The Perils of Empire
The United States does have an opportunity to use its victory in Iraq to influence developments in the Middle East, but Americans must understand and expect that people in and out of the region will react in various-and certainly not always positive-ways to the exercise of U.S. power in this manner. One cannot advocate activist American policies around the world without acknowledging that they can have unpredictable, costly and dangerous consequences. Strong and even ruthless U.S. action may be the best policy in any particular set of circumstances, but it should never be pursued without due consideration of the unintended consequences.
America may decide that its interests are best served by becoming a modern-day imperial power, but our interests will surely suffer if we are not honest with ourselves about what empire means. The first step in this process is to have an open debate about American empire as a foreign policy objective. Some neo-conservatives in and out of government seem to advocate American empire without being prepared to discuss the United States in those terms. As a result, America may be slipping into imperial policies with considerably less public debate than took place in either Rome or Great Britain as their historical empires emerged. The idea that U.S. efforts to promote freedom could be viewed as an imperial policy may be offensive to many Americans, but for others "liberation without representation" in an attempt to produce pro-American governments is little different from empire in its practical results. We must also be honest with ourselves about the challenges and costs of an effort to build an American empire-and its impact on American society.
The cost of assertively practicing global hegemony, however noble its intentions, is already visible in U.S. relations with other major powers. Many in the United States misunderstood Russian opposition to the war in Iraq as a defense of Saddam Hussein. On the contrary, Saddam has been out of favor in Moscow for some time-Russian leaders resented Iraq 's non-payment of its debts to their country as well as its role as an obstacle to further development of the U.S.-Russian relationship. In fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin held to his pledge to President Bush to encourage Saddam Hussein to go into exile.
Early in 2003, however, the Russian position hardened considerably. This was largely a result of surprisingly vigorous French opposition to the United States . French leaders were deeply suspicious of American power and determined to prevent the unilateral (imperial) U.S. use of force. Accordingly, they aggressively courted Moscow and, in the process, made clear that Paris was willing to take a leadership role in opposing Washington -relieving Russian leaders of a role that could have ruptured U.S.-Russian ties. At the same time, France 's (and Germany 's) energetic efforts complicated Russian domestic politics; President Putin could not easily acquiesce to America 's use of force if even U.S. NATO allies were fighting it so strongly.
Russian leaders have now come to realize that Moscow overplayed its hand in dealing with the United States and that the relationship has been damaged. Also, many-though certainly not all-understand that Russia has in fact gained concrete benefits from better ties with Washington, including the destruction of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (whose export of radical Islam was long of considerable concern), a new U.S. acceptance of Russian military bases in Central Asia, pressure on Georgia to control its borders, and reduced pressure on Moscow over human rights concerns in Chechnya and elsewhere. Nevertheless, the relationship has accumulated "scar tissue" and cannot return to its pre-Iraq form overnight-though cooperation with Moscow remains important to the United States , especially in the war on terror and nuclear non-proliferation.
Dimitri K. Simes is the President of The Nixon Center and the Publisher of In the National Interest.