Mark Danner

The Struggles of Democracy and Empire

A year after a tiny band of religious zealots managed with stunning audacity to mutilate the face of America, the world's sole superpower trembles on the threshold of a new imperial season.

A year after a tiny band of religious zealots managed with stunning audacity to mutilate the face of America, the world’s sole superpower trembles on the threshold of a new imperial season. That America, despite its great power, “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy,” has been a cherished truism of our foreign policy, central to how Americans look at themselves and at their role in the world. Until yesterday John Quincy Adams’s words could still be thought true. Tomorrow, if America invades and occupies Iraq, they no longer will be.

Behind the blizzard of claims and counterclaims of the last two months – about whether Iraq has nuclear weapons; about whether United Nations inspectors should be trusted to uncover them; about whether America should heed the views of allies or the international community at all – a more important and subtler drama is being played, about the character of American power and its proper role in the world. Or rather replayed, for we have seen its like before, in 1947 and, before that, in 1919. As on those occasions, America is struggling after the end of a great conflict to come to terms with what it means to be both democracy and empire. Call it the Athenian problem: how do the guardians of empire ensure support for its maintenance among the people?

As far back as January, President Bush began presenting the proposed Iraq campaign as a keystone of his war on terror, an essential battle in a carefully constructed ideological crusade that casts terrorists as “the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century” – the moral descendants of Communists, embodiments of evil who “hate our freedoms.” By focusing relentlessly on this threat – and by remaining resolutely coy about a decision to go to war that seems to have been made a year ago – President Bush and his advisers have succeeded brilliantly in largely confining debate to the modalities of confronting the threat (inspections, diplomacy and so on) and thus forcing their opponents, political and diplomatic, to fight on their ground.

In promoting the Iraq expedition as a necessary response to an immediate terrorist threat, however, they have failed to prepare the American public for what looks to be a long and costly engagement in the Middle East. Much of the confusion surrounding the Iraq debate thus far is owed to the chasm between the justifications proffered and the more elaborate geopolitical enterprise motivating many in the Bush administration.

The first phase of the war on terror saw the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the escape of the leaders of Al Qaeda. The second sent American troops to the Philippines, Georgia and Yemen for counterinsurgency missions against parts of the Qaeda network. The third phase, now about to unfold in the Persian Gulf, envisions the remaking of the Middle East. Behind the notion that an American intervention will make of Iraq “the first Arab democracy,” as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz put it, lies a project of great ambition. It envisions a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq – secular, middle-class, urbanized, rich with oil – that will replace the autocracy of Saudi Arabia as the key American ally in the Persian Gulf, allowing the withdrawal of United States troops from the kingdom. The presence of a victorious American Army in Iraq would then serve as a powerful boost to moderate elements in neighboring Iran, hastening that critical country’s evolution away from the mullahs and toward a more moderate course. Such an evolution in Tehran would lead to a withdrawal of Iranian support for Hezbollah and other radical groups, thereby isolating Syria and reducing pressure on Israel. This undercutting of radicals on Israel’s northern borders and within the West Bank and Gaza would spell the definitive end of Yasir Arafat and lead eventually to a favorable solution of the Arab-Israeli problem.

This is a vision of great sweep and imagination: comprehensive, prophetic, evangelical. In its ambitions it is wholly foreign to the modesty of containment, the ideology of a status-quo power that lay at the heart of American strategy for half a century. It means to remake the world, to offer to a political threat a political answer. It represents a great step on the road toward President Bush’s ultimate vision of “freedom’s triumph over all its age-old foes.”

In its ambition and grandiosity there has been nothing like it in American foreign policy since the “rollback” ambitions of General Douglas MacArthur and his allies in the Republican Party a half-century ago. Perhaps most striking, this vision – drawn from an administration that has abhorred all talk of root causes and treats terror as a free-floating malignancy with no political history and no political goals – acknowledges that for the evil of terror to be defeated the entire region from which it springs must be made new.

The audacity of the crusade’s ambitions is matched by the magnitude of its risks. Before Sept. 11, the Islamist radicals had been on the run, their project flagging. They had turned their talents on the United States – the distant power that lay behind the thrones in Riyadh and Cairo – only after suffering defeat on the primary battlegrounds of Algeria and Egypt and Saudi Arabia. By invading and occupying Iraq and using it as a base to remake the region, the United States risks revitalizing the political project embodied by Osama bin Laden. It is not only that Islamic radicalism may gain new life and new converts but that moderate regimes will be threatened and will respond harshly, leading them not toward democracy but away from it, and that, finally, the force to which the United States remains most vulnerable – terror – will once again visit our shores. And this time, terror may come not just from a reanimated Al Qaeda but from Hezbollah and other groups that heretofore saw the American threat as not quite so direct. To divide the world into good and evil, however effective that is as a means of building political support and however gratifying that may be to Americans who see their country as a “city on a hill,” risks broadening a war that would be better kept narrowly defined.

Grand projects have not been treated kindly in the Middle East. The shah of Iran, America’s policeman in the Gulf, was swept away by revolution; to confront the new radical threat from Tehran, the United States found an unlikely successor, a secular dictator in Baghdad named Saddam Hussein. Supplanting him now will likely be the easiest part of the mission; building a new order, engineering a workable politics in a land beset by sectarian struggles and by the trauma of three decades of brutal dictatorship, will be much harder, demanding persistence, steadfastness, quantities of treasure and perhaps of blood. President Bush, hammering away at the threat posed by nuclear weapons that do not now exist, has been reluctant to speak of these costs. Thus far, he has abdicated his responsibility to build the political support he will need to shape the Iraq, and the Middle East, that will follow Saddam Hussein.

For America, the great risk of this new crusade is that the political will might be lacking to carry it out – that the public, unprepared for the imperial ambitions about to play out in the Middle East, will quickly lose heart if the project comes to grief; that after the inevitable setbacks and perhaps after further attacks at home, the occupation will grow unpopular and that even those in the administration whose vision is not so ambitious will want to cut and run, leaving ruin once more in America’s wake.

Baghdad is not Mogadishu. It will not be enough, as after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, to declare victory, sail over the horizon and invade Grenada. The risks of a failed intervention in Iraq are more grave: weakening regimes friendly to the United States, kindling a broader Middle East war, bringing terror to American cities. In this sense, Sept. 11 did change everything. The threats are closer now, more malignant; the world much smaller than the one John Quincy Adams knew. If America chooses in this dark season to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, it had better well destroy them – and show the will to leave something lasting in their place. Mark Danner, a staff writer at The New Yorker and a journalism professor at the University of California at Berkeley, is author of “The Massacre at El Mozote”.