Munich American Peace Committee (MAPC)
American Imperialism in the Middle East
University of California at Santa Cruz 22 May 2003
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Richard Falk is professor emeritus of international law at Princeton. He is currently visiting professor at UC/Santa Barbara. He is the recipient of the UNESCO Peace Education Prize. He’s the author of more than twenty books. His latest are The Great Terror War and Unlocking the Middle East.
I want to try to put these more focused issues of Palestine and Iraq in the broader setting of what the United States seems to be doing in the world and how that specifically fits in the increasing emphasis on America as an empire...
In one sense the United States has been an empire ever since its origin if one understands by empire domination of others and economic, political exploitation of others who are displaced or dispossessed or dominated in the land where they are. In a certain sense even though America was a colony itself, it was an imperial power in relation to Native Americans who occupied North America. I think that’s part of the very innocence of the United States is to deny that part of its historic origins.
And then throughout its history it has expanded at the expense of others, at the expense of Mexico, at the expense of Latin America in a variety of ways...Often in very mainstream history books, one sees the years 1898-1901 described as the Age of Empire, as if those three years exhausted the American empire experience. It is true in the Spanish-American War, for the first time, the United States didn’t disguise its imperial ambitions, especially in relation to the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii, all of which were acquired as a consequence of that war. It was President McKinley, the American president of the time, who described that he was guided by God, similar to another important American leader. He said that his guidance, with respect to the Philippines, was such that he would through American leadership lift up the people of Manila until they were at the level of the people of Kansas City... I’m not sure that that was something that everyone in the Philippines would recognize as very valuable.
What I’m trying to suggest is that all along there has been an important acknowledgement and critical attitude toward the American claim that it was just a republic, that it was the first independent country, the first revolution against colonial rule. There have been important figures, William Appleman Williams is one of them, who’ve emphasized the degree to which economic considerations have, from the outset of the American experience, driven it into an expansionist mode so that it could obtain the markets and the resources it needed. So in that sense one can say there was always a suppressed imperial identity associated with the American role in the world.
That suppressed identity became more and more pronounced in a certain way during the twentieth century, the ascendancy of the United States in World War I and World War II. The exercise of growing influence around the world, the spread of American ideas and American culture, American consumerism, all gave a certain reality to this American imperial identity, which in the period of the Cold War under the banner of anti-communism and containing Soviet expansion, meant frequent interventions in the Third World. Frequent interferences with the proclaimed commitment that the United States had made to the ideas of self-determination, so that either covertly as in Iran in 1953, or Guatemala in 1954, or more overtly as in the Dominican Republic in 1965, and of course the long period in Vietnam, the United States had projected its power in such a way as to deny peoples of Third World countries the political autonomy to determine their own future and to extend, in that sense, its power over their sovereign rights.
It’s against this background then that I think we have a new stage of this discussion. It is a much more open, explicit embrace and criticism of this recent surge of imperial tactics and strategy. Toward the end of a rather provocative book by a very conservative writer, Andrew Bacevich called American Empire, he writes, and I think accurately, “Like it or not, America today is Rome......
Having said this, it still remains true, at least in public, our leaders are unwilling to acknowledge either the existence of objectively an imperial role or the ambition to create a global empire. President Bush at West Point in June 2002, in his most comprehensive depiction of what I would call an imperial vision, said at one point America has no empire to establish or utopia to create. And then oddly enough he went on to describe exactly what kind of empire he had in mind and what sort of utopia America would bring to the world.
It’s interesting also to take note of the fact that the very important document issued by the White House in September of 2002, the "National Security Strategy of the United States of America," begins quite extraordinarily with the assertion that twentieth-century struggles against totalitarianism ended with a total victory for the United States and its allies. But what is significant, and here I’m quoting the words used in the opening of this document. There is a “single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.” It’s important to see all three of those code words. They don’t mean what they would seem to mean if you looked them up in the dictionary. I’ll try to say something about what democracy means. Free enterprise means what it says, unlike the other two words.
