The Dissident
POLITICS AND CULTURE FROM NEW PERSPECTIVES

 


DISSIDENT No. 1


POLITICS AND DEMOCRACY


A New Kind of Empire

The Thoughtless Orthodoxy

Globalization vs. Capitalism

The Real Roots of Islamic Extremism

What Explains Rwandan Mass Rape?

They Don't Hate the USA in the Former USSR

BOOKS + IDEAS

+ PROVOCATIONS


Theory Gets a Reality Check: The Philosophy, Economics, and Politics They Don’t Teach at Harvard

Vanishing Voters—A Blessing in Disguise?

What Conservative Bias?

The Hidden Side of Capitalism

J'ACCUSE


The Rise of the "Neoconservatives"


ARCHIVE


DISSIDENT No. 2

DISSIDENT No. 3

A New Kind of Empire?
BY JAIME SNEIDER

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Empire has become the dirty word used by critics of the Bush Administration to describe American foreign policy. Student activists and celebrities, Pat Buchanan and Gore Vidal: virtually no one who dislikes the president can resist the urge to rebuke America’s supposed imperialistic ambitions. Of course, the Bush Administration rejects the charge with as much outrage as his detractors make it.

Even if the term captured the spirit of U.S. foreign policy, the president would never endorse the notion of an American empire. To the contrary, in many of his speeches, he has set out with the purpose of showing that America is not imperious: “America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish. We wish for others only what we wish for ourselves—safety from violence, the rewards of liberty, and the hope for a better life.” As far as Bush is concerned, bringing democracy to Iraq—in place of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny—is at odds with the very essence of empire. It is not so much that antiwar activists disagree on this point. Rather, they dispute his commitment to democracy and assume, because he is a Republican, that he must be an imperialist.

Their shared aversion to the concept of empire puts Bush and his foes uncomfortably in the same camp. They agree that the case against empire concludes with the allegation. They agree that no further deliberation seems to be required, because no possible defense of empire can be mounted. And they agree that there can be no dispute about whether empire is good or evil.

Debate has therefore become circular and unrevealing, Bush failing to defend the virtues of empire on the one hand, and his critics ignoring his call for democracy on the other. Escaping this conceptual labyrinth demands that we set out to answer the very question everyone is too afraid even to ask: Can a modern-day empire be just?

LIBERAL EMPIRE

Many people have a hard time reconciling the notions of democracy and imperialism. They view empire in the anachronistic light of military occupation, rather than as a force for liberal values and peace.

Historian Victor David Hanson, for instance, wishing to dispel any notion of an American empire, compares the United States to the very dissimilar imperiums of the past. The fundamental distinction between them, according to Hanson, is that America “uses it [sic] power to keep the peace rather than rule.”

However, peace is not the only good in the world. Saddam Hussein, for example, could have argued up until last month that like Tito in Yugoslavia, he had preserved the peace. The scarcity of civil discord, however, was purchased at a very heavy price: in the case of Iraq, the torture and murder of literally hundreds of thousands, and a climate of pervasive fear rivaled only in North Korea.

When Hanson talks about establishing peace abroad, he does not consider these examples because he means a democratic peace. Even the most fervent opponents of the war believed that the people of Iraq would be better off with democracy and without Saddam as their ruler. The immediate success of democracy, however will depend on whether the Iraqi people internalize peaceful values without having them imposed upon them. If they do not, then the United States will have to confront a very tough question; indeed, it will have to tackle straight on a paradox in liberal thought: Is it undemocratic to impose democracy by force of arms?

Understandably not addressing this question, President Bush treats the issue in the same manner as Hanson. At the American Enterprise Institute on Feb. 26, the president noticed that “there was a time when many said that the cultures of Japan and Germany were incapable of sustaining democratic values. Well, they were wrong.” He added, “Some say the same of Iraq today. They are mistaken. The nation of Iraq … is fully capable of moving toward democracy and living in freedom.”

