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American Imperialism and Iraq: A Conversation Between Mark Danner and James Chace

On September 30, one day after participating in a panel discussion on U.S. imperialism and the Spanish-American War, Bard's James Chace and Mark Danner sat down for a one-on-one conversation about U.S. foreign policy today. They examined the impact of 9/11 on America's vision of its role in the world, recent interventions in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and the evolution of U.S. foreign policy from the Cold War to the war on terror. Chace is the director of the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program and the Paul W. Williams Professor of Government and Public Law and Administration. He is the author of many books on international affairs, including the prizewinning biography Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World. He has served as the editor of World Policy Journal and managing editor of Foreign Affairs, and is currently at work on a book about the 1912 American presidential election. Danner is the Henry Luce Professor of Human Rights and Journalism at Bard and a professor at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Named a MacArthur Fellow in 1999, Danner is a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War and forthcoming books on Haiti and the Balkans. His writing has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Harper's, and the New York Times.

MARK DANNER: (at right in photograph) The Somalia intervention in 1992 led to a number of important policy decisions. We went in under the first President Bush, who had already lost the 1992 election, with the idea that it was a humanitarian action. There was no attempt to secure the support of the American people, no discussion in Congress. When, under President Clinton, we encountered difficulties, when 18 Americans were killed in Mogadishu in 1993, there was no support for keeping Americans there, and we withdrew precipitously. At almost the same time, we were about to land peacekeeping troops in Haiti, but after a demonstration by Haitian irregulars, the United States decided to withdraw, rather than risk an intervention. A year later, in Rwanda, when the White House saw a burgeoning genocide there, it decided that any operation to stop it would be too risky, that it could be another Somalia. Another side of Somalia is also interesting. We know now that the militiamen who shot down our helicopters there were trained by Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden and his organization drew from what happened in Somalia in '93 the same lesson they learned from Beirut in 1983, when the United States withdrew after 241 Americans were killed in the barracks bombing, and from Vietnam in 1974: the United States can be attacked and defeated. It's present in the thinking of our adversaries now in Iraq: if the U.S. is hit hard enough, it will be forced to withdraw. JAMES CHACE: I think the American people do have staying power if they believe in the rationale for the intervention. We stayed the course throughout the Korean War—and we're still there 50 years later. We were in Vietnam for 10 years. When things go wrong, it's usually because we've been lied to, we haven't been told why we're there, or the administration itself is confused about the rationale for its policy. DANNER: It's interesting, when you raise that question, to look at the wars we've fought with Iraq. The reasons for entering the first Gulf War in 1991 were described rather clearly by Bush senior. One, countries should not be able to invade and annex their neighbors. Two, there was the oil reason, as enunciated by then Secretary of State James Baker under the slogan "Jobs, jobs, jobs." It was a statement he was embarrassed to make, but one, I believe, that Americans understood. Finally, Bush called Saddam worse than Hitler and talked about the risk of his acquiring a nuclear weapon. What's important to remember is that the first President Bush made an effort over many months to build up public support for the war. His son also made a strong effort over several months to build support for the second Gulf War. The problem is that the reason for intervention his administration leaned on most heavily— Saddam's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction—was the one reason that was falsifiable. CHACE: Backing up a bit, remember what happened first under Bush II. He came in, like Clinton, not interested in foreign policy. DANNER: That's right. He argued for a "humble America," if you remember. CHACE Exactly. Both he and Clinton came in with domestic agendas. Bush's agenda was to lower taxes, and there was some lip service paid to education. For this reason, 9/11 was an incredible shock. It was the first time the continental United States had been attacked since the War of 1812, when the British burned Washington, and it had the same effect: we were shocked by our vulnerability. Especially given the disparity of military power. Even when Clinton cut the defense budget by about a third in the 1990s, we still had an enormous defense budget. And once we became involved in the Balkans, there were no more cuts. Then 9/11 happened and, despite its military prowess, America was vulnerable. Everything changed. DANNER: I agree that you can't understand current policy without appreciating the severe shock that 9/11 constituted. It laid the groundwork for an enormous increase in military spending, an enormous increase in the responsibilities of the United States worldwide, and a major change in how the U.S. government views its role in the world. For a decade—from the end of the Cold War to the beginning of the war on terror—the United States essentially lacked in its foreign policy the kind of ideological underpinning that had been provided by the Truman Doctrine for 50 years. In a sense, 9/11 gave policymakers what they'd been looking for—an ideology, a reason to act in the world. CHACE: You see again and again that the United States has to have this larger, moral view: to make the world safe for democracy, to, as Thomas Jefferson said, erect "an empire of liberty." While Jim Baker cited oil as one of the reasons we went into the first Gulf War, the president's defense of his actions at that time was almost wholly ideological. This was aggression; this was 1939 all over again. It was mobilizing America as a crusader. DANNER: If you look at the speeches of President Bush since 9/11, you see a methodical effort to set out a view of the world that is as clear and definitive as that set out by Harry Truman or Woodrow Wilson. For