by David Moberg
In These Times magazine ,
"That's not the way we do things
in America,' George Bush told an Arab world seething with anger
about the photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. As usual, he
was Iying. The abusers were indeed Americans, apparently guided
broadly by Bush administration directives. The pictures may have
been new and shocking in their details, but the practices, unfortunately,
have a lengthy American pedigree, from Vietnam through the work
of School of the Americas graduates in Latin America. Even some
Bush supporters acknowledged that it is indeed the way things
are done in America, but dismissed the prisoner abuse as "no
different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation"
(Rush Limbaugh) or identified it with those who are "more
outraged by the outrage than we are by the treatment" (Oklahoma
Republican Sen. James Inhofe).
But with his denial Bush was not simply
trying to distance himself and the country from political damage
at home, in Iraq and throughout the world. He was reasserting
the powerful and dangerous collective self-delusion that America
is a uniquely privileged nation, set apart from history and embodying
a divine mission. This deep-rooted sense of American exceptionalism
that goes back to the Puritans underlies the justifications for
the creation of a new, benign American empire. But Iraq already
is showing the cracks in the empire's foundation.
Politically, Bush must pretend that the
abuses are the work of a few bad apples. The real problem is the
rotten apple-barrel of American policy. Evidence mounts that American
intelligence and military operatives mistreated, or tortured,
prisoners not only in Abu Ghraib but in scattered sites under
varied jurisdictions, from Guantanamo to Iraq to Afghanistan.
As Seymour Hersh reported in the May 24 New Yorker, many of the
abuses grew out of a "special access program" in Afghanistan
set up at the instigation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
to pursue "high value targets" of the war on terror
that was then exported to Iraq as the war began going badly. The
program rules, a former intelligence official told Hersh, were
simple: "Grab whom you must. Do what you want"
Bush did not directly authorize female
soldiers to hold naked Iraqi prisoners on a leash, but he set
the context for such abuse of power by framing America's post-9/l1
foreign policy as a battle of good versus evil and by refusing
to allow international treaties or the United Nations to constrain
U.S. actions. Bush was not the first American president to launch
preemptive war. Reagan, after all, invaded Grenada. But Bush,
armed with his national security doctrine, has gone further than
any other in claiming an American right to attack preemptively
and unilaterally any challenge to its power and to define American-style
capitalism as the only acceptable model for nations everywhere.
Using military force to pursue empire, however, America proves
no exception to imperial patterns: power over others leads to
abuse, especially as resistance to occupation grows.
Over the protests of liberals and conservatives
who supported an internationalist foreign policy to thwart communism,
critics on the left have for decades disparagingly described the
United States as imperialist. But with the collapse of the Soviet
bloc and especially since g/1l, some analysts-principally neo-conservatives
but also varied liberals and traditional conservatives-began to
argue that America is an imperial power by virtue of its military,
economic and technological superiority. So, some argued, it should
consciously act like an empire, guaranteeing order and protecting
human rights, especially since the United Nations lacks power
to function as an embryonic world government (thanks, partly,
to U.S. policy).
In a twist on the traditional leftist
claim that humanity faced a choice of socialism or barbarism,
author David Rieff claimed in a 1999 World Policy Journal essay
that "our choice at the millennium seems to boil down to
imperialism or barbarism" Apologists contend that America
as an empire will once again be an exception, a disinterested
force for freedom and human rights, ruling as much by "soft
power"-the appeal of its culture-as by force. But political
scientist James Chace argues that this messianic vision of American
empire is rooted in a dangerous and impossible quest for absolute
security that is linked to the vision of America as a unique "empire
of liberty,' as Thomas Jefferson put it.
Europeans rationalized their empires as
civilizing missions. Today the utopian rhetoric of American exceptionalism
masks the primary intent of the United States to create, not actual
colonies, but a global market subservient to transnational capital.
Even in the late 19th Century, as historian William Appleman Williams
has written, the United States denounced European colonialism
as a ploy to open closed colonial markets to American goods. Americans'
messianic sense of their country as a "city on a hill"
embodies both a hope for something better and a claim that America
already is "number one" in all regards, even when it
clearly is not-or when it garners dubious firsts. The United States,
for example, is a world leader in economic inequality and percentage
of its citizens in prisons.
American messianic utopianism also ignores
history, a particularly treacherous pitfall in western Asia. Columbia
University professor Rashid Khalidi explains in his new book Resurrecting
Empire that Britain and other European powers shaped the Middle
East that exists today-drawing arbitrary boundaries in Iraq, undermining
Arab movements that sought to develop European-style parliamentary
democracy, and supporting undemocratic regimes (like the Saudis
with their ties to fundamentalist Wahhabism, one root of Islamist
terrorist ideology). Arab enthusiasm for the United States as
an alternative to colonial powers was dashed as the United States
began to indirectly share the imperial rule of the region, such
as helping overthrow the elected Iranian government of Mohammed
Mossadegh when it tried to nationalize oil production in the '50s
or increasingly favoring the most conservative Israeli policies
over Palestinian interests. As a result, U.S. policies have ultimately,
though not intentionally, nurtured the emergence of the Islamist
terrorists that threaten the world. Now, with its occupation of
Iraq, Khalidi writes, "the United States is wittingly or
unwittingly stepping into the boots of earlier imperial powers,'
something that" cannot possibly be done right"'
Once again imperial dictates provoke rebellion.
Any goodwill won by ousting Saddam has disappeared as the United
States has become more occupier, less liberator. That is the first
crack in the imperial edifice. American popular opinion is turning
against the war: it bears no resemblance to the fanciful promises,
brings growing casualties, corrupts American soldiers and politicians,
and costs more than $50 billion ~ year at the same time that health
care, education and other needs of average Americans are being
shortchanged. Throughout the world, the United States is losing
moral stature and political support, making it harder to achieve
legitimate goals, such as international cooperation against terrorists
like Osama bin Laden or for multinational humanitarian campaigns.
The costs of the new imperialism ultimately
are likely to prove too high for both dominated countries and
for average Americans. Although some Bush strategists share the
Leo Straussian view that leaders must lie to mobilize popular
support, they are discovering that lies often backfire. The contradictions
between America's utopian image and the reality of empire will
eventually become unsustainable. The United States, its power
unrivaled, faces the prospect that its imperialism will become
barbarism, not its alternative.