Imperial Temptations

Imperial Temptations

Mini Teaser: The U.S. military budget is greater than those of the next 14 countries combined. Yet Americans face a greater risk of terrorist attack than ever before. This situation fosters a sense of vulnerability that makes Americans hyperalert and predispos

by Author(s): Jack Snyder

Rumsfeld could have added (but didn't) that the Clinton Administration made the same argument even more strongly about the dire precedent that would be set by permitting the further expansion of North Korea's nuclear weapons capability. Ironically, the credibility of the United States is on the line in such cases mainly because of its own rhetoric.

And yet it may be that the threat of an American attack is all too credible. The main motivation for North Korea to break out of the 1994 agreement constraining its nuclear program was apparently its perceived need, in light of the Bush Administration's preventive war doctrine and reluctance to negotiate, for more powerful weapons to deter the United States.

A ubiquitous corollary of the domino theory holds that it is cheap and easy to stop aggressors if it is done early on. Secretary Rumsfeld has made this kind of argument to justify a preventive attack on Iraq. Between 35 and 60 million people died needlessly, he claimed, because the world didn't attack Hitler preventively: "He might have been stopped early--at minimal cost in lives--had the vast majority of the world's leaders not decided at the time that the risks of acting were greater than the risks of not acting." Apart from its questionable relevance to the case of Iraq, the historical point is itself debatable: Britain and France were militarily ill-prepared to launch a preventive attack at the time of the Munich crisis, and if they had, they probably would have had to fight Germany without the Soviet Union and the United States as allies. As Bismarck had understood, preventive war is bad strategy in part because it often leads to diplomatic isolation.


Most of the central myths of empire focus on a comparison of the alleged costs of offensive versus defensive strategies. In addition, myths that exaggerate the benefits of imperial expansion sometimes play an important role in strategic debates. For example, German imperialism before World War I was fueled in part by the false idea that Central Africa would be an El Dorado of resources that would strengthen Germany's strategic position in the same way that India had supposedly strengthened Britain's. In debates about preventive war in Iraq, some commentators have portrayed an anticipated oil windfall as a comparable El Dorado. Astutely, the Bush Administration has refrained from rhetoric about this potential boon, realizing that it would be counterproductive and unnecessary to dwell on it. Such a windfall could turn out to be a curse in any event, since pumping massive amounts of oil to pay for an occupation of Iraq could undercut Saudi oil revenues and destabilize the political system there.

Sometimes the promised benefits of imperial expansion are also ideological--for example, France's civilizing mission or America's mission to make the world safe for democracy. In a surprising moment of candor, John Foster Dulles, a decade before he became Dwight Eisenhower's Secretary of State, wrote that all empires had been "imbued with and radiated great faiths [like] Manifest Destiny [and] The White Man's Burden." We Americans "need a faith", said Dulles, "that will make us strong, a faith so pronounced that we, too, will feel that we have a mission to spread throughout the world." An idealistic goal is patently invoked here for its instrumental value in mobilizing support for the imperial enterprise.

The idealistic notes that grace the Bush Administration's strategy paper have the same hollow ring. The document is chock full of high-sounding prose about the goal of spreading democracy to Iraq and other countries living under the yoke of repression. President Bush's preface to the strategy document asserts that "the United States enjoys a position of unparalleled military strength", which creates "a moment of opportunity to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe. We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world." This sounds like insincere public relations in light of candidate Bush's warnings against the temptations of nation-building abroad. The theme of promoting democracy is rare in Secretary Rumsfeld's statements, which may turn out to be a better index of the administration's underlying views.


A final myth of empire is that in strategy there are no tradeoffs. Proponents of imperial expansion tend to pile on every argument from the whole list of myths of empire. It is not enough to argue that the opponent is a paper tiger, or that dominoes tend to fall, or that big stick diplomacy will make friends, or that a preventive attack will help to civilize the natives. Rather, proponents of offensive self-defense inhabit a rhetorical world in which all of these things are simultaneously true, and thus all considerations point in the same direction.

