the real new world of the early twenty-first century imposes.

This venture in Iraq is thus not a bold experiment in creating a brave new world, but a revival of late nineteenth century imperialism whose success then depended on conditions long since vanished and now impossible even to imagine reproducing. It will fail and is already failing. Its advocates illustrate the adage that those unwilling to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.



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John H. Lederer - 3/8/2004

"If our own principles of self-government have any validity, then we cannot be in the business of forcing the political development of any other country. The American philosopher Russell Kirk understood that any legitimate government had to be founded in the prescriptive rights and customs of a people, and by definition a 'democratic' government is an imposition on the customs of the country."


Ah yes, I had forgotten the Iraqi custom of being ruled by a brutal, genocidal, war mongering, sadistic dictator.........it is so easy to forget that all cultures are equally valid.


John H. Lederer - 3/8/2004

"If our own principles of self-government have any validity, then we cannot be in the business of forcing the political development of any other country. The American philosopher Russell Kirk understood that any legitimate government had to be founded in the prescriptive rights and customs of a people, and by definition a 'democratic' government is an imposition on the customs of the country."


Ah yes, I had forgotten the Iraqi custom of being ruled by a brutal, genocidal, war mongering, sadistic dictator.........it is so easy to forget that all cultures are equally valid.


Daniel B. Larison - 3/8/2004

Mr. Fox is correct. The "coalition of the willing," especially when it came to most of the European "allies" was a particularly bad joke. In almost every country whose government supported the war, overwhelming majorities opposed Washington's policy. In ways that there were none too subtle, future and recently admitted members of NATO in Europe learned what saying no would mean to their relations with Washington, and unlike some of the "old Europeans" they did not have the will or the means to resist. To the best of my knowledge, the only supporting nations that might have had majorities in favor were Israel and Kuwait for rather obvious reasons on both counts. And aside from Britain, Australia and Japan, significant nations (no offense, El Salvador and Micronesia) behind the war were nonexistent.


