The Election on Empire

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."

"Redeploy" envisions a phased withdrawal on an unspecified timeline, with the goal of reducing U.S. casualties but preserving an ability to strike terrorists. "Stability" involves a more focused effort to pacify the key conflict zone of Baghdad, accompanied by diplomatic efforts perhaps even involving Syria and Iran (!) to reduce the insurgency and attacks.

It's hard not to view the "Stability" option as anything other than the course that has gotten us to this point, with the long-shot twist of convincing our until-recently vilified enemies Iran and Syria to save us and Iraq. If anyone can do it, James Baker probably can. But for the time being, Iran and Syria are both undoubtedly happy to see the United States continue to bleed in Iraq while they consolidate influence there. Still, enlisting their help would be more realistic than flouting both Iraqi and U.S. public opinion and sending in more troops that we don't have-as some of the neoconservatives who got us into this mess want to do.

All these proposals to use more force ignore the widespread consensus that the presence of U.S. and foreign forces is aggravating the situation. Even UK army head General Sir Richard Dannatt recently admitted that the continued U.S. and UK troop presence "exacerbates the security problems" in Iraq and the "difficulties" faced "around the world." Polls show most Iraqis want the United States to leave in short order-and significant majorities, including almost ninety percent of Sunnis, tragically support the attacks on our troops. With Iraqi deaths counted in the hundreds of thousands, one can understand how the Iraqi people might say "enough freedom already; go home."

The "Redeploy" alternative also has serious risks that no one concerned with human rights can ignore. President Bush argues that withdrawing U.S. forces would unleash a worsening civil war, create a new terror haven, humiliate America and dishonor service personnel. But current policy is already producing those results.

The Bush administration should therefore heed the U.S. public's electoral call to consider something truly new. Instead of continued obstinacy on Iraq, the administration should welcome the overdue debate on the viable options that do exist-in the "reality-based community."

Consider the impact on Iraq if withdrawal were (1) announced as taking place over the next year, (2) accompanied by a clear disavowal of any U.S. interest in permanent bases or occupation of Iraq, (3) tied to very substantial "carrots" and financial aid incentives for investment and economic development equal to a year's worth of spending on the war, upon achievement of specific milestones (e.g. pertaining to security, human rights protections and training, agreement on fair distribution of oil resources) and (4) involved the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) and Arab League (and yes, even Iran and Syria if possible) in security training and achieving the political accommodation that's an indispensable prerequisite for future progress.

The United States must by its words and actions clarify that it neither intends to keep Iraq as a colony nor stay in Iraq permanently, and that Iraq's oil resources are for all the Iraqi people. The new, nearly billion-dollar embassy "fortress" and the "enduring" military bases understandably remind Iraqis of the British bases used for bombings and poison gas attacks early last century, and should be repurposed. This would have a major positive impact on Iraqi and global Muslim public opinion.

Significant investment in economic development, security, and human rights is equally important. The sectarian strife is being driven by jockeying to control economic resources. Rather than pushing for a federal structure that will be seen by Iraqis and others as a classic colonial divide-and-conquer tactic, what's needed now is a strategy to constrain Iraq's many sectarian, centrifugal forces that could lead to violent partition. Such a strategy would involve a significant investment, but it pales in comparison to the estimated two trillion dollars in costs already incurred and the future costs of years of continued occupation.

A managed withdrawal along these lines would have the benefit of engendering that scarcest of commodities in contemporary Iraq: hope. It would give the American and Iraqi people what they want, on terms better than they expect. A measured withdrawal over time accompanied by these other actions, as opposed to the forced and precipitous Vietnam-like withdrawal later, could actually dampen violence. Remember that contrary to years of dire warnings, after withdrawal from Vietnam, the dominos didn't fall.

Withdrawal would remove the foreign occupation that generates so much violence and terrorism. After such a U.S. withdrawal, the resistance the United States faces could turn against the foreign Al-Qaeda elements. Staying would only repeat the Vietnam mistake of prolonging the cycle of violence, likely resulting in even greater U.S. and Iraqi deaths while continuing to stimulate terrorism.

Managed withdrawal in this manner would also begin the long process of restoring U.S. credibility (which will depend on other policy changes including more strenuous efforts at peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a less militaristic imperial posture, renewed respect for international law and greater multilateral engagement to address common global problems). Although it's a long shot, persuading the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Arab League to play a constructive role would be potentially invaluable. Other than remote help (e.g. hosting an aid conference), the United Nations won't be of much help since it has already been attacked as a neo-colonialist tool.

Whether the administration will attempt such a sensible new approach remains doubtful, despite the overwhelming public sentiment to do so. Bush has already vowed: "We're not leaving so long as I'm the president." Baker himself has consistently disfavored near-term withdrawal (though he's nothing if not a political pragmatist). Cheney recently said that public opinion doesn't matter-it's "full steam ahead." Leading Republican presidential hopeful John McCain has generally been "stay the course" on Iraq, even calling for more troops as Democrats have tilted toward withdrawal. While the Dems won't cut funding, they will begin congressional oversight of the war, inevitably leading to conflict and perhaps gridlock with the administration. Even with the strong public voice that resulted in the mid-term Democratic congressional victories, it is thus unclear whether the strong Democratic showing will suffice to change the flawed perceptions of geopolitical and (domestic) political interests that have been driving Iraq policy.

Still, it is imperative for the Iraq Study Group and responsible thinkers from all sides to take this new post-election opportunity to unlock the stymied Iraq debate.

A Paradox of Power

The Iraq debacle reprises the ancient lesson, reiterated in Vietnam, about the limits of even imperial military power. George Kennan lamented the "failure to appreciate the limitations of war in general-any war-as a vehicle for the achievement of the objectives of the democratic state." Barbarism inevitably accompanies an empire ruled by force, regardless of the number of facile appeals to "civilization." America's paradox of power is that while it in theory can wipe Iraq off the map, in practice it cannot elicit the outcomes it wants when large segments of the Iraqi people object. The lesson has particular cogency in an information age beset by terrorism and when imperial power is used in a region with such a rich history of resistance.

Less ignorance about the colonial context and history would help. But like TR with the Philippines, Bush has found his own "heel of Achilles" in Iraq and has been doggedly unwilling to extricate himself-and the nation. Although it remains to be seen whether he will be influenced, as he should be, by the belated popular counsel expressed in the election, the national interest depends on his doing so. And unlike prior imperial periods, this one is different because everyone-and I mean everyone-is watching.

Chip Pitts is a Lecturer in Law at Stanford Law School, President of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (, and Co-Founder of