What we are attempting in Iraq is something that has not only never been achieved, but never been attempted in all of recorded history. We are attempting to convert a nation from a hostile, brutal, repressive dictatorship and enemy into a free, independent democracy and ally. We have done that part before, in Germany and Japan after World War II, but in that case we had a somewhat easier task – in both cases we utterly destroyed the nations, and rebuilt them from the ground up.
In Iraq, we avoided the magnitude of destruction such as inflicted during World War II. We did the minimal damage we could to the society and infrastructure, and now are attempting to graft democracy and freedom and independence on top of them. It seems less cruel and expensive in the short term, but will it succeed? And will it last? Only time will tell.
But what is the grand, overall strategy behind this? What is the “big idea,” the grand plan, the overarching agenda behind it all?
Obviously, I have no inside information, only observations and theories. And there appears to be a singular historic model that might serve as useful – and that’s the British Empire, the Pax Brittanica.
Rudyard Kipling wrote in 1899 a poem, called “White Man’s Burden,” where he commented on the United States taking charge of the Philippines from Spain in the Spanish-American War:
“Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
Take up the White Man’s burden–
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain,
To seek another’s profit
And work another’s gain.
Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine,
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
(The end for others sought)
Watch sloth and heathen folly
Bring all your hope to nought.
Take up the White Man’s burden–
No iron rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper–
The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go, make them with your living
And mark them with your dead.
Take up the White Man’s burden,
And reap his old reward–
The blame of those ye better
The hate of those ye guard–
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light:–
“Why brought ye us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?”
Take up the White Man’s burden–
Ye dare not stoop to less–
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloak your weariness.
By all ye will or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent sullen peoples
Shall weigh your God and you.
Take up the White Man’s burden!
Have done with childish days–
The lightly-proffered laurel,
The easy ungrudged praise:
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years,
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers.”
England saw its mission as essentially benevolent; they saw their mission to “bring civilization to the savage world.” They expected that there would be resistance from what they brought to other peoples and other lands, but eventually that would be supplanted by gratitude and appreciation, and in the end those they civilized would be thankful for what the English had forced upon them.
India was a prime example. Gandhi, when he was struggling for India’s independence, never espoused hatred of the British or called for discarding all that the British brought to India. His main message was a polite, but firm, “thank you for all you have done, but it’s time for you to leave.”
Despite the poetic words, the sun indeed did set on the British Empire. The Empire became the Commonwealth, and now is loosely referred to as “the Anglosphere,” a collection of nations that share a common origin as British colonies, but have achieved independence and stand on their own. India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Scotland, Ireland, and even the United States can all be considered part of this unofficial grouping. But for the most part, being a former English colony is a far better harbinger of success and independence than, say, a French colony – take a look at some of the places that were compelled to pay homage to the Tricolor, such as Viet Nam and the Ivory Coast.
But while the basic strictures of the English model might work out, they really don’t fit our national “style” and self-image. We don’t want colonies. In our history, the United States didn’t really subjugate lands and force them to do us homage; the colonial territories we ended up with, such as the Philippines and Cuba, we took from European powers and worked towards granting them independence. Even Puerto Rico, with its unique status as a “commonwealth,” falling short of full statehood, is based purely on the wishes of the Puerto Rican people, who have repeatedly rejected either independence or full, equal status.
No, we don’t want colonies. We’ve seen too much of the ugly side of colonialism, and want nothing to do with it. Further, we are far too aware of our own genesis as a colony, and the bitter fight to end that status. We have no desire to be modern-day Redcoats.
But is there a way to take that British model that worked so well, and adapt it to our needs? Americans are great innovators, but we also are great synthesizers. Our very essence is built on the notion of taking the best that other nations, other cultures, other peoples have to offer and improving on them, combining them and twiddling with them until something wonderful emerges. Could that spirit be applied to the concept of a colonial empire?
I think so, with appropriate restrictions, caveats, and only as a last resort.
