19th Century Imperial Spirit Inspires Hawks on Iraq
by Jim Lobe
February 24, 2003
''Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords''.
So reads a bronze plaque that sits on Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld's massive desk in his office across the Potomac River from here. It encapsulates much of the spirit that animates the hawks in the administration of President George W. Bush, and their supporters.
The quotation is by former President Theodore Roosevelt, Bush's favourite president, who led the charge on San Juan Hill in Cuba in the supposedly decisive battle of the 1898 Spanish-American War that, with the defeat of the Spanish Navy in Manila Bay half a world away, established the United States as an imperial power with global reach.
Of course, the current president's reading of ''TR'' is rather selective. A passionate environmentalist and social progressive who built up big government to protect the public against the depredations of private capital, Roosevelt would no doubt find much to vigorously protest in Bush's policies.
But now, more than a century after his presidency, TR's fighting and imperial spirit is being aggressively promoted as a model for U.S. policies overseas in the 21st century, by both the civilian policy-makers in the Pentagon and their neo-conservative and right-wing allies.
Their basic assumptions are quite consistent with those of the imperialists of the late 19th century: the conviction of cultural superiority; the view that the world is a place of merciless, Darwinian competition where force is the only language that lesser peoples understand, and the belief that the United States and the larger western world have a duty to civilise the rest - the basic ideological tenets for imperialism - are now openly championed in public debate.
Even before the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, these hawks argued that much of the world was essentially in chaos and should be actively policed by the pre-eminent powers of the day, of which the United States was by far the most important.
''The great work of disarming tribes, sects, warlords and criminals - a principal achievement of monarchs of ... empires in the 19th (century) - threatens to need doing all over again,'' wrote the much-quoted British military historian John Keegan.
''Because so many states in the developing world have flimsy institutions, the paramount question in world politics in the early 21st century will be the re-establishment of order,'' predicted Robert Kaplan, an influential political writer, in his 2002 'Warrior Politics', a book dedicated to the eminently 'Rooseveltian' notion that ''without struggle - and the sense of insecurity that motivates it - there is decadence''.
But according to the hawks, U.S. responsibility does not end, with simply policing, either alone or with like-minded powers, unruled peoples. Washington also has a duty to ''uplift and civilise'' the natives as Roosevelt's predecessor, William McKinley, claimed he learned from praying to ''Almighty God'' about what to do with the Philippines after the Spanish defeat.
''Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets,'' wrote Max Boot, a former 'Wall Street Journal' editorial writer now at the Council on Foreign Relations, last year.
Boot has become perhaps the leading exponent of a revival of the imperialist spirit since the publication last year of his 'The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power', a book that takes Roosevelt as a model and argues that, after World War Two and Vietnam, Washington had forgotten its talents - acquired in the Indian Wars, the Philippines, and throughout Central America and the Caribbean - for bringing the blessings of liberty to the less fortunate.
''America should not be afraid to fight 'the savage wars of peace' if necessary to enlarge 'the empire of liberty','' he wrote. ''It has been done before.''
Since the ouster of the Taliban, the benighted to be redeemed by U.S. force of arms, in this view, are the Muslims of the Middle East, beginning with Iraq now that Afghanistan has been restored to the path of civilisation.
''We need an Islamic reformation,'' Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told a 'Washington Post' columnist. ''I think there is real hope for one,'' he added, saying that was a powerful intellectual rationale for ousting the Baghdad government.
Like their 19th century forebears, the neo-imperial hawks also see the Islamic Middle East as offering a particular challenge, presumably because of its inherent violence and cultural, if not racial, inferiority.
''This is a region characterised by paranoia, apocalypticism, tyranny, and violence, a region where differences are settled by the sword,'' according to Joshua Muravchik, an analyst at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) whose thinkers are particularly close to Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld.
''In centuries past, the wild and unruly passions of the Islamic world were kept within tight confines by firm, often ruthless imperial authority,'' added Boot, who praises the British and French who assumed control of the region beginning in the late 19th century. ''These distant masters did not always rule wisely or well, but they generally prevented the region from menacing the security of the outside world.''
Washington should learn from them, Boot advises, arguing that U.S. efforts after 1945 ''to carve out a different style of leadership, one that was meant to distinguish the virtuous Americans from the grasping, greedy imperialists who had come before'', only made the country appear weak. ''The record shows precious little bullying'' by Washington in the Mideast, he adds, ''indeed not enough''.
''The elementary truth that seems to elude the experts again and again - Gulf War, Afghan war, next war - is that power is its own reward,'' wrote Charles Krauthammer, a Post columnist close to Wolfowitz, after the Taliban's defeat. ''Victory changes everything, psychology above all. The psychology in the region is now one of fear and deep respect for American power.''
The way to bring the blessings of enlightenment - and democracy - to Muslims, according to this view, is through the use of fear-inspiring force. Indeed, if Washington does not go through with an invasion at this point, Boot argued last week, ''it would earn the contempt of the Muslim world for its weakness''.
As for those Europeans and anti-war demonstrators who argue for resort to war only after all peaceful efforts to resolve the Iraq crisis have been exhausted, the hawks express their contempt by once again citing TR: ''Weasel words from mollycoddles will never do when the day demands prophetic clarity from great hearts.''