Daniel B. Larison - 3/8/2004

The WWII comparison is a bit misleading. The federal constitution in Germany was created by Germans according to German legal and constitutional traditions. This was also the result of a war, whatever its ultimate causes and American provocations, that Japan and Germany declared against the U.S. But the most important aspect of the German example was that there was a democratic and constitutional tradition that the U.S. could restore there, which greatly separates the establishment of the BRD from what is happening today in Iraq. In this current case, the U.S. and Great Britain simply started (or, really, escalated) a war and took over another country. The reasons why they did this are irrelevant, as far as I am concerned, since it was never really a question of self-defense. Seizing control of another country is aggression, domination.
In contrast to the German example, Iraq has not had a meaningful, functioning constitutional system of any kind, and possesses no past examples of its own on which to draw for creating its own constitution. Japan might be a better example for comparison, even though Japan possessed a constitutional tradition as well. Japan today has no significant independent foreign policy, and it remains an occupied country (as Iraq will be for years to come--no doubt for its 'security'). The current German government caused such a stir over here because it supposed that it could have an independent foreign policy contrary to our own, which is hardly the proper behavior of a dependent state. The Japanese government has been only too happy to submit, though most Japanese people seem to resent this submission. Japan is, of course, legally independent and has its own elected government, but in reality it does not possess sovereignty over basic elements of its foreign policy. Today Washington allows Japan more flexibility in interpreting its constitution, because it suits Washington, but the message is that Japan's foreign policy will generally fit that of Washington. That is what 'alliance' means for Japan, and what it will mean for Iraq. It is indirect imperialism, if you like, or perhaps hegemony is a less offensive word to describe it, but the political reality of one state dominating the policy of another remains. I suppose that there are those who see nothing wrong with such domination, but such people never used to be called Americans, and Americans used to have no respect for such people. Grover Cleveland, for instance, went far too close to going to war with Britain over the absurd question of the border of Venezuela--such was the hatred of imperialism in any form when America remained true to its old traditions.
An Iraqi treaty with Israel has been one of the stated goals for the future government, at least according to the anointed fraud Mr. Chalabi and the undersecretary of Defense for policy Feith. The assumption among some of the fantasists who play at foreign policy theory at the Pentagon is that a future democratic government would be pro-Western (in itself a truly bizarre assumption), and therefore open to peace with Israel. The eventual priorities for the Iraqi government will be somewhat the reverse: it will be open to peace with Israel and pro-Western, whatever that entails for its democratic nature.
It is true that American taxpayers are getting bilked for this war, but the real beneficiaries of the war will have put in relatively little, if any, of their own money. Previous empires have never been overly concerned with the public deficits that they are causing with their overseas adventures, because the imperialist ventures have often been to provide political protection for mercantile and other commercial interests. Besides, states do not undertake such ventures for the state's profit as such, but for the ability to control territory and project power. If private interests also benefit from the venture, then, in this sort of thinking, so much the better. Gen. Garner, who has been close to Secretary Rumsfeld, has openly stated that he wants to see Iraq become the "coaling station" of our future ability to project power into the Middle East and central Asia. Other officials at the Pentagon have expressed confidence that basing rights in the future will be granted by any Iraqi government. The message is that any potential Iraqi government that would refuse would never become the government. If those comments do not reflect some measure of official attitudes, then please do inform us what the 'real' reasons for this adventure have been. 'Radical' plans for democracy may indeed motivate some of the actors in the government, but these same actors see no contradiction between projecting power and expanding this 'democracy'. But recent history has shown that this sort of 'democracy' does not mean the form of government as such (though such governments may be elected after a fashion) but the willingness of the local elite to kowtow to Washington (think of Serbia, Macedonia, Russia, Hungary, etc.). Those willing to do so are 'democrats' and 'reformers', while those who are not willing are 'hard-liners' and undoubtedly neo-fascists. Russia has been the only recent example where the populace has not been blackmailed and intimidated into supporting these so-called 'reformers' in any significant numbers.
The establishment of British rule in India was not economically rational from the perspective of cost-benefit analysis, but it was considered necessary to secure parts of the country for the EIC, which had been doing a poor job of exercising authority and was endangering the investments of its backers and the state. From that point on, the reputation and power of the state was at stake, and it became something to be defended for those reasons as well as for economic interests. The British government ran up fantastic debts, much as we have done for the last two decades, but these costs were always deferred to the future. Mr. Bush can inaugurate a costly policy, but neither he nor his immediate successors have to pay off those debts, and in the meantime some interest separate from the country as a whole is benefiting. The Spanish monarchy was constantly on the verge of bankruptcy, often going over that edge, but power politics overrode rational economic considerations. Some of the monarchs' more ridiculous flatterers believed that the Spanish, too, could dominate every corner of the globe, and it ruined them, as it will ruin us.
The point is not whether the imperialism is 'exploitative' or 'humanitarian', and whether the U.S. is getting more out of the bargain than it put in, but whether one nation has the right to use force against other nations to determine their future development or use them as pawns in some grand strategy. Dominating another nation in either fashion is imperialist, and it seems to me to be irrelevant what the motives are for that domination. Some recent apologists for European colonialism can prove all of the 'good' that colonialists did for their colonial peoples, which may be true in many instances. Such policy, however successful in material and social terms, still fails the basic test of justice--states do not properly have the right to dominate other peoples.
If our own principles of self-government have any validity, then we cannot be in the business of forcing the political development of any other country. The American philosopher Russell Kirk understood that any legitimate government had to be founded in the prescriptive rights and customs of a people, and by definition a 'democratic' government is an imposition on the customs of the country. It is also, in this Iraqi case, a dictated form of government. Germans resented this imposition when the French brought them republicanism in the early 1800s, and I believe that any people will reject an imposed system, even if it has many merits. To the extent that local input has been tolerated in Iraq, the content of the constitution has clashed with local desires and attitudes. Such tensions will only grow over time.
Also, if our past principles of nonaggression mean anything, we cannot inaugurate wars to advance geopolitical goals, or else we have become some new imperial Japan.
Foreign imposition of any political development makes the product of that development, like the Weimar republic, a symbol of a nation's defeat and its domination by outsiders. Even if such a system were not almost certain to fail on account of the complete lack of such political traditions in the region, this basic resentment will undermine the legitimacy of any new government, because it will be seen as the product of an unjust domination.