The Bush Administration's strategic rhetoric about Iraq in late 2002 did not disappoint in this regard. Saddam was portrayed as undeterrable, as getting nuclear weapons unless deposed and giving them to terrorists, the war against him would be cheap and easy, grumbling allies would jump on our bandwagon, Iraq would become a democracy, and the Arab street would thank the United States for liberating it. In real life, as opposed to the world of imperial rhetoric, it is surprising when every conceivable consideration supports the preferred strategy. As is so often the case with the myths of empire, this piling on of reinforcing claims smacks of ex post facto justification rather than serious strategic assessment.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Condoleezza Rice wrote of Iraq that "the first line of defense should be a clear and classical statement of deterrence--if they do acquire WMD, their weapons will be unusable because any attempt to use them will bring national obliteration." Two years later, however, the possibility of deterrence has become unthinkable as administration rhetoric regarding Iraq has been piled higher and higher. "Given the goals of rogue states [and] the inability to deter a potential attacker" of this kind, says the NSS, "we cannot let our enemies strike first." Administration dogma left no room for any assessment of Iraq that did not reinforce the logic of the prevailing preventive strategy.

Why Are Myths of Empire So Prevalent?

In America today, strategic experts abound. Many are self-styled realists, people who pride themselves on accepting the hard reality that the use of force is often necessary in the defense of national interests. It is striking that many of these realists consider the Bush Administration's strategic justifications for preventive war against Iraq to be unconvincing. Indeed, 32 prominent international relations scholars, most of them realists, bought an ad in the New York Times to make their case against the Bush strategy. Included among them was the leading proponent of the "offensive realism" school of thought, John Mearsheimer, a professor at the University of Chicago.

Proponents of the new preventive strategy charge that such realists are out of touch with a world in which forming alliances to balance against overwhelming U.S. power has simply become impossible. It is true that small rogue states and their ilk cannot on their own offset American power in the traditional sense. It is also true that their potential great-power backers, Russia and China, have so far been wary of overtly opposing U.S. military interventions. But even if America's unprecedented power reduces the likelihood of traditional balancing alliances arising against it, the United States could find that its own offensive actions create their functional equivalents. Some earlier expansionist empires found themselves overstretched and surrounded by enemies even though balancing alliances were slow to oppose them. For example, although the prospective victims of Napoleon and Hitler found it difficult to form effective balancing coalitions, these empires attacked so many opponents simultaneously that substantial de facto alliances eventually did form against them. Today, an analogous form of self-imposed overstretch--political as well as military--could occur if the need for military operations to prevent nuclear proliferation risks were deemed urgent on several fronts at the same time, or if an attempt to impose democracy by force of arms on a score or more of Muslim countries were seriously undertaken.

Even in the absence of highly coordinated balancing alliances, simultaneous resistance by several troublemaking states and terrorist groups would be a daunting challenge for a strategy of universal preventive action. Highly motivated small powers or rebel movements defending their home ground have often prevailed against vastly superior states that lacked the sustained motivation to dominate them at extremely high cost, as in Vietnam and Algeria. Even when they do not prevail, as on the West Bank, they may fight on, imposing high costs over long periods.

Precisely because America is so strong, weak states on America's hit list may increasingly conclude that weapons of mass destruction joined to terror tactics are the only feasible equalizer to its power. Despite America's aggregate power advantages, weaker opponents can get access to outside resources to sustain this kind of cost-imposing resistance. Even a state as weak and isolated as North Korea has been able to mount a credible deterrent, in part by engaging in mutually valuable strategic trade with Pakistan and other Middle Eastern states. The Bush Administration itself stresses that Iraq bought components for the production of weapons of mass destruction on the commercial market and fears that no embargo can stop this. Iran is buying a nuclear reactor from Russia that the United States views as posing risks of nuclear proliferation. Palestinian suicide bombers successfully impose severe costs with minimal resources. In the September 11 attack, Al-Qaeda famously used its enemy's own resources.

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