The Election on Empire

The elections just might deliver the strong medicine needed to jolt malignant Iraq policy back on course.

The American empire sits, naked, exposed and somewhat battered, in Iraq's hot desert sun. Whereas American power had largely been seen before as benevolent, cooperative and based on shared values and institutions, George W. Bush's misadventure in Iraq has changed that for at least a generation and perhaps forever.

The strong medicine administered at the polls last night, while bitter, may be just the jolt needed to get the malignant Iraq policy back on a course that has some chance of leading to some kind of recovery. Even the much-anticipated Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, stood little chance of triggering a course change. But the electoral outcome will both influence the group's recommendations and finally pressure the administration to seriously reconsider its strategy.

Clearly, there are no great options in Iraq. The empire has no close-no easy way out. But there are viable choices that can and must be made to maximize chances of preserving U.S. credibility, allow drawing down U.S. forces and minimize the potential for further U.S. and Iraqi bloodshed.

The Empire Rises

Despite its unparalleled ability to project military force around the world, America's empire has been largely invisible, especially to Americans-who have always been ambivalent about empire. The Founders rebelled against an empire. Imperial excesses, like the Spanish-American war at the end of the nineteenth century or Vietnam in the latter half of the twentieth century, were later questioned even by key architects Theodore Roosevelt and Robert McNamara, who saw first-hand the cycles of resistance, responses by our own soldiers including torture and other atrocities, and the growing public distaste for the endeavors.

When Karl Rove thrust a biography of Theodore Roosevelt into W's hands after 9/11, such nuances weren't appreciated. TR's macho and energetic "Rough Rider" cowboy image, his pledge to get terrorists "alive or dead", led W to proclaim him his "favorite president." TR's "civilizing mission" fit well with the neo-colonial plans to transform Iraq and the region. Resurrecting the "civilized nations" rhetoric could mask the tensions between democracy and empire, between self-determination and occupation.

The United States stepped into a potent anti-colonial trap in Iraq, to the delight of Al-Qaeda and other U.S. enemies. The absence of weapons of mass destruction and failed attempts to link Saddam to Al-Qaeda left only self-interested motives of imperial ambition or messianic zeal. Either of those goals could be expected to produce resistance to the U.S. occupation, just as they had produced the revolt against the British in 1920, the cycles of repressive reaction and counter-response, and the demoralized imperial soldiers and public. With global media in a more interdependent world, inflaming global terrorism was equally predictable.

The imperial presidency was also strengthened under the influence of Vice President Cheney-who believes it had been improperly damaged upon Nixon's departure-with the Patriot Act, "extraordinary renditions", secret detention facilities, assassinations, the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance of Americans and the recent Military Commissions Act that allows the president to interpret the Geneva Conventions and authorize forms of torture. These all ignore the insights of James Madison and other Founders on the potential for concentrated powers to lead to unnecessary wars. Can you imagine what they would say about the permanent war invoked these days?

The Course of Empire

This year, the number rejecting both the war and the way it has been conducted has been a persistent two-thirds. Prominent conservatives-ranging from William F. Buckley to George Will to Robert Kagan to Jonah Goldberg-now admit the war is lost.

Historians will debate whether this inevitably resulted from the war's unjust origins, or merely from its appallingly poor execution. In the meantime, U.S. troop deaths rise inexorably (with the past month being the worst in a year), as do Iraqi civilian deaths (with recent estimates of excess deaths due to the war numbering in the hundreds of thousands), and the war's overall financial costs (currently projected at between one and two trillion dollars). Far from being in the national interest, the Iraq war has imperiled not only prospects for a benevolent American empire, but arguably the future success, security and prosperity of America itself.

In prior ages, before CNN, the BBC, the Internet and satellite phones, emperors could brutally enforce compliance. Even in Roosevelt's time, and during the British occupation of Iraq, reports of massacres and torture by imperial forces undermined public support for those forces at home and increased resistance abroad. Nowadays, names like Guantanamo, Haditha, Fallujah, and Abu Ghraib become even more powerful icons of unjust, unchecked power requiring a response. The administration has thus attempted to counter those images: As one member of the administration put it, critics are "what we call the reality-based community", who can be dismissed because "[w]e're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." And there's been some success at this. Residual support for the war undoubtedly derives largely from the thirty percent of the American populace that still thinks Saddam was directly involved in 9/11. But with the mid-term elections, the reality-based community has sprung back with a vengeance.

Options or Obfuscation?

Baker's Iraq Study Group has identified two options for post-election consideration: "Redeploy and Contain" and "Stability First."

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