Oscar Chamberlain - 3/7/2004

Two thoughts:

1. "The Creation of a real integrated democracy." A radical goal indeed. I suppose part of the debate is over whether such a goal is inherently imperialist.

2. "If there is an economic motive then the government is manifestly incompetent."
Before the war I did not think the Administration had a crude economic goal (e.g. snatching the oil). However, the stench of incompetence in Washington has been all over this occupation, much of it stemming from the this critical mistake: to deploy too few troops to provide security to the Iraqis who would support us.

So maybe they were incompetent in their lust for oil too.


Oscar Chamberlain - 3/7/2004

Two thoughts:

1. "The Creation of a real integrated democracy." A radical goal indeed. I suppose part of the debate is over whether such a goal is inherently imperialist.

2. "If there is an economic motive then the government is manifestly incompetent."
Before the war I did not think the Administration had a crude economic goal (e.g. snatching the oil). However, the stench of incompetence in Washington has been all over this occupation, much of it stemming from the this critical mistake: to deploy too few troops to provide security to the Iraqis who would support us.

So maybe they were incompetent in their lust for oil too.


Dan A Fox - 3/7/2004

I believe if you check, most of the 48 countris were pressured into this or they came in towards the end - just before we went ino Iraq.


Derek Charles Catsam - 3/7/2004

Actually, when we went to war with Iraq, at least 48 other countries "backed us up." Whatever one's criticisms of the war or the administration's diplomacy, and there are valid ones, can we eliminate this trope that iut was somehow unilateral?
dc


Dan A Fox - 3/7/2004

Because we are the big boys does not make us right. We we started the war with Iraq only Britian backed us up. We should not be the police force of the world, rather the world should come together. Also war is not the only answer, it is just a public admission that our foreign policy has failed. I am a veteran, and I believe like George Washington said (paraphrased) A stong military will help ensure peace.
Concerning imperialism, it is not tru that we base all of our actions ont he past. If not what is our basis of comparison? I have only heard the the most radical of thinkers speaking about imperialism. Even though, and I may upset a few here, I believe we were led to war under a false pretext, I do bleieve the regime needed to be ended.


Ben H. Severance - 3/5/2004

The United States is the most powerful nation on earth. And with that power comes responsibility, namely to ensure stability through its military might and economic generosity. Modernity and technology have made the world a small place, such that a seemingly insignificant disruption in one corner can seriously affect all the others. Enter the U.S. as a global enforcer, a rather benevolent one at that (e.g. Marshall Plan).

Muscle flexing in behalf of freedom and national security has a long tradition in America, from Jefferson's Empire of Liberty, to Teddy's "big stick" diplomacy, to FDR's Arsenal of Democracy, to the Cold War policy of containment. In the process, the U.S. protected South America from the kind of European colonial land-grab that occurred in Africa and Asia (later instances of "Yankee imperialism" notwithstanding). And as another example, by acquiring the Phillipines, albeit via a vicious but brief guerrilla war, the U.S. gradually instilled democratic principles into that country and positioned itself to first inhibit and then destroy Japanese aggression (a case of real imperialism) and later defeated Communist efforts to conquer South Korea. And today, an active U.S. presence in the Middle East has toppled the oppressive Taliban and the fiendish Saddam, while presenting the chance for viable republics to emerge in that autocratic region. And all at the cost of a remarkably low casuality rate. To be sure, 550 killed in Iraq is tragic, but the insurgency is weak, militarily speaking; it is hardly the VietCong. Pacification is working, at present anyhow.

U.S. exertion of power has certainly made its share of mistakes and created a few messes, but action is always better than inaction. By remaining isolationist or deferring to weaker nations out of a misguided allegiance to international equality, the U.S. risks allowing more disruption than its already vigilant policies are allegedly producing. In the end, U.S. interests and international order are best maintained by America retaining the initiative in foreign policy. This does not mean that the citizenry should not protest bad decisions and vote for new ideas, only that Americans should realize and embrace its role as peacekeeper.

