Return to Empire

An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror By David Frum and Richard Perle, Random House, 284 pages, $25.95

America's Inadvertent Empire By William Odom and Robert Dujarric, Yale University Press, 285 pages, $30.00

To readers familiar with the memoirs and histories of Great Britain's imperial era, the echoes evoked by these volumes are uncanny. Their outlook strikingly resembles that of Britain's ruling elite, circa 1890-1905, the heyday of New Imperialism -- the same nervous euphoria, the same belief in a global mission to uplift the uncivilized, the same distrust of alliances (especially with France), and the same presumption of superiority over other breeds and faiths. Indeed, when President Bush affirmed in Crawford, Texas, in August 2002, "Our nation is the greatest force for good in history," he inadvertently paraphrased Lord Curzon, who as soon-to-be viceroy to India announced in 1894 that the British Empire was "under providence, the greatest instrument for good the world has ever seen."

Books are sometimes barometers, and both of these qualify. One offers a preview of the audacious agenda of two influential Washington insiders; the other, a more circumspect prognosis of two think-tank denizens seeking a new global strategy to fill the void caused by the collapse of the Soviet empire. The first is the more arresting. David Frum, a former White House aide and proud ghostparent of the "axis of evil" phrase in the president's 2002 State of the Union address, and Richard Perle, the longtime scourge of arms-control agreements and recent head of the Department of Defense Policy Board, have put together an action plan to end evil in eight steps, as usefully summarized on the dust jacket:

Support the overthrow of the terrorist mullahs of Iran. End the terrorist regime of Syria. Regard Saudi Arabia and France not as friends but as rivals -- maybe enemies. Withdraw support from the United Nations if it does not reform. Tighten immigration at home. Radically reorganize the CIA and FBI. Squeeze China and blockade North Korea to press that member of the axis of evil to abandon its nuclear program. Abandon the illusion that a Palestinian state will contribute in any important way to U.S. security.

By any measure, that's a radical agenda: one act of war (blockade), two regime changes (Iran and Syria), withdrawal from the United Nations if it does not yield to ultimatum, and the reversal of decades of policy toward France, Saudi Arabia, China, and Israel-Palestine. Yet given the ongoing turmoil in Iraq, the evident comeback of the Taliban in Afghanistan, steeply rising U.S. deficits, Washington's belated half-turn for international help in Iraq, and opinion polls that show a plunge globally in trust and respect for the United States, one may sensibly ask: Are Frum and Perle serious?

They are. From its title onward, An End to Evil is written with a this-won't-hurt-a-bit Reader's Digest smoothness, one eye-widening sentence following another, in a tone that can be described as wary euphoria. The book's premises are that America is on top and should so remain indefinitely; that American motives are lofty and disinterested, save for a little backsliding here and there; that Democrats and supporters of alliance diplomacy tend to be naive bunglers; and that masses of people elsewhere yearn for liberation by U.S. armed forces.

The authors, however, never state opposing views fairly, rarely deal with contrary facts, and offer only the most sketchy evidence in support of their own positions. On page 276, for example, they argue that the appeal of American life is universal and irresistible. Evidence? "We want to be like America," an unnamed Iraqi excitedly told the brigadier of the 101st Airborne after the liberation of Baghdad. "We want to be like America," a group of Afghan refugees burbled (the authors' verb) after the overthrow of the Taliban. "We want to be like America," shouted student protesters in Tehran. These anonymous remarks, plucked from press reports, constitute all the evidence Perle and Frum offer to buttress the proposition that many small countries turn to the United States for support, "rightly confident that our assistance would not impair their independence and sovereignty." One can only marvel at the surreal innocence of these soi-disant realists and note that neither seemingly has had firsthand experience of war or occupation, a lacuna all too common among influential promoters of armed intervention. Among them were the officials, columnists, and think-tank senior fellows who before March 2003 announced that conquering Iraq would be a cakewalk and that our GIs would be greeted with flowers.

The same self-flattering chord was sounded by Britain's New Imperialists in the 1890s. Their empire was then the largest in history, encompassing a fourth of the world's territory and a quarter of its people. British ingenuity had forged the first global economy, bound together by British telegraph cables, steamships, and steel rails. British soldiers had recently triumphed in a succession of colonial wars, and the Royal Navy could outgun any two rivals, its flotilla served by an awesome web of far-flung ports, coaling stations, and the Suez Canal. Granted, Britain had ceased to be the world's workshop, and its wealth had come to depend on brokers and bankers. Moreover, Britain was not the sole superpower, and its rulers kept wary eyes on martial Germans and the nettlesome Yanks, as well as two traditional rivals, France and Russia. Hence the nervousness, the fear of decline, and the fervent call for robust and continuous expansion from imperial colossi like Cecil Rhodes, who declared that he would annex the stars if he could. Pride and purse, glory and sacrifice, the Bible and Maxim guns were among the conflicting ingredients in the new religion, whose most confident political voice was the colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, who reminded doubters that trade followed the flag (he coined the phrase) and noted matter-of-factly, "We are a great governing race, predestined by our defects as well by our virtues, to spread over the habitable globe."

Such were the people and beliefs that inspired a rising generation of British soldiers and administrators who shaped today's Middle East. Their legacy is still felt in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, and Jordan, the Islamic territories falling within the British orbit after the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire in 1918-23. Nobody better articulated the dominant credo regarding Islam than Arthur Balfour, a prince of the Cecil dynasty and nephew of Lord Salisbury, whom he succeeded in 1902 as prime minister. In 1910, he was challenged in Parliament to justify his airs of superiority with regard to people "whom you chose to call Orientals," the reference being to Britain's overlordship of Egypt since 1883.

