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.
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.
History of military might
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.
Today, no other country comes close to US air power. It was not lost on Pentagon strategists (or the rest of the world) that US Air Force B-2 stealth bombers were able to take off from their base in Missouri, cruise to targets in Afghanistan and Iraq, deliver their deadly payloads, and fly back home without ever stopping. The US dominates the skies to a far greater degree than Roman legions controlled the ground or the British fleet ruled the seas.
If war is unavoidable, this could allow the side with the advantage here - the US - to prevail quickly and preclude the destruction and human misery of prolonged combat. Or, it could also present the means if not the rationale for preemptively starting war in order to dominate another country or region, illustrating Prussian Gen. Carl von Clausewitz's contention that "War is ... a continuation of policy by other means."
Of course, having the capability and using it are two different things. With two major exceptions (arguably) - the Spanish-American and Vietnam wars - the US has not ventured beyond its hemisphere to engage in overt unprovoked war. Even then, it used events to suggest it was provoked: the blowing up of the USS Maine in Havana harbor in 1898 - now thought to have been an accident - and the now-discredited 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution.
Today, many critics think the invasion of Iraq also was sold to the world on a false premise: that Saddam Hussein had actual weapons of mass destruction and that he'd given his military commanders the order to use them.
What most worries other nations is that the US now explicitly reserves the right to take preemptive action anywhere. The president's National Security Strategy calls for unquestioned military superiority, and it shifts US doctrine from deterrence and containment to preemptive strikes against potential threats.
In an age of stateless terrorism, moving from containment to preemption makes sense, supporters argue. Strike first before others attack the US heartland or overseas interests. But others see such a policy bringing a more dangerous world. "Its defects range from its dubious legitimacy under international law, to the bad example it sets for other countries eager to justify a preemptive or preventive attack on their neighbors," says Bruce Blair of the Center for Defense Information and a former Air Force missile launch-control officer.
The rest of the world also watches in disquiet as the US tries to widen its military lead with new technology. "Nonlethal" weapons, laser- and satellite-guided ordnance, remote-controlled attack aircraft that can loiter over a battlefield for hours before striking, cruise missiles with high-power microwaves to zap an enemy's electronic gear, and a new generation of small, "bunker busting" nuclear bombs offer the possibility of moving from the cold war's relatively static "mutually assured destruction" to actual warfare.
The US also appears intent on militarizing space. A congressionally mandated commission headed by Secretary Rumsfeld has called for "superior space capabilities ... both to deter and to defend against hostile acts in and from space."
Not surprisingly, Bush's Democratic opponents criticize these changes in US foreign policy. But concern is being voiced from the right as well. "The negative practical consequences of this policy are all too evident," writes Doug Bandow, of the Cato Institute, in The American Conservative. "Ugly foreign governments from Iran to North Korea have an incentive to arm themselves, quickly, with [weapons of mass destruction] to deter a US preventive assault."
The cover of a recent issue of The Economist magazine (published in London) shows a red, white, and blue fist, thumb down. "Greatest danger?" reads the headline. But turn the page upside down, and the letters off the end of the now thumbs-up fist read "Greatest hope?"
"The fashionable source of anxiety in both Europe and Asia is whether America is becoming so different from everywhere else that it is becoming a problem for the world, not a solution," the magazine's editors observe. In any case, they state, "Iraq is the crucible for this debate."
It used to be said, "The sun never sets on the British Empire." Given the US's economic and cultural influence, military might, and declared willingness to strike first at a perceived threat, the first draft of this era's history may show the same to be true of an American empire. Depending on one's point of view, that is either an exalting idea or a frightening one.