Pax Romana lasted for hundreds of years, and we all admire that civilization for its culture, its laws, and its governing principles. Yes, it abused its power at times, and it eventually fell, just as the U.S. may do one day, but it went down fighting and left a powerful legacy of an order that permitted a great deal of freedom. Better to gamble on being right and fail, than never play a hand and lose by default anyway.


John H. Lederer - 3/5/2004

Having taken a brief "google" at Prof. Schroeder's writings, I owe him, and do tender him, an apology.

I have become sadly preconditioned to view a strained attempt to characterize U.S.policy as "imperialist" as likley an outgrowth of a Marxian analysis. I should curb my biases more carefully.

That said...it is still, in my opinion, a strained attempt. Can the U.S. actions be charcterized as "imperialism" -- yes, but only if one is willing to rob the term of distinction and apply it to any use of force, or threat of force, from a stronger to a weaker. I think "imperialism" requires more than that.


John H. Lederer - 3/5/2004

I nether know prof. Schroeder nor his background. But I infer from his forced analysis of the events in Iraq as imperialism as suggestive of a Marxian view of history. That is not a view that I hold in opprobium, I merely suggest that it appears to be less and less useful as a tool to analyze modern history.

Prof. Schroeder first chracterizes the American actions as "imperialism". Having done that so easily he then catalogues the historical preconditions for a temporarily successful imperialism, decides that the present situation has none of those, and concludes that imperialism will not work.


In my opinion, imperialism is so far from what is occurring there, that an analysis based on it is necessarily a forced one.


John H. Lederer - 3/5/2004

In which case our defeat of Germany in WWII was a case of imperialism?

I think you strain to conjure a classic "imperialist" economic motive out of our action in Iraq -- if there is an economic motive then the government is manifestly incompetent since we have spent what must be well over a 100 billion achieving half the economic result that could easily have been achieved by dropping our opposition to ending the U.N. sanctions.

Stated differently, my service station has $1.79 posted.

Nor do I think our aims are "access to oil, basing rights, a treaty with Israel, and a country so internally fragmented by "democracy" that it cannot possibly become a serious regional power again"

It seems to me that our goals are much more radical than that. That is why I think throwing around dated terms like "imperialism" or "colonialism" or using an economic analysis does little to shed light and much to raise dust on what is going on.

For instance, the creation of a real integrated democracy that controls an Iraq that is a regional power -- particularly in example, as well as militarily -- would better achieve our purposes.


Cary Fraser - 3/4/2004

An unfortunate aspect of the debate over the current situation in Iraq is the resort to pejorative language as a substitute for serious debate. Paul Schroeder's analysis stands - an American administration motivated by a deeply flawed understanding of history and the contemporary Middle East has committed a colossal blunder. Like the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the Bush administration has invaded a zone of conflict that will be exacerbated by the American presence. And like his fellow Texan, Lyndon Johnson, whose policy in Vietnam hobbled American foreign policy for over a decade, George Bush has entered a quagmire that has already demonstrated the hubris of American military power. Were it not for the tragedy for Iraqis, and for American soldiers sent on a quixotic crusade, the Marxist admonition that history repeats itself - the first time as tragedy and the second as farce - would be an appropriate assessment of the folly that drove Bush and his advisors.