Often enough, however, people elect against sustaining peace. In Yugoslavia, democracy led to the slaughter of Muslims. In Algeria, it led to the oppression of non- Muslims. Likewise in Afghanistan under control of the Taliban; and even now, under the new regime, compulsory Islam is making a comeback. In Rwanda, democracy led to genocide (see “Girls Will Be Boys: What Explains Rwandan Mass Rape?” on page 7). And, come to think of it, the same was true of Nazi Germany.

It would be hard to believe that Bush, and the legion of neoconservatives advising him, intend to stand on the sidelines if Iraqi democracy begins to degenerate. President Bush makes that much clear in the ambiguous way he uses the word “democracy.”

At times, it sounds as though he would tolerate any form of government that represents the popular will — even another dictator: “Any future the Iraqi people choose for themselves will be better than the nightmare world that Saddam Hussein has chosen for them.” In other instances, the President expresses clear convictions about the liberal nature of the government he has in mind: “We will ensure that one brutal dictator is not replaced by another. All Iraqis must have a voice in the new government, and all citizens must have their rights protected.”

The past teaches, however, that ensuring a democracy and protecting the rule of law may be two very different propositions. As Stanley Kurtz recently pointed out, countries where democracy has succeeded in the past are very different than Iraq in the present day. Japan, to use Bush’s example, had democratic underpinnings starting in the 1850s with the Meiji Restoration.

And according to Kurtz, it was only with “a national consciousness well established by centralized imperial rule … [that] an independent India would become one of the most successful experiments in democracy the non- Western world has known.” This success required no less than “150 years of British education and experience with liberal British legal and administrative principles.” Even in the Indian case, one might question the success of a democracy in which ethnic violence is endemic, and is, at that, somewhat masked by the secession of Pakistan shortly after Indian independence. That Pakistan and India now stand poised for nuclear Armageddon does not enter Kurtz’s positive assessment of Indian democracy.

In Iraq, Bush officials have estimated America’s military presence at no more than a few years and as little as six months. That makes a repeat of the British “experiment” seem unlikely.

Dissident contributor Stephen Schwartz has argued elsewhere that the Shia Muslims in Iraq could be a bulwark of democratic peace. “Iraqi Shias look forward not to a clerical regime, but to a federal, constitutional Iraq.”

According to Schwartz, “Shia Muslims have never sought to impose their dispensation on the whole of the Islamic world community; nor have they attempted to impose theological conformity within their own ranks.”

Even if Schwartz is right, however, there are a number of other factions within Iraqi society that still might overwhelm democracy. Saddam’s Baath Party, for instance, comprises a sizable portion of society, and may not be so easy to pacify. Many members of Baath allied themselves with Saddam to escape suspicion of harboring rebellious thought and the persecution that would ensue. Others, however, not merely supporters in name, worked as clandestine agents. They rooted out alleged rebels, spied on their neighbors, and shot deserters in the back. Some undoubtedly partook in such activities only to be eligible for a pittance of Saddam’s brutally secu#808080 plunder. Still others may have internalized the repressive values of the Baathist regime. Their Faustian bargain could prevail, in the shadows of the Baghdad night, even when their master has ceased to govern.

And yet, if none of these forces materialize, there will still be those who seek revenge against the Baathists, and at least one more potential obstacle to a peaceful, liberal, and otherwise desireable Iraqi democracy: anti- Americanism. Decades of propaganda may have secured the psychological allegiance of Iraqis even if it failed to translate into love of Saddam Hussein. Eating food packets given to them by U.S. troops, two Iraqi conscripts, soon after surrendering, speculated to a New York Times reporter that the Iraqi dictator himself was probably an American agent.

The joyous outburst of American flag-waving that marked the liberation of Baghdad may well reflect the sentiments of most Iraqis. But in a world of asymmetric warfare, the hat#808080 of “America” can be dangerous even if it has taken root only in the hearts of a tiny minority. No amount of police surveillance or millitary intervention, and therefore no local government or international political empire, can monitor everyone, everywhere. As Foucault pointed out, the most pervasive monitoring is the internalized variety, in which each person polices herself. Internalized monitoring is foste#808080 by the spread of the norms we call “culture,” just as anti- Americanism has been fostered through cultural means. If there is to be any hope for security from terrorism and therefore for world peace, it must lie in the prospect of the spread of cultural norms that render hat#808080 irrational — or at least unimportant, in comparison to more pressing gratifications.

