National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 28, 2004

The price of empire

The Bush administration -- at great expense both monetarily and in terms of American purpose -- is learning what it’s like to be a colonial power. One might have thought that ample literature exists on the pitfalls of such an enterprise, but the administration seems to have ignored what history might have to say.

In fact, it is a conceit of the neoconservative movement that has so thoroughly shaped our foreign policy in the past three years that America is destined to dominate and to be a force for good in the world.

The irony, of course, is that what began on the wings of lofty moral tones is crashing into the mountain of war’s hideous debris, much of it -- from the deaths of yet uncounted civilians and soldiers to the abuse of prisoners -- singularly immoral.

Nearly three years ago, after the planes were flown into New York’s twin towers, NCR published an issue with a cover that bore the question: Who hates us and why?

Some saw it as an irreverent disregard for those who had died in that awful attack.

It wasn’t at that time, and the question remains central to understanding the downward spiral we find ourselves in as our foreign policy sinks deeper into bellicose exchanges.

It remains central because the threat to world security is real. Peace is not easily nurtured without the support of the rest of the world.

We have maintained that the Bush administration first ignored the possibilities for wide alliance and consultation following the attacks of 9/11 when it decided on a unilateral attack on Afghanistan. No one was consulted, no assessment was made of any possibilities save those that led to war. Perhaps an attack on Afghanistan and dispersing the Taliban and al-Qaeda was not only inevitable, but also warranted. However, the manner in which we undertook the expedition -- with little or no consultation with the rest of the world -- signaled the manner in which the country would conduct business.

Such was the case in Iraq, an interest that was unabashedly about oil the first time we decided to go to war there in 1991 and that has since mutated into a campaign against nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, then into a human rights campaign and now into an utterly messy attempt at nation building.

Deceptions have been heaped on deceptions, a necessary condition, perhaps, for both empire and war. But we do neither very well.

Perhaps that is the lone bright spot in all of the misadventures of the past three years -- the realization that there is still something in the American spirit -- dare we call it an American conscience -- that will not allow us to go all the way into the kinds of self-deception and brutality necessary to really accomplish the goals of empire.

Somewhere in our systems and the fiber of our national character we have those who will still cry out about an injustice -- who will spill the beans on prisoner abuse. There are still enough alive consciences to demand investigations and accountability, even in the midst of war.

The latest revelations, in the May 24 Newsweek, uncover memos from the White House lawyer more than two years ago warning that “new and unorthodox” measures used by the Bush administration in the war on terror could expose administration officials to prosecution as war criminals.

It was that fear of prosecution that led the White House lawyer to advise the administration to declare that al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters were not covered by the Geneva Conventions. It represents an act of empire and a further distancing of ourselves from the rules that we once hoped would help govern the world.

Occupying powers in campaigns built on deceit and an inflated sense of power and importance usually meet with disaster.

With few exceptions, occupying powers become hated. Whether it is England’s 800 years in Ireland, Belgium’s near-century in the Congo, France trying to hold on to Vietnam (Indochina) and Algiers, or Britain’s century-plus in India.

There’s a line in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924) that speaks directly to the American troubles in Iraq. It’s when Dr. Aziz says to Fielding (and this was more than 30 years before Britain left India): “Clear out you fellows, double quick I say. We may hate one another but we hate you most. If it’s 50 or 500 years we shall get rid of you, yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman in the sea. Then you and I shall be friends.”

The price of ambition is the element never mentioned in the already elaborately documented march of this administration to what it believed would be the adulation of the Iraqis and the admiration of the rest of the world. We’re beginning to understand, and the cost keeps rising by the hour.

National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 2004

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