Invading Iraq: The Logic of Empire

by Paul Le Blanc


This article is based on the author’s presentation at a teach-in against the war at La Roche College near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on March 29, 2003.

As the possibility/probability/inevitability of the U.S. war against Iraq loomed on the horizon in the autumn and winter of 2002–2003, there were many who denounced the pro-war reasoning put forward by Bush administration spokespeople as making no sense.

After all, there was no link between the Islamic terrorists inspired by Osama bin Laden and the secular dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Hussein’s much ballyhooed “weapons of mass destruction” were not particularly impressive when compared to the weapons of mass destruction in the arsenal of the United States. One truly excellent criticism of the Hussein regime has been that it is one of the most vicious dictatorships on the planet—but the U.S. government has often supported vicious dictatorships (just as it once supported that of Hussein, before he began to prove himself so unreliable and disobedient an ally).

More than this, some warned, the decision to conduct a massive military invasion into the already volatile Middle East could have a destabilizing impact on the region, inviting the possible vengeance of new terrorist attacks in years to come (as the Gulf War of 1990 had ultimately led to the attacks of September 11). The powerful opposition to such an invasion not only by the great majority of countries in that region, but by a majority of the governments and peoples of the world, also seemed to guarantee a devastating isolation and vulnerability for the United States if it followed such a course.

From a different standpoint, however, the U.S. war against Iraq makes perfect sense—even if, and in some ways particularly if, conducted and “won” in the face of global opposition. This relates to what has been, at the dawn of the new millennium, a growing chorus of both conservative and liberal analysts and policy advisers singing melodies of empire. This predated the September 11 calamities, and it seems that those calamities have, in fact, been utilized as a pretext for implementing a new version of the imperial game plan. In explaining this orientation, a number of analysts have pointed, not without reason, to foreign policy perspectives fashioned by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson at the beginning of the 20th century.

A more modern “realist” perspective was articulated, however, by James Burnham (an ex-Trotskyist intellectual who ended up far on the political right) in his 1947 classic The Struggle for the World. Burnham made a sharp distinction between “World Government” (as represented by the United Nations) and what he viewed as the more realistic notion of “World Empire,” the leadership of which he believed should be exercised by the United States. He explained:

By a World Empire I mean a state, not necessarily world-wide in literal extent but world-dominating in political power, set up at least in part through coercion (quite probably including war, but certainly the threat of war), and in which one group of peoples (its nucleus being one of the existing nations) would hold more than its equal share of power. 

At the beginning of 2001 William Pfaff was reporting in the influential journal Foreign Affairs on an “implicit alliance [that] has emerged in Washington since the Cold War’s end: internationalist liberals, anxious to extend American influence and to federate the world’s democracies, and unilateralist neoconservatives who believe in aggressive American leadership for the world’s own good.” In the same journal in the summer of 1996, William Kristol and Robert Kagan (who were to become influential ideologues in the Bush camp) advocated what they called “a neo-Reaganite foreign policy of military supremacy and moral confidence,” in which Americans (or, more precisely, American leaders) would exercise “their responsibility to lead the world,” because “peace and American security depend on American power and the will to use it.” In the wake of September 11, Sebastian Mallaby argued, also in the pages of Foreign Affairs, that “the logic of neoimperialism is too compelling for the Bush administration to resist,” and that “a new imperial moment has arrived, and by virtue of its power America is bound to play the leading role.” The title of Mallaby’s article was far less provocative than it might have been in earlier times: “The Reluctant Imperialist: Terrorism, Failed States, and the Case for American Empire.”

One of the most penetrating analyses was offered less than three months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, by the director of Harvard University’s Carr Center for the Kennedy School of Government, Michael Ignatieff, in the New York Times Magazine. The title the magazine editors splashed across the front page was: “The American Empire: Get Used To It.” Ignatieff himself gave his ambivalent article a more ambivalent title, “The Burden.” His reflections merit extensive examination. Commenting on the much-denounced “unilateralism” of the Bush administration, Ignatieff noted that “multilateral solutions to the world’s problems are all very well, but they have no teeth unless America bares its fangs.” He mused:

Being an imperial power, however, is more than being the most powerful nation or just the most hated one. It means enforcing such order as there is on the world and doing so in the American interest. It means laying down the rules America wants (on everything from markets to weapons of mass destruction) while exempting itself from other rules (the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and the International Criminal Court) that go against its interest. It also means carrying out imperial functions in places America has inherited from the failed empires of the 20th century—Ottoman, British and Soviet. In the 21st century, America rules alone, struggling to manage the insurgent zones—Palestine and the northwest frontier of Pakistan, to name but two—that have proved to be the nemeses of empires past.

