Adam Ash

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Monday, June 27, 2005

The War in Iraq: the last gasp of Empire

What is Iraq if not the last gasp of America as Empire? The end of the Cold War is often seen as a U.S. victory over the U.S.S.R., but in fact, it cost both superpowers their empires.

The parallel of these two losses of empire is uncanny.

Like Russia lost its empire in Eastern Europe, we lost our "empire" in Western Europe. During the Cold War, Western Europe was a collection of U.S. client states under our nuclear umbrella, our missiles and troops stationed there to protect it against the U.S.S.R. The collapse of the Soviet Empire not only set free Eastern Europe (East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia and Albania), but also liberated Western Europe to pursue its own course, which it has with the European Union.

The EU is now a single-currency economy in competition with the U.S. -- and with the power to bring U.S. companies like GE and Microsoft to heel, something heretofore unthinkable. By declining to follow us into Iraq (making it a U.S.-U.K. Lone Ranger and Tonto adventure), the two EU leaders, Germany and France, have carved out a separate role for EU diplomacy in the world, which is often, and ironically, allied with Russia against the U.S.

The parallel continues in another way. Both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. also lost their empires in their own backyards. The Baltic states (Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia) and the old Soviet Republics (Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, etc.) are now states independent of Russia -- while U.S. hegemony over own backyard in South America is at an end, too. Until quite recently, we installed puppet regimes in South America almost as freely as the British used to play Puppet Shuffle in the Middle-East. Now South Americans can vote, and they vote for leaders who are charting an independent course well to the left of us.

We're still the #1 military and economic force on earth -- two great imperial weapons -- but huge question marks have emerged over our continued efficacy in both these spheres. We have a rival economy as strong as our own in the EU, as well as the emerging giants of India and China to contend with. The Indians seem set to become the IT leader of the world -- not only do we outsource our computer needs there, but our own Silicon Valley has felt the impact of Indian nationals. And the Chinese, now the undisputed manufacturing powerhouse of the world, will overtake us as the world's biggest economy in the next two decades.

Besides overtaking us, China will probably end up owning us, too. Under Bush we've gone into total hock to China. And they are returning the favor by using our dollars to start buying U.S. companies. The Chinese bids for Unocal and Maytag are only the beginning of a massive redistribution of wealth started by our own president. Bush's sell-out to the Chinese will probaby be his most lasting legacy.

Still, we have the strongest military ever in the history of humankind. But as Vietnam and now Iraq proves, military power has its limits. Iraq will probably be our final military adventure for imperial gain, as the former Yugoslavia will probably be our last military adventure for humanitarian reasons (we declined to intervene in Rwanda, the biggest genocide since the Holocaust, and we are staying out of Darfur, even though we're calling it a genocide).

What is the Soviet parallel to our Iraq adventure? Their war in Afghanistan. This quagmire lasted seven years, and led to the Soviet collapse. Expect ours to last shorter than that, now that polls show that U.S. voters are losing heart for our continued presence there.

It's truly instructive how the Iraq adventure, all by itself, exemplifies our loss of power in the world. It started as a fear-of-Islamic-terror imperial oil grab with the strategic aim of planting permanent U.S. military bases in a Middle-Eastern puppet state under Achmed Chalabi. Emboldened by our victory in Afghanistan, we went into Iraq thinking it would be "a cakewalk" -- probably our greatest moment of imperial hubris.

And now our greatest humiliation. We've had to actually change motives in mid-course. Pretty unprecedented. Far from a cakewalk, the Iraq adventure has become an arduous nation-building effort to set Iraq on the course of democracy, as well as a most unfortunate sinking of our moral reputation around the world. Osama Bin Laden couldn't have hoped for better: we're his #1 recruitment agency.

Nation-building was the last thing we wanted. But circumstances, mostly in the person of Al-Sistani, forced our hand. When we balked at elections, this former Iranian cleric simply brought out his Iraq Shiite followers en masse in a protest march. We had to swallow our imperial pride and recast our presence there as an exercise in democracy. One Muslim cleric stopped our imperial ambitions cold.

In fact, far from securing our influence in the Middle-East, the Iraq war will greatly decrease our influence in the region. If the Iraq democracy project succeeds, it will bring about a powerful Shiite alliance of Iraq and Iran against us. We started off by serving our own interests there (as well as Israel's) -- and now we are serving the interests of Iran. Not a terrific example of being an empire, now that we're doing the dirty work for Bin-Laden and Iran. The empire as dupe.

Such are the ironies of history. But fortunately for the health of our republic, this irony brings the idea of America as an empire to its final end. There's something poetically fitting in the fact that the greatest power on earth has found the cure for its manifest destiny in Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization.


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