The USS Stark and the price of empire

SEVERAL members of Congress and a good many people elsewhere have been asking why an American warship was in the Gulf anyway, and thus got in the way of an Iraqi missile with the loss of 37 US lives. The Senate has even passed a resolution by 91 to 5 votes asking how United States warships would defend themselves if they started escorting Kuwaiti tankers flying the American flag. All of this is symptomatic of a country going through the throes of trying to decide whether it really wants to be a worldwide empire with responsibilities and interests in every corner of the globe.

Anyone familiar with the story of the British Empire will find all of this familiar.

I picked up a book the other day called ``Queen Victoria's Little War.'' There were scores of them. They were going on all through her reign in every part of the world. Some of them were expensive in both treasure and human life.

Take for example one called the ``First Afghan War.'' (There were other Afghan wars later.) In that first one, which started in 1838, a mixed army of 4,500 British and Indian units marched from India into Afghanistan and briefly occupied Kabul. For once the various Afghan tribes managed to overcome their own internal rivalries and laid siege to that British force. Four years after that army had marched into Afghanistan, it agreed to withdraw. Under the agreement the troops gave up their weapons and marched out of Kabul, unarmed, with a train of 12,000 British and Indian camp followers, assorted supply train people, and civilians. A single person survived to reach British lines at the Khyber Pass and tell the dreadful story.

Probably somewhere in the files of the British Imperial War Museum in London is a compilation of the total number of lives lost in the building and maintenance of the British Empire. I don't find it in any quick reference work. The total must have been in many, many thousands. Episodes similar to the attack on the USS Stark were so common as to barely require notice.

It is not the first similar episode in the story of the role the US has been playing in the world since World War II.

On June 8, 1967, the American electronic intelligence gathering ship, the USS Liberty, was attacked repeatedly by Israeli military aircraft and torpedo boats over a period of one hour and a quarter, attackers shooting even at survivors in life rafts. The toll was 34 Americans killed, 171 wounded.

On Oct. 23, 1983, an Arab suicide truck slammed into the US Marines barracks near the Beirut airport in Lebanon. The Marines lost 241 men in the blast.

We don't use the word empire in these times. There is no official American empire. Americans don't go around putting up their flag over the seats of government of small countries which revolve in the American political and economic orbit.

But what is an empire? It is an economic community tied together with trade and protected militarily by the central superpower around which the system revolves.

In these days, the US is the central superpower around which most of what we call ``the free world'' revolves. It constitutes almost all countries which are not part of the rival Soviet imperial system. In the American system, as also in the Soviet system, there often are local and regional rivalries, and sometimes rebellions against the local authority. The central superpower inevitably gets mixed up in these affairs.

At the time of the Israeli attack on the Liberty, Israel had completed the first two phases of the 1967 war. It had smashed both the Egyptian and Jordanian armies and was poised to attack Syria.

At the time of the bombing of the Marine barracks US forces were there officially as part of a peacekeeping operation. They were also supporting the Amin Gemayel regime in Lebanon, which had long been subsidized by Israel.

In the case of the USS Stark, the US is in the Gulf to keep the oil of the Gulf flowing to the outside world in general, and in particular to protect Kuwait, a staunch ally of Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. Iraq relies on Kuwait's help in the war against Iran. The US does not want Iraq defeated in that war because an Iraqi defeat would clear the way for Iran to become the dominant power in the Gulf area.

It is all part of the burden of empire. Do Americans really want to be an imperial power?

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