I want to perform a “thought experiment”
by asking this question: “How would the United States be acting if it really were an imperialist bully?”
The answer is, “very differently.”
An imperial nation, possessed of the kind of lopsided military power the United States has in today’s world, wouldn’t waste its time with inspectors and diplomacy. Nor would it limit its ambitions to Iraq.
An Imperial America would probably join with nascent superpower India to divide up and conquer the region. India could have Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran; we’d take Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt.
What about the “Arab street?”
The answer would be machine guns, labor camps, and bulldozed mosques. (Replaced, perhaps, by new mosques with pliable mullahs). Really troublesome populations would be relocated, a la Stalin. (If the task proved too ugly for American troops, we’d hire mercenaries — excuse me, “Foreign Legion troops” — from sub-Saharan Africa, East Timor, and other places whose populations dislike Muslims. There would be atrocities and brutality, of course, but that would be part of the plan.) The response to people who said the war was just about oil? “You’re right. And if you’re nice to us, we’ll sell you some.” To keep the Russians happy, they’d get a cut of the action so long as they played ball.
Complaints from France and Germany would be ignored. And, given French history and German pacifism, the complaints would probably be muted once they realized they were dealing with the sort of brutal empire that they have historically either accommodated, or aspired to be. Any efforts at going beyond complaint would be met by unpleasant consequences ranging from trade sanctions, to sponsored insurgencies, to war.
Shocking? Utterly unlikely? Of course
. But also entirely consistent with the way that real empires have behaved throughout history — and consistent with the way nations like Russia and China (to say nothing of France and Germany) have behaved in historical times. (The German role in facilitating Turkish massacres of Armenians, for example, is little remembered, but it drew on German experience with colonial massacres in West Africa — and laid the bureaucratic foundation for the Holocaust.)
It ought to be obvious, but given the tendency of people for misunderstanding (or, sometimes, feigned
misunderstanding) in such matters, let me be clear. I don’t think that the imperial behavior I describe would be a good thing. I think it would be a very, very bad thing, and that doing it would put the United States on the same moral plane as the Soviet Union, or the People’s Republic of China, or pre-Liberation Germany, or colonial France, or Indonesia in East Timor, or Belgium in the Congo, or Syria, or — well, come to think of it, a lot of members of Today's
United Nations. And that would be wrong, not only for its victims, but for the soul of America.
But I’m getting kind of tired hearing the United States accused of behaving like an imperial power when it isn’t. And I worry that these false accusations, repeated over and over, may actually make genuine American imperialism more likely, as the “American Street”
decides that if we’re going to be called an empire, we might as well act like one. What, after all, could Robert Fisk or his ilk
say about America in reponse to the above that they haven’t already said anyway?
Such a state of events is still quite remote. But it’s not
as remote as it was a year ago — and European nastiness, backstabbing, and intransigence make it more
likely, not less so. A major terrorist strike involving nuclear weapons or smallpox, for example, might be enough to start the process, especially if Americans conclude that respect for diplomatic sensibilities paved the way for such a strike. And such a conclusion would have some basis, especially if the trail were found to lead back to Saddam. So by slowing things down, the Franco-German diplomatic axis is running a terrible risk.
It’s odd to me that people who are so concerned about how American actions might play with comparatively powerless denizens of the “Arab street” don’t worry even a little about how their words and actions might play with the far more powerful American Street. (Gallup polls report plummeting opinions of France and Germany among Americans)
. Yet it’s obvious that Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder, and Kofi Annan aren’t worrying about this at all. In a way, of course, that’s evidence that they know just how silly their claims of imperialism and atrocity really are.
They realize, in other words, that the United States isn’t acting the way their nations would probably act, if they possessed the power of the United States. Let’s hope that things stay that way.