POLITICAL VS. CULTURAL IMPERIALISM

When God freed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, He insisted that they spend 40 years in the desert. A generation of former slaves died before the Jewish people were given an opportunity for self-determination. The U.S. government does not have 40 years, let alone 150, and it is politically unfeasible for its occupation to be seen as imperialistic. Even if not in name, though, empire may be what is called for. Somehow we must ensure that freed Iraqis internalize liberal values even if they do not learn to love America. Such is required, if only to ensure that Iraq does not spawn new terrorism.

Ensuring the persistence of liberal democracy following America’s brief military occupation will require careful and calculated action. The goal, fortunately, need not be so ambitious as to undo decades of anti-American propaganda. Immediate success requires no such thing, and indeed, much less. Political imperialism, therefore, may not be necessary. In fact, it would obstruct the cultural change needed if Iraqi democracy is to be peaceful and tolerant.

For all its faults, India again affords an interesting example deserving of our attention. The father of modern India, Mohan Roy, used ancient Hindu texts to dispel many Hindu traditions, such as widow burning. He adapted the culture of India to modern times under the pretense of cherishing it. One imagines that because he was an Indian who loved Hinduism, his ideas were all the more powerful. That is why it must not look as though America, a political and military superpower, is the engine of reform in Iraqi culture.

Consumerism, however, could act as a substitute for the liberal tradition the United States does not have the time or resources to establish. Consumerism is valuable not because the good life is the life of a consumer, but rather, because consumerism is better than more violent alternatives. In twentieth-century America, consumerism helped bring an end to traditional class struggles by dampening socio-economic distinctions. Even the impoverished could visit department stores and purchase products that were nearly identical to if not the same as the ones bought by their wealthier peers. By granting even the poor the feeling and look of being rich, consumerism ensured that the differences wealth creates seemed illusory.

Since peace, not wealth, is the goal, non-American companies should especially be encouraged to sell consumer goods to a potentially anti-American audience. A primitive form of such consumerism has already emerged within Palestinian communities that boycott American and Israeli products. Mecca Cola, for instance, is a beverage distributed by a French company wishing to capitalize on Muslim hatred of the American-owned Coca-Cola. Likewise, a brand of cigarettes targeting the same consumer base has begun to replace Marlboro in the Arab world.

A consumer culture with anti-American undertones may be just what is needed in Iraq. It allows people to keep up the pretense of hating America while nevertheless affirming the most quintessential of American values, prosperity. Its goodness, however, comes not from the fact that consumerism is American, but from the possibility that it can lead to peace.

Mecca Cola, et al., can be nonviolent outlets for anti- American sentiment. Over time, however, such outlets may cause prejudices to fade away. Consumer culture will then emerge in its purest form: the pursuit of material possessions no longer as a symbol of anti-Americanism, but as a love of enterprise. Cultural imperialism of this kind can invisibly and silently accomplish the goals of military occupation.

THE NEW IMPERIUM

The citizens of an American empire will not salute the Stars and Stripes, and will have no capital to compete with their own. In fact, the empire’s most loyal members will never know of the supra-national order to which they belong. Their allegiance will lie in the subconscious realm and escape detection from even themselves.

Winning war on a distant battlefield is only the first step in protecting ourselves from those who wish to kill us. The next battle will be fought not in the desert, but in the soul. Only hegemony in this inner domain can secure world peace. At the moment of its triumph, however, peace will cease to be imperial in any meaningful sense of the word. Then, as all-encompassing force, it will only be — peacefully, tolerantly, and democratically. It will truly be the will of the people.

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Jaime Sneider is a 2002 graduate of Columbia University and a Phillips Foundation fellow. Email him at jaimesneider@phillips.org.

 

 

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