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And the Apologists for the Iraq War Think Their Critics Are Living in the Past?

The comparison is often made between the current American venture in Iraq and the Middle East and British imperialism a century ago. Advocates of an American-led empire of liberty, however, reject the comparison, particularly the suggestion that a Pax Americana today will meet the fate of the so-called Pax Britannica then. The world, they argue, is entirely different, especially since 9/11. Today's threats were unknown then--international terrorist organizations and movements, fanatical ideologies, rogue regimes, and proliferating weapons of mass destruction—and must be dealt with proactively and preventively.

Moreover, the military supremacy of the United States today and its ability to project its power globally is so unprecedented, and the “soft power” it possesses in economic strength and political and cultural influence world so effective in penetrating other countries and societies that so-called historical lessons about the fall of past empires mean nothing. Those who cite them are living in the past.

Let us therefore reverse the question from, “Does history show that the current American policy of informal empire is bound to fail?” to the converse, “Does history shed any light on how it could conceivably succeed?” That is, could historical experience help tell us under what conditions America might be able, having conquered Iraq, to restore order, set up a durable government it approves of, and then turn the country over to local administrators, with an American military presence to keep them in power and protect American strategic interests in the region? Could it suggest circumstances whereby the rest of the international community would come to terms with this situation and even help America maintain it? Can history further indicate under what conditions the change in Iraq might help transform the politics of the whole region in a way favorable to American interests? Are there historical examples of durable success in the sort of project the United States is now undertaking?

Certainly there are. The best example among several possible is offered by the British experience in Egypt in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. British intervention in Egypt in 1882 was initially more reluctant and less determined on military conquest. But when the Gladstone government finally decided to intervene militarily, it also like the Bush administration claimed moral and humanitarian reasons for doing so, and though the critical stakes in the venture were obviously strategic (control of the Suez Canal and the routes to India and the maintenance of British prestige), Gladstone's slogan of “Egypt for the Egyptians” remained its official goal and justification. After a swift and easy victory, order was readily restored. Egypt's head of state proved a subservient puppet, the professional and commercial classes were willing to serve their new masters, British advisers could set policy behind the scenes, the masses turned out to be inert rather than nationalist as feared, and the financial burdens of the British occupation and of protecting the British and European financial interests and British imperial and strategic interests were imposed on the wretched but powerless Egyptian peasantry.

International complications proved more difficult, but ultimately the British triumphed all along the line—first ignoring French pressure to restore their earlier partnership in Egypt, then ignoring and violating their own repeated promises to evacuate it, next using Egypt to conquer the Sudan in 1898 and forcing the French to back down at Fashoda, and then making a deal with France over Morocco freeing Britain from problems with the European bondholders and the international Treasury of the Ottoman Debt. As a result, by 1914 Britain was fully in charge of Egypt at little or no cost to itself, had brought most of East Africa under British control from Egypt outwards, and had even made friends with France against Germany in the process. The British ascribed their imperial success in Egypt, which lasted beyond the First World War and helped promote the expansion of the British Empire in the Middle East in 1919-20, to their unmatched power and wealth, their special virtue, and their indispensable role as leaders of the international system.

There is then a good, simple historical recipe for durable, successful American informal empire in Iraq and the Middle East : restore the general world conditions prevailing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That is, eliminate Iraqi and Arab nationalism, or at least reduce it to an inchoate proto-nationalism; eliminate militant Islamist movements and regimes (the one in the Sudan was destroyed by the British in 1898); eliminate Iraq and other entities in the Middle East (including Israel) as independent states, returning them to the status of loosely-governed provinces of decaying regimes easy prey for Western imperialism; eliminate the present international system with the UN, NATO, and all the other international and transnational institutions and organizations that now interfere with empire-building; eliminate radio, TV, the Internet, and other means of mass communications; reverse the globalization of industry, commerce, science and technology, and culture in the twentieth century; and restore an intense international competition in alliances, arms, and imperialism such as prevailed among the great powers of the late nineteenth century--do these simple things, and the venture will probably succeed.

This tells us something important about both the architects of current American policy and those who defend it, claiming that historical evidence pointing to the impossibility of durable empire in today's world within the existing international system is irrelevant because the world has changed, and because the United States has such unprecedented power that it can do almost anything if it sets its mind to it. These people, not historically-minded critics like me, are living in the past. While professing to meet new threats and dangers (which are not really new) and boasting of America's new, unprecedented power and global reach, they ignore the enormous international dangers and threats familiar from history that this policy will create and exacerbate and disregard the effective limits on American power and the severe constraints on its useful employment that the real new world of the early twenty-first century imposes.

This venture in Iraq is thus not a bold experiment in creating a brave new world, but a revival of late nineteenth century imperialism whose success then depended on conditions long since vanished and now impossible even to imagine reproducing. It will fail and is already failing. Its advocates illustrate the adage that those unwilling to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.