As the battle for Iraq comes to a close, a battle for the soul of the American republic has begun in Washington. This is a battle of ideas being waged by people with an imperial concept of American power, or “flag conservatives,” against a diverse coalition of other groups who are opposed to the militarization of American foreign policy. The flag conservatives have taken the view that America needs to fight a long war of self-defense until all regimes in President Bush’s axis of evil list have been changed. The opposing coalition counters that an imperial war will erase the very freedoms domestically that we seek to project internationally. It will isolate the U.S. from the rest of the world, and create a “fortress America” mindset that will make all of us worse off social, politically and economically.
This battle for the republic’s soul is essentially a battle for the hearts and minds of the American people. It will gain momentum in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election. The first shots have already been fired by some of those who are seeking the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. For example, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts has called for regime change in Washington and Governor Howard Dean of Vermont made the anti-war issue a primary topic of his speech at the recent Democratic Party convention in Sacramento.
The “flag conservatives” are exultant, since their long-standing objective of gaining mastery of the Middle East appears within reach. Paul Wolfowitz first articulated this viewpoint shortly after the First Gulf War, and it was developed further in a document published by the Project for a New American Century prior to the presidential elections in the year 2000. After the tragic terrorist attacks of 9/11, this viewpoint became U.S. foreign policy. The first campaign of the “war against terrorism” took place in Afghanistan and brought about regime change within two months. The second campaign has just taken place in Iraq and brought about regime change in less than a month.
While temporarily restrained by global public opinion, the war machine being directed by the flag conservatives threatens to branch out toward the east and the west from Iraq, with campaigns directed at effecting regime change in Damascus and Teheran. In the not too distant future, additional campaigns may be directed at effecting regime change in Riyadh and Cairo. There are even rumblings of effecting regime change in Islamabad, since Pakistan is the only Muslim country with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
Yale historian Paul Kennedy reminds us of the failed British experience in the Middle East and questions whether the U.S. would fare any better, given its poor track record in Southeast Asia, Latin America, Cuba and the Philippines: “We took over the latter two territories more than a century ago, yet Cuba’s history has been a shambles and the Philippines is now receiving fresh cohorts of U.S. military advisers. Why do we think we will do better in Syria or Iraq or Saudi Arabia?”
The American generals who led the war in Iraq have touted their campaign as one of the most successful in military history. But the victory over Iraq may well mark the zenith of our perceived strength, both in a military and political sense. This is a time for reflection, not for hubris. We need to exploit this moment of strength not by thinking of moving against Syria, Iran or North Korea, but by contracting our empire to avoid strategic overreach. We should seriously consider withdrawing our military forces from Saudi Arabia, where their presence has been exploited by Osama bin Laden to pursue his campaign of terrorism.
Even a nation as uniquely powerful as the U.S. cannot remake the political systems at the heart of the Islamic world. Removing Saddam from power in Iraq will not unleash a wave of democracy in the region, since democracy cannot be imposed on other countries by duress. If we now turn our guns on other regimes in the Middle East, the Muslim world will view us an oil-thirsty superpower that is hell bent on attacking them. In our zeal to liberate people from tyranny, we will end up losing whatever friends we have in the region and making enemies throughout the globe. The flag conservatives have put us on a course that is strategically myopic. It is time that Congress began a real debate about our foreign policy.
The author is an economist in Palo Alto, California. He lived in Pakistan during the 1965 and 1971 wars. He has written on Pakistan’s Strategic Myopia in the RUSI Journal, and reviewed Mazari’s book, Journey to Disillusionment for International Affairs. He has authored “Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan.” He is a Fellow of the American Institute of International Studies in California.
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