Max Boot: Perhaps the U.S. Should Emulate Subtler British Imperialism

Roundup: Historians' Take

Max Boot, in the Los Angeles Times (July 15 2004):

With the Coalition Provisional Authority disbanded and L. Paul Bremer III back at home, it's time to ponder the future of American imperialism. Many, of course, will huffily reply that U.S. imperialism has no future, and they will point to all the troubles we've encountered in Iraq during the last year as evidence.

But whatever happens in Iraq, there will continue to be strong demand for U.S. interventions around the world. Failed states and rogue states constitute the biggest threats to world peace in the foreseeable future, and only the United States has the will and the resources to do anything about them. Even many of those who detested the invasion of Iraq plead for the U.S. to bring order to places like Darfur, a province in Sudan where genocide is occurring. The U.S. cannot shrug off the burden of global leadership, at least not without catastrophic cost to the entire world, but it can exercise its power more wisely than it did in Iraq over the past year.

One of Bremer's chief failings was that he tried to act the part of an imperial proconsul. He and his spokesmen hogged the media spotlight, which only exacerbated Iraqis' tendency to blame them for everything that went wrong, from too many car bombings to not enough electricity. It was almost as if Bremer were Lord Curzon, the notoriously vain viceroy of India from 1898 to 1905, who delighted in pomp and circumstance, such as the grandiose festival he staged in 1903 to mark Edward VII's coronation as king of Britain and emperor of India. For obvious reasons — the rise of nationalism, the fall of traditional European empires — that approach doesn't work well today. No one is going to crown George II emperor of Mesopotamia.

Yet the infinitely adaptable British had different ways of ruling different parts of their empire, and some of them are applicable today. There was, for instance, Lord Cromer (born Evelyn Baring), who effectively ruled Egypt from 1883 to 1907 with the modest titles of British agent and consul general.

The British came to dominate Egypt in 1879 when they, along with the French, imposed financial controls to ensure that foreign bond-holders would be repaid by a bankrupt government. (Shades of the International Monetary Fund!) The British occupied the country on their own in 1882 after a nationalist revolt. But they refrained from formally annexing it, which would only have stirred up nationalist sentiment....

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