US: a bigger stick - and no longer speaking softly
The dust had not yet settled from the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon when George W. Bush declared war on terrorism. Within a month, United States warplanes were pounding the home base of the perpetrators in Afghanistan. And barely a year after US troops had scattered the Taliban and taken control of Kabul, US forces in much greater numbers blitzed their way from Kuwait to Baghdad. With a speed that surprised Pentagon war planners, "regime change" had been visited upon Iraq as well.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But the war on terror - the first major armed conflict of the 21st century - has also visited a kind of regime change on the world as a whole. Its most powerful entity, the US - backed by its unparalleled military and economic might - seems more imperial than ever before.
To supporters, this move heralds a "benevolent global hegemony," with the US using its power to bring about the transformation of repressive regimes and failed states into liberal democracies. To critics, it's a new kind of empire, the likes of which have never been seen before. Instead of grabbing land, it aims to force its political ideas - "regime change" or "nation building" - on another nation.
"More than mere domination, the American superpower now seeks to control history," writes Robert Jay Lifton, a Harvard expert on terrorism, in a recent issue of The Nation magazine. Professor Lifton calls this the "Superpower Syndrome," the title of his recent book. Like the Roman and British empires before it, America inevitably flexes its muscle because it has cornered the technology that offers unrivaled military dominance, he argues.
Strictly speaking, the US is no empire. Outside of Puerto Rico, it doesn't have much in the way of overseas landholdings and has given up major military bases in the Philippines and Panama. What influence it does possess is often used on behalf of democratic ideals - but not always consistently, critics point out.
Many critics also don't take into account that the US is fighting a new kind of war, which knows no bounds of time or space. For example: There is no enemy to "surrender" (let alone discuss the terms of surrender).
Terrorism is likely to exist as long as there are suicidal zealots with access to even relatively crude conventional weapons. And it can happen almost anywhere in the world. The State Department's list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) includes 36 groups scattered around the globe.
For the president, who campaigned against nation-building and excessive military intervention, fighting terrorism has become far more profound than, say, the realpolitik of Henry Kissinger. "I don't see any shades of gray in the war against terror," Bush has said. His State of the Union address last year included four references to the nation's "enemies" and five references to "evil."
At the same time, President Bush (and even the most ardent neoconservatives) would rebut the assertion that the US seeks to "dominate" the world and "control history."
"We will help you build a peaceful and representative government that protects the rights of all citizens," Mr. Bush told the Iraqi people in April as US forces took control of Baghdad. "And then our military forces will leave."
A few days later, in an interview with Al Jazeera, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was more direct: "We're not imperialistic. We never have been."
But as Ronald Reagan pointed out about the former Soviet Union, the concern has less to do with declared intentions and more with capabilities and recent actions. And here, the US looks like a juggernaut. It has not only visited regime change on two nations in two years, it spends more on its armed forces than the next dozen countries combined - $382.2 billion last year.
America's immense economic and cultural influence causes lower levels of alarm, with one exception. Some of those who have turned to terrorism do use US culture and values - the "McDomination" of the world - to excoriate the "Great Satan." Those terrorist acts, in turn, prompt the US to react militarily in a way that raises questions of empire.
Imperial powers have always been backed by superior military force. Armies of the Roman Empire dominated the land masses of Europe and North Africa, and parts of the Middle East. Navies of the Spanish and British empires ruled the seas. Twenty-first century warfare and power projection hinge on control of the air.