Balfour was frank to a fault. "You may look through the whole history of Orientals in what is called, broadly speaking, the East, and you never find traces of self-government," he said. "All their great centuries -- and they have been very great -- have been passed under despotisms, under absolute government." With British tutelage, he maintained, Egypt was getting the best government it had ever had, a fact of benefit not merely to Egyptians but to all the West. What Balfour's critique failed to mention was the fact that Britain systematically quelled democratic stirrings from Egypt to Iran, that it preferred dealing with bribable sheiks and khedives, and that it routinely favored ethnic and religious minorities, sowing future discord in the name of good government.

Change good government to self-government and his words anticipate the views of Perle and Frum. In their eyes, Muslim leaders are too often extremists who encourage suicide bombers, treat women as serfs, and plot nuclear blackmail. From Pakistan and Syria to Saudi Arabia, the authors remind us, seminaries and mosques have been breeding terrorists. They rightly denounce Washington's past pandering to autocratic Saudi Arabia and its corrupt princes. Yet they notably fail to mention that the Reagan administration, in which Perle served, supplied arms and dollars through Pakistan to the most fanatic fundamentalists in the Afghan resistance to Soviet invaders. From these camps emerged Osama bin Laden, with Saudi Arabia matching U.S. aid dollar for dollar in training an international legion of Islamic radicals. It was not the Democrats but the Reagan administration hard-liners who illegally sought to trade arms for hostages, pandering to the very ayatollahs the authors now denounce. In truth, no U.S. party or president is without sin in the Middle East.

So what is to be done? Frum and Perle offer a simple answer: Implant democracy, by force if necessary. In their words: "We do not show our respect for human differences by shrugging indifferently [as if that were the alternative] when people somehow different from ourselves are brutalized in body and spirit ... . To say that we are engaged in 'imposing American values' when we liberate people is to imply that there are peoples on this earth who value their own subjugation."

But which American values? In the recent past, Washington has overtly or covertly promoted the overthrow of democratic or constitutional leaders in Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam, Cambodia, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Grenada, and Greece. Washington has also backed or indulged tyrannies in Indonesia, Chile, the Philippines, the Congo, Pakistan, and, not least, Iraq, during its war with Iran. Moreover, Frum and Perle's concept of a democratic Iraq seemingly envisions a secular constitution, fitted with brakes on majority rule so that the Shiite mullahs won't take over; it assumes Iraqi foreign policy will be subject to American advice, and that Iraq will permit U.S. bases and a status-of-forces treaty immunizing military personnel from Iraqi law. These were the very quasi-democratic features devised for Iraq by the British in the 1920s, a system that ended in a bloody 1958 coup that claimed the lives of the British-enthroned king and his pro-British prime minister.

For my part, I am not sure whether a genuinely democratic outcome is possible in Iraq, though only such an outcome would compensate for the slippery and cynical diplomacy that plunged America into this morass. Still, in a Homeric joke on the makers of this war, the White House now grudgingly acknowledges that it must turn to the despised United Nations to give credibility to any postoccupation regime. Call it providence, Greek style.

Although the themes overlap, America's Inadvertent Empire by William E. Odom, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general, and Robert Dujarric, a well-traveled foreign-policy expert, is a very different book. Unlike Frum and Perle, the authors question whether promoting democracy really serves U.S. interests. Instead they favor encouraging 19th-century liberalism, with its emphasis on personal liberty and property rights. They even claim that the Declaration of Independence says nothing about democracy or majority rule. Really? What about consent of the governed? Did Lincoln misread the meaning of its language on equality? Should Tocqueville have titled his great survey Property Rights in America because neither slaves nor women could vote?

Indeed, the book's very title seems weirdly off the mark. It echoes a famous sentence by the Cambridge don John Seeley in The Expansion of England (1883) that the English "seem to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind." A nice but fanciful line that scarcely does justice to the bold soldiers and merchant adventurers who evicted the Moguls from India and the French from North America, or to the proconsuls and entrepreneurs who painted Africa red. In America, "inadvertent" cannot explain Manifest Destiny, the Monroe Doctrine, the Mexican War, or the Spanish-American War, all willed acts of dominion. Together these battles and beliefs established a hemisphere-wide American imperium, a prelude to the Cold War Empire, with its global network of bases and alliances.

Now, following the Soviet collapse, people everywhere talk of an American Empire, and understandably. The most useful chapters of Dujarric and Odom's book document the awesome scale of America's predominance -- military, economic, scientific, educational, and cultural. They rightly caution that acts of folly could bring the structure crashing down, they hedge on the merits of the Iraq War, and they qualifiedly approve unilateral military intervention only when multilateral action is not possible. None of these conclusions is provocative or original; they are the stuff of task-force reports. The authors' greatest enthusiasm is reserved for the emergence of a globalized Liberal Empire.

It says something, moreover, about our historical amnesia that a book titled America's Inadvertent Empire fails to list in its bibliography a dozen prescient works on the same theme written in the 1950s and '60s. One passage, from the theologian Rheinhold Niebuhr's The Structure of Nations and Empires (1968), seems especially relevant to our present pickle: "We are not a sanctified nation and we must not assume that all our actions are dictated by considerations of disinterested justice. If we fall into this error, the natural resentments ... on the part of the weaker nations will be compounded with resentments against our pretensions of superior virtue. These resentments are indeed a part of the animus of anti-Americanism throughout the world."

Indeed.

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