The White Man’s Burden

President George W. Bush released the National Security Strategy of the United States on September 19, where he declared: “To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.” Doug Cassel, head of Northwestern University Law School’s Center for International Human Rights, cautioned against such action in the September 22 edition of the Chicago Tribune. He wrote: “If [the international law rule against pre-emptive strikes] is repealed by Bush, powers like India, China, and Russia may be tempted to force a few regime changes as well. We can hardly ask them to play by more peaceful rules than we do.”

Indeed, Mr. Cassel makes an excellent point. Nevertheless, if we attacked Iraq tomorrow, apart from empty words of condemnation from allies and adversaries, no one in the world could do anything about it. This is because the United States, as President Bush wrote, “possesses unprecedented—and unequaled—strength and influence in the world.” In addition, America intends on doing everything she can to ensure her dominance continues forever.

And there is nothing wrong with this position, on the surface. God has blessed our country with supreme military prowess, seemingly unending wealth, and overwhelming influence. It is only natural that the United States uses that strength to advance what it perceives as her own interests throughout the world.

Herein lies the challenge for America. If America wants to ensure that only she is the most powerful country in the world, then she must bear the responsibility of that power. Many in America resent this. Many have complained that America is not the “world’s policeman”; we are not into “nation-building,” as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has repeatedly claimed until recently. Yet, we must be. Our military strength coupled with our overwhelming influence necessarily means that we will end up being the “world’s policeman.” It is our duty to help build nations into strong democracies and beacons for freedom. Like it or not, it comes with the territory of being the most powerful nation on earth. And it is only fair.

In the Qur’an, God showers much praise on the rich who give out of their wealth to the poor: “Verily, the pious will be in the midst of Gardens and Springs…[those who] in their wealth there is the right of the beggar and the poor who do not ask others” (51:15-19). The Bible states: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these [is] charity” (1 Cor 13:13). While it is not practical that America has to solve all of the world’s problems, America must play a major role in helping resolve the world’s ills. That is why America’s stance with the International Criminal Court is so disappointing. Indeed, America is not the world’s soup kitchen, but it must be the most important force for the establishment of global justice.

The case of Iraq is America’s first test. President Bush has yet to make an effective case for pre-emptive military action against Saddam Hussein. Although everyone would rest easier (including the writer) with Hussein ousted from power, risking the lives of Americans and Iraqis alike to head off, in Doug Cassel’s words, “an unspecified threat in some indefinite future” would be a disastrous abuse of American power. We cannot let the possession of absolute power corrupt us absolutely.

Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem in 1899, “The White Man’s Burden.” He wrote it in response to his perception that America will become a hegemonic global superpower. Leaving aside the racist and self-pitying undertone of the title, Kipling’s intent was to make America realize that being a global superpower exacts a price: “Take up the White Man’s Burden/The savage wars of peace/Fill full the mouth of Famine/And bid the sickness cease/And when your goal is nearest (The end for others sought)/Watch sloth and heathen folly/Bring all your hope to nought.” President Bush hinted at his understanding of this responsibility in his National Security Strategy: “The great strength of this nation must be used to promote a balance of power that favors freedom.” I hope and pray his actions are true to his words.

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and columnist for and the Independent Writers Syndicate.é He is also contributing author to the forthcoming book Taking Back Islam: American Muslims Reclaim Their Faith, due to be released by Rodale in November 2002.