Roughly to anticipate what I want to say, freedom means any kind of political system that isn’t overtly anti-American. Any system that maintains that kind of diplomatic posture will be treated as a free society in the world. And democracy is something even stranger. I will try to discuss that a little bit. Maybe I can illustrate what I have in mind by the lecture that Paul Wolfowitz gave to the Turkish military after their failure to support the United States in the Iraq War. Wolfowitz said he was very disappointed with the Turkish military, that they couldn’t find a way to circumvent the views of the Turkish Parliament, which had declared its opposition to providing access to American troops, and the fact that Turkish public opinion was 94 percent opposed to the war. ....
On the one side, President Bush disavows empire. But on the other side he affirms that there is a single sustainable model for national success and that that model is associated with American values and with the kind of influence that the United States is seeking to exert around the world. ..... If you combine these ideas that we possess the single model that works, we are the champions of that model associated by global capitalism and we are struggling against forces of evil that is essentially those that reject this model. So it creates a foundation for an extremely assertive and interventionary role for the United States in the world.
I think it’s important to grasp the originality of the new phase of imperial geopolitics. It carries forward the global scope that was already endorsed in the Clinton presidency but much more so in the setting of economic globalization. It was Madeleine Albright who spoke of the United States then as the "indispensable" nation. It was the United States in that period that felt it could circumvent the United Nations Security Council when it led the NATO countries into the Kosovo war. There was already in the 1990s, in the aftermath of the Cold War a sense of American leadership that in many ways had the character of imposing the political will of the United States as the strongest state in the world on those that resisted. ....
If one looks back at the thinking that the neoconsevatives were associated with during the 1990s, the American Enterprise Institute and through the document issued by the Project for a New American Century, in both of those cases the essential argument is not with globalization as such but with an insufficient militarist backing of global capitalism. The Project for the New American Century was arguing that if the United States was to achieve the full potential of what it meant to call the end of the Cold War a unipolar moment, then it needed to back up that economic and political ambition with much more military muscle. They did anticipate resistance and it faulted the Clinton Administration for its failure to invest sufficiently in what was being called the revolution in military technologies and military doctrine, a reliance on information technology together with a whole series of ways of delivering deadly weapons precisely and at a distance.
The first important feature is the militarizing of imperial geopolitics. The second feature that I would emphasize strongly is the visionary orientation that was so much a feature of the Bush advocacy. This is a crusade against evil, as I pointed out. ....
Some of the neoconservatives had been calling that the real forebear of Bush was not Ronald Reagan, as most people would say, but Woodrow Wilson. Because Woodrow Wilson was the last American president that really wasn’t in some strict sense a part of this realist, Hobbesian tradition. Wilson was a very interventionary president. ...He was also idealistic and our current Wilsonian has none of those problems. He doesn’t suffer from sentimental idealism of the sort that lead to the failure of Wilson’s diplomacy after World War I. But he does have the same essentially moralistic arrogance that it is the United States that provides the model for the rest of the world. It is informed by a religious underpinning and it is sufficiently beneficial for those that are the recipients of this influence, that interventionary diplomacy is justified and war becomes an instrument for the betterment of humanity and for the fulfillment of historical destiny.
A third original feature here is the extent to which this visionary orientation is complimented by a very coherent ideological set of attitudes that are promoted by a very tightly knit group of advisors associated with the Bush presidency. When Bush addressed the American Enterprise Institute, he made a point of saying you have provided me with twenty of the best minds in the upper reaches of my administration. It is perhaps not a very impressive definition of what we mean by the best minds but what it does acknowledge and seems increasingly evident is that the neoconservative rightwing in the United States has for several decades been pursuing a set of ideas and political attitudes that have now become the dominant framework of thought and analysis for the policy makers within the government. There’s been increasing writing about the obscure University of Chicago political scientist Leo Strauss. He was the person under whom Wolfowitz and several of the other Project for the New American Century people did their graduate studies. He also was very influential for Richard Perle who married the daughter of Albert Wohlstetter who was one of the important people influenced by Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago.
