Marc J. O’Reilly: Explains how he came to write about America's empire in the Middle East

Historians in the News

[Marc J. O’Reilly is assistant professor of political science at Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio. His new book is Unexceptional: America’s Empire in the Persian Gulf, 1941-2008.]

Unexceptional started as a Ph.D. dissertation. As a graduate student in political science and history in the late 1990s, I wanted to write on a U.S. foreign policy topic with contemporary relevance and historical antecedents. I had read some works on empire—a fascinating, albeit maligned, subject—and wondered if American behavior in the Middle East could be considered imperial, rather than simply hegemonic. In those pre-9/11 days, very few political scientists and historians were writing on the issue of U.S. empire. Yet, given America’s imposing military presence (especially in the Persian Gulf), vested interest in Gulf hydrocarbons, and political role in the Middle East, I thought the case could be made that the country had created and evolved a regional imperium comparable to the British, Ottoman, and other previous empires. Historian Doug Little, with whom I discussed the matter, thought so as well, but only if I confined my case to the Persian Gulf. With his advice in mind, I spent three years researching and writing on the U.S. experience in the Gulf since 1941.

The United States never intended to reprise the British role in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf. But global and regional events, as well as developing geopolitical and economic interests, prompted Washington to intensify its involvement in that part of the world. The American role proved modest initially, as administrations mostly sought to assist London to maintain regional authority. As British power receded in the late 1960s in the wake of two exhausting global wars, and with Cold War imperatives preoccupying U.S. policymakers, Washington graduated to a new status in the early 1970s. As the primary extra-regional power in the region, the United States adopted a number of imperial strategies (which I dub proxy, alliance, and unilateral) in an effort to achieve its national-security objectives. Some of those strategies, which pre-dated the Nixon Doctrine, worked well; others disappointed or failed. The history of empires recounted many similar episodes, yet many scholars I encountered at conferences dismissed the comparison. I finished my dissertation in August 2001 still convinced that an “informal” U.S. empire existed in the Persian Gulf, but cognizant that my conclusion invited much academic skepticism.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and the bungled occupation that followed rekindled the empire debate in the United States, essentially dormant since the Vietnam War. In short order, many scholars, journalists, and policymakers were enthusiastically addressing the formerly taboo issue of American empire. A plethora of books and articles, many of them insightful, examined this controversial subject. These works provided valuable additions to my literature review on empires and the U.S. variant and enabled me to rethink my manuscript. I inferred, for example, that the American empire possessed both classical and liberal features. From International Relations scholar John Ikenberry, I realized that the United States could proceed hegemonically in Europe, a zone of peace that emphasizes economic competition via well-established institutions, but imperially in the Persian Gulf, a zone of conflict where violence (or the threat of it) could still carry the day. America’s classical-liberal hybrid was well suited to a post-colonial world but, like all empires, subject to setbacks and defeats. My students may typically think of an empire as omnipotent and therefore always successful, but imperial history belies such thinking.

Although much literature emphasizes the supposedly inevitable “rise and fall” of empires, I argue in my book that imperial trajectories tend to mimic the dramatic lines on a seismogram during an earthquake. For me, such a sequence of apexes and nadirs called to mind the spectrum of U.S. experiences in the Gulf since 1941. Each of the stages I discuss in my book (1941-47, 1948-58, 1959-72, 1973-89, 1990-2000, 2001-7) highlights parts of the sequence. In 1957, for example, the United States achieved a post-World War Two peak following the Suez crisis. However, from 1958, the year of the Iraq coup, until the 1979 Iranian revolution, American influence steadily declined. Following the hostage crisis, Washington started to reassert itself. Its success culminated in April 2003, when its position in the Gulf seemed unassailable. Yet four years later, America seemed ensnared in a familiar imperial conundrum in Iraq. As Washington pondered what to do, its influence within the region ebbed and popularity plummeted. Ironically, its “formal” empire in Iraq was undermining its informal imperium (what Chalmers Johnson calls the “empire of bases”) in the Gulf Cooperation Council area.

The juxtaposition of formal and informal empire in the Gulf underscores two issues. First, achieving successful formal empire in the twenty-first century seems near impossible and therefore not worth the considerable military, economic, and political efforts necessary. Second, informal empire can work, especially if you do not call it that. This variant has not guaranteed perpetual U.S. success in the Gulf, but it has secured American objectives better than any alternative.

Several scholars disagree with that assertion, but at least they admit to the existence of an American empire, both in the Gulf and worldwide. Although Michael Mann and others consider the global U.S. empire a failure, Bradley Thayer considers it exceptional. My analysis contradicted his assertion, however, so I edited my introduction to reflect the new impetus of my work. If the U.S. empire qualifies as exceptional, then its behavior ought to be easily distinguishable from that of previous empires. Yet my case study underscores that, in the Persian Gulf, the United States proceeded in a manner similar, if not identical, to the British, Ottoman, and other imperia. Thus, I characterize the American empire in the Gulf as unexceptional.

My hope is that Unexceptional contextualizes the current U.S. occupation of Iraq and the overall American position in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. experience in that region is not new, nor is it particularly innovative. Americans may not recognize it as imperial, but as Walter Lippmann wrote in 1927, they do not know how empire should feel. Does that mean that, like most imperia, the U.S. empire in the Gulf is doomed to an ignominious end? Not necessarily. But the history of empires should be instructive as Washington considers how to proceed in the coming years, if not decades, especially if the price of oil remains high and the threat of transnational Islamic terrorism continues.

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