Daniel B. Larison - 3/4/2004

I don't know what's more amusing--that Prof. Schroeder is being called a Marxist, or that our venture in Iraq is apparently not imperialist! Though Prof. Schroeder need not agree with a magazine to which he has submitted an important and thoughtful article, this is the same scholar who wrote a very insightful analysis of the issue of pre-emptive war concerning Iraq in The American Conservative. Most self-respecting Marxists would steer clear of this magazine, much as the readers of that magazine steer clear of Marxists.
Marxists and their ilk in the academy have generally been the sort to use the word imperialism in a negative sense about anything and everything Western, sometimes accurately and often not, but there is nothing particularly Marxist about an analysis that claims the invasion and occupation of Iraq to be imperialist. What does it require for such a venture to be imperialist? Very simply, it means the political and economic domination of another country through some means of coercion, sometimes through direct military control. Whatever one may think of the war, it is inescapable that the American government undertook to install a new government in Baghdad that would be friendly to the West, and whether or not one believes that oil was a motivating factor (would that also be a Marxist assumption?) it is very likely that Western nations, or at least those allied with the United States, will benefit economically by directing the new government of Iraq to set its policies to be favorable to Western interests in the development of the country's oil resources. Dominating another country through the use of military force, even if it were really for the sake of "liberation," is still an act of imperialism. The only question remains whether it will be an ongoing imperialism, or whether it will be cut short. Permanent basing rights, which the Pentagon wants, suggest a permanent endeavor.
Oh, but we're letting them have their own government--doesn't that rule out imperialism? Not really. Much of British imperialism was often indirect and run through local elites, so long as British suzerainty was acknowledged and basic British interests served; what the U.S. government hopes to achieve is not much different: access to oil, basing rights, a treaty with Israel, and a country so internally fragmented by "democracy" that it cannot possibly become a serious regional power again. It will be their own government only on domestic matters, if U.S. policy in Europe is any indication--disobedient "allies" are to be punished, at least diplomatically and economically, and neutral or unfriendly states are to be dominated by quisling governmnents friendly to the new order. "Allies" do not get to set their own foreign policy, and Iraq will be one of those allies, which is to say subject vassal states.
Prof. Schroeder is quite correct that the political realities prevailing in the Near East today are not suited to allowing this sort of indirect, quisling rule.
How much effort future administrations will put into ensuring that the quislings stay in power is anyone's guess.


Lisa Kazmier - 3/4/2004

You like throwing around the term Marxist or does anyone who uses history to disagree with this invasion policy automatically qualify as a Marxist? It's a nice "put down" I suppose as a whipping boy goes, but I'd like to know what you base your assessment on since nothing in this author's CV suggests he's a Marxist. His career seems to have been spent on examining international bodies like the Congress of Vienna. Does using the term "imperialism" your "code word"? What was that thing that existed in the late 19th century then?

Maybe you ought to define your own terms.


Rick Freedman - 3/2/2004

For a detailed commentary on the Interim Iraqi Constitution and the problems it leaves unsolved, please visit:

http://worldonfire.typepad.com/world_on_fire/


John H. Lederer - 3/2/2004

There is an old saw that "to a man with a hammer every problem is a nail".

That might be broadened to " to a history professor of a certain milieu, every foregn relations issue is a matter of imperialism or colonialism".

Our evolving relationship with Iraq may be good, bad or in between. The one thing it is not is "imperialist".

Marxism and its offshoots never were particularly good tools for analyzing history, but whatever validity they might have had passed with the Industrial Age. It is time for historians to get new tools and shed some real light on what is happening these days. A good place to look for those tools might be Thucydides, the real author of the quote this piece ends with.


John H. Lederer - 3/2/2004

There is an old saw that "to a man with a hammer every problem is a nail".

That might be broadened to " to a history professor of a certain milieu, every foregn relations issue is a matter of imperialism or colonialism".

Our evolving relationship with Iraq may be good, bad or in between. The one thing it is not is "imperialist".

Marxism and its offshoots never were particularly good tools for analyzing history, but whatever validity they might have had passed with the Industrial Age. It is time for historians to get new tools and shed some real light on what is happening these days. A good place to look for those tools might be Thucydides, the real author of the quote this piece ends with.


John H. Lederer - 3/2/2004

There is an old saw that "to a man with a hammer every problem is a nail".

That might be broadened to " to a history professor of a certain milieu, every foregn relations issue is a matter of imperialism or colonialism".

Our evolving relationship with Iraq may be good, bad or in between. The one thing it is not is "imperialist".

Marxism and its offshoots never were particularly good tools for analyzing history, but whatever validity they might have had passed with the Industrial Age. It is time for historians to get new tools and shed some real light on what is happening these days. A good place to look for those tools might be Thucydides, the real author of the quote this piece ends with.

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