The Straussian perspective that I think is interesting and significant, is, first of all, a kind of Hegelianism that ideas matter. I think the conservatives, much more than the progressive alternative, have been very dedicated to the promotion of certain ideas that they affirm. A second aspect of the Straussian perspective is that one cannot trust the mass of people to understand the real political choices facing leaders. Going back to the classical Greek and Roman philosophers, particularly Aristotle and Plato, that political leadership is only virtuous only to the extent that it’s elitist. It is an affirmation of an aristocratic view of politics.
The third aspect of this, which is linked to the other two and is what Strauss is most known for, is that the ordinary person can’t penetrate the political texts and the political teachings that should be guiding this virtuous elite. It requires a penetration at an esoteric level of meaning. That meaning is not to be found through the untrained, untutored reflection on these seminal political texts but it requires this special interpretation of covert meanings, hidden meanings. Therefore only the elect have the capability of gaining the sort of political insight that’s needed for effective and virtous politics.
The fourth feature is a very explicit sense of historical destiny. This is very apparent if you read the New American Century document. The Cold War ended in such a way as to provide the United States with the first opportunity that has ever historically existed to establish for generations to come global security for rest of the world and for itself. This depends on, as I said earlier, a willingness to invest in the military capability needed to fulfill this opportunity. This opportunity is a precarious one. It exists in the historical circumstances at the end of the Cold War but it was being missed by the way the Clinton leadership approached the world. The economistic foreign policy was insufficient to realize this opportunity for global dominance. It was only that clear recognition that that moment of opportunity that created a sense of urgency among this neocon group of influential policymakers who have joined with some that are less ideological but nevertheless accept the essential orientation. I should say that the Straussian ideological adherence of this imperial view is essentially secular in its outlook. They don’t share the religious orientation of the religious right or of the president himself and don’t think so much in those terms as they do in terms of more traditional uses of power in this circumstance of historical opportunity.
The final element here that I would call our attention to is the recognition that to realize this potential means shifting the pivot of global politics from Europe to the Middle East. The central struggles for world domination both in terms of containing the Islamist challenge and of achieving sufficient security over energy resources depends on treating this region as the region that will shape the future. .....
What the Iraq War has shown is the willingness and diplomatic capacity of the United States to pursue a unilateralist course of action with respect to the use of force in a setting where neither the United Nations nor international law were consistent with the use of force. In other words, the United States demonstrated its willingness to defy both its traditional allies and the source of authority that exist in international life, the framework of international law and the United Nations Security Council. I think if you’ve read or seen Richard Perle’s reflections on this, he is celebratory about the Iraq War more for it as a requiem for the United Nations than to the results of Iraq itself....
The second feature of the Iraq War as a test of this worldview was the degree to which the revolution in military affairs produced a one-sided battlefield outcome. This had been anticipated in the first Gulf War and in Kosovo and to some extent in Afghanistan. The United States now possesses a form of military superiority that allows it to prevail militarily with very minor losses to itself. This makes it much easier politically to have a country swallow wars that are illegal and hard to justify. The very facility with which these wars have been waged has considerably lowered the threshold of inhibition about using war as an instrument of foreign policy. That has tremendous implications for the future and for the kind of society that we are ourselves.
The third aspect of this that I would point out is the degree to which Iraq was a perfect candidate for the demonstration of this worldview, both its military feasibility and its unilateralist diplomacy. Iraq, it was understood, did not pose a threat. It had been weakened by twelve years of sanctions and its defeat in the first Gulf War. It was a regime that was hated by a large proportion of its own people and by most of the governments in its region and was without controversy viewed as an illegitimate and oppressive regime. Further, Iraq was a country that has valuable resources and was strategically significant, especially in relation to Gulf oil. Finally, Iraq was a country that had been defiant toward U.N. resolutions. You have this strange paradox on the one hand of trying to show that the United States does not seem inhibited by the U.N. but pretending that the rationale for the war was Iraq’s refusal to obey the U.N. resolutions that had imposed a punitive peace on Iraq after the first Gulf War in 1991.