According to Ignatieff, “the impending operation in Iraq is…the defining moment in America’s long debate with itself about whether its overseas role as an empire threatens or strengthens its existence as a republic,” with a growing proportion of the U.S. population wondering whether Bush’s “proclamation of a war without end against terrorists and tyrants may only increase its vulnerability while endangering its liberties and its economic health at home…Even if victory is rapid, a war in Iraq and a postwar occupation may cost anywhere from $120 billion to $200 billion.” (Indeed, some Bush partisans have suggested that “regime change” in Iraq is only the beginning of similar efforts aimed at Iran, North Korea, and beyond.) Ignatieff added that “regime change is an imperial task par excellence, since it assumes that the empire’s interest has a right to trump the sovereignty of a state,” although many Iraqi exiles “fear that a mere change of regime, a coup in which one Baathist thug replaces another, would suit America’s interests just as well. Provided the thug complied with the interests of the Pentagon and American oil companies.” Ignatieff didn’t shy away from an elaboration on this theme:

Whenever it has exerted power overseas, America has never been sure whether it values stability—which means not only political stability but also the steady, profitable flow of goods and raw materials—more than it values its own rhetoric about democracy. Where the two values have collided, American power has come down heavily on the side of stability, for example, toppling democratically elected leaders from Mossadegh in Iran to Allende in Chile. Iraq is yet another test of this choice. Next door in Iran, from the 1950s to the 1970s, America backed stability over democracy, propping up the autocratic rule of the shah, only to reap the whirlwind of an Islamic fundamentalist revolution in 1979 that delivered neither stability nor real democracy. Does the same fate await an American operation in Iraq?

Ignatieff seems to feel, on the one hand, that there is a compelling logic to the drive toward global empire (“into the…vacuum of chaos and massacre a new imperialism has reluctantly stepped”), but on the other hand, that the goal may beyond “our” reach: “The question…is not whether America is too powerful but whether it is powerful enough. Does it have what it takes to be grandmaster of what Colin Powell has called the chessboard of the world’s most inflammable region?” Trying to square the circle, he writes: “Bringing order is the paradigmatic imperial task, but it is essential, for reasons of both economy and principle, to do so without denying local peoples their rights to some degree of self-determination.” And to the anti-imperialists he says: “Those who want America to remain a republic rather than become an empire imagine rightly, but they have not factored in what tyranny and chaos can do to vital American interests.”

One of the most pressing questions for citizens of the United States certainly involves the question of what policies will truly protect and advance our national interest. But to answer this question, it is crucial that we be able to define clear precisely what is meant by this “national interest.” As we seek to answer this question, we would do well to remind ourselves that 1% of the families in our country control 40% of our country’s wealth, that the next 19% own another 40% of the wealth, and that those of us in the “bottom” 80% of our nation’s families are left with only 20% of the wealth. We should be clear that those who shape U.S. foreign policy are those from the wealthiest 20% of the population, and what is in their interest is not necessarily what is in our interest.

In fact, if we examine the distribution of wealth in the world, we find a similar split: the top 20% controls 80% of the wealth, while the bottom 80% subsists on 20% of the wealth. It may be that the genuine interests of the great majority of the American people have more in common with the great majority of the world’s peoples than with our own wealthy elites. This involves not simply distribution of wealth but also structures of power, cultural dynamics, ethical norms, and the values that are built into the way our economic and political systems function today and could work (if radically changed) in the future.

I want to return, for a moment to touch on the moral standpoint of James Burnham, who we noted earlier as a pioneer in the conceptualization of an American empire. Interestingly, he was a revolutionary socialist intellectual in the 1930s, then shifted dramatically to the right in the 1940s and 1950s, working for the Central Intelligence Agency and becoming an editor of the conservative weekly National Review. A Cold War ideologue who believed that “the present candidates for leadership in the World Empire are only two: the Soviet Union and the United States,” he was eventually awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan. He was quite blunt about what “empire” would require:

Now it is obvious, as well as confirmed by historical experience, that carrying out the imperial responsibilities requires certain characteristics in the imperial citizens, or at least in the leading strata; confidence in both their rights and in their ability to perform the imperial task; resoluteness; perseverance; a willingness to assure the strength—that is, the military force—to fulfill the task; and finally (it must be added) a willingness to kill people, now and then, without collapsing into a paroxysm of guilt.

I reject this. I turn elsewhere for a moral standpoint that makes more sense to me. More than three decades ago, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. posed the questions that continue to haunt us. He rejected deficiencies in “the American way of life” as well as deficiencies in the dictatorial regimes associated with Communism—arguing that a better world was possible. Noting in 1968 that 40 million Americans were living in poverty (there are many more today), he commented:

And one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalist economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society…

What I’m saying to you this morning is that communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated…

A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will “thingify” them—make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together…

King realized that such interrelated problems could not be overcome easily, but he insisted that “there is a creative force in the universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.” Whether this creative force is to be found in God or in humanity (or in both), it lends plausibility to the point that King made over and over again: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”