When a nation grows to be too much of a threat to us, our interests, and our allies, we ought to work with our allies to curb the danger posed by that rogue nation. But if all else fails, we had best be prepared to deal firmly, decisively, and definitively with the government that poses such a threat. It needs to be stopped, and stopped hard.
So far, we’ve done that precisely twice in the last few years. In Afghanistan, the terrorists who struck us on 9/11 were so intertwined with the existing de facto government (never let it be forgotten that the official, recognized government of Afghanistan was not the Taliban, but our allies in the Northern Alliance) that separating those who had attacked us and those who were running the country was impossible. So we acted, and now Afghanistan has a nascent democratically-elected government. It’s hardly perfect, but it’s a damn sight better than its predecessor – and far less likely to pose a major threat to world peace any time soon.
And in Iraq, we also have a nascent democratically-elected government. It’s still struggling to gain full control over its own territory, and is still terribly dependent on the US, but it’s a damn sight better than Saddam’s regime – and is growing stronger all the time. It no longer is an “exporter” of terrorism, through various means of support to terrorists, but instead is seeing up close and personal what Saddam encouraged and fomented elsewhere – and they don’t like it one bit.
Will it work? Maybe, maybe not. But we’re a better nation for having tried it. I’m not a big supporter of “it’s the thought that counts” line of reasoning – it tends to sanctify intentions far above results, and we all know the saying about the “road to hell” – but in this case we are trying – sincerely trying – to “secure the blessings of liberty” for people who have never tasted such things.
But that begs the next question: just who the hell are we to do this? Just how arrogant are we that we think that our way is so much better than anyone else’s, that we can just march in and force it down their throats?
The answer is disturbingly simple: we do it because we have to.
The days when we could count on two mighty oceans to keep the world’s turmoils and struggles at bay are long past. The world has shrunk tremendously, and events halfway around the world can affect us most profoundly in less time than it takes to read this single sentence. It is, indeed, one world, and it’s the only one we have. And if we value our existence, our way of life, we indeed do it to both “our selves and our posterity” to protect them.
I am not calling for a modern-day Pax Americana, with the United States intervening around the world willy-nilly, tossing aside any government we don’t like and imposing our own vision of How Things Ought To Be on anyone we choose. The use of force – the kind of force applied to the Taliban and Saddam’s regime – should only be for the most intransigent, belligerent cases, and only then as a last resort. Also, it should be only used when it is likely to achieve the goals.
Some critics of the war in Iraq wonder why, if Saddam was “fair game,” why not Iran and North Korea? The answer is simple: it wouldn’t work as well in those nations. North Korea is falling apart quite thoroughly on its own, alienating China – its only reliable ally – and frantically denying that its economy and very structure are falling apart while its psychotic dictator frantically fiddles around with nuclear weapons and missiles. And Iran hasn’t – quite – pushed matters to the point of no return. They overplayed their hand briefly with Hezbollah in Lebanon, but at the last minute Israel allowed itself to be brought to heel from international pressure, and Iran’s puppetry through Syria and Hezbollah remained safe.
No, invasion and forcible regime change don’t appear on the agenda for those two nations. But other, more successful tactics could be employed. The isolation and studied slighting of North Korea is driving Kim Jong Il up the wall, and he’s trying to find some way to bring the attention of the world back on him – but not in such a way that could lead to his deposal. And in Iran, there really doesn’t seem to be a good solution – they’ve seriously hardened their nuclear research facilities to the point where they are largely immune to aerial attack, and they don’t seem to fear reprisals. The very concept of a nuclear-armed Iran ought to give night terrors to any rational human being, but so far no solution has presented itself.
But back to the main point, the “New American Empire.” The model that seems to be evolving is to follow the English model of colonialism, but with one major difference: from the outset, the independence of that “colony” is the primary goal. We intend to get them back on their feet as quickly as is feasible, then get the hell out of their way while they chart their own course – free from the shackles that held them down before we intervened.
Yes, it might seem high-handed, arrogant, even imperialistic. But it’s also seeming to become more and more of a necessity.