At the same time I think there are some questions whether this Iraq test has really been passed. The first question is it is one thing to win on the battlefield, but the political outcome in Iraq still remains highly uncertain. If one looks at the theorists of war like Clausewitz, he always was very clear that the real purposes of war were the political outcomes and that the military results could only be assessed in relation to those political outcomes. So will it still seem a victory if a Shiite government emerges that is anti-U.S., anti-Western, anti-Israeli? Will it seem like a victory if the United States, in order to avoid that outcome, imposes a puppet regime that it calls democratic? It seems increasingly evident that the promise to Iraq of respecting their self-determination and instilling a genuine democracy is not viable from the perspective of U.S. goals in the region. It would seem that that creates a democratic dilemma: either you do allow the Iraqis to choose their leadership and you end up with a government that repudiates the American single, sustainable model or you impose that single sustainable model on Iraq and you probably generate a civil war. You certainly generate very deep resistance. Can you make the puppet government sufficiently bland and somehow materially beneficial to the people so that the Iraqis will swallow that kind of imposed regime? I tend to doubt that this dilemma can be overcome. The result will be, and it’s already been hinted by the changes in what the leaders have been saying, an indefinite prolongation of the military occupation, because it’s the only way to avoid this dilemma of two unacceptable outcomes.
Now the second part of the questioning of was this a victory is already to some degree suggested by the terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia and in Morocco and by the raising of the alert here in the United States. Part of the advertising for the war was to make the world more secure in relation to Al Qaeda and the terrorist threat. There is no way of tying down what causes what. The causation is very obscure. The president of Egypt said at the time just before the Iraq War, this war, if it goes ahead, will give rise to a hundred new Osama bin Ladens. Whether these events are some kind of indication that the anticipation was correct is not so important. What is important is how it is understood in most of the world. I think in most of the world it will be understood as suggesting the more the United States spreads this kind of unauthorized warfare, the more difficult it will be to address the genuine challenge posed by the Al Qaeda network. That raises the whole question of how the debate will be resolved about what to do about Iran. They toyed with Syria for a while but Syria seemed too insignificant in relation to the struggle for the control of the Middle East. But Iran is a critical actor and if there were to be success in achieving regime change in Iran then it would solidify the American presence in the region.
Let me close these remarks by suggesting that there is a reaction against the American imperial project. It was expressed in part by the extraordinary global anti-war efforts prior to the Iraq War, the February 15th marches that brought many millions in more than fifty countries to demonstrate before the war occurred. There is, in that sense, a latent anti-war movement of global proportion that never before existed. It’s unprecedented in its scope and depth. I think its political leverage will depend on whether it can be joined with the anti-globalization movement and the Porto Alegre (World Social Forum) sense that there is an alternative, that underlying feeling that one isn’t trapped forever in a world shaped by economic and political power.
There is also been very notable endorsements from different sources of the importance of challenging war as a way of achieving political order. Mahathir, the leader of Malaysia, gave an extraordinary speech to the non-alignment movement that met in Kuala Lumpur in February of this year in which he said in a very articulate way, to a wildly cheering audience of delegates, that it was time that the non-alignment countries join forces to struggle against the obscenity of war as a way of solving human problems. The beginning of this process should be an imitation of the Japanese constitutional approach of limiting military expenditures to 1 percent of GNP. Not only is this a very important message, but the fact that a important Third World leader would focus so directly on war as the real adversary of human progress and that that message was so resonant with the delegates from other countries I think is a very significant sociological as well as political fact. What will happen with it of course is hard to say.
The other element is a more academic, intellectual one. A new book by Jonathan Schell called The Unconquerable World which is probably the most articulate, informed and insightful account of the potency of non-violent politics historically and politically as a way of achieving change. I think it’s the most significant academic or intellectual statement on these issues since the famous William James’ Moral Equivalent of War. It’s a book all of us should read and study in my judgement because what it does more than anything else is subvert this notion that we can find security through violence and that we can achieve peace through war.
What I would end with is the basic sentiment that this kind of imperial geopolitics is destructive of what is best about America. It is dangerous and harmful to the peoples of the world. It distracts the political energies from saving the planet from ecological collapse. And it puts the United States in a position of opposition to all of the political tendencies toward justice and fairness in the world. I think we are all challenged as citizens of this country to explore what are the possibilities for effectively challenging this kind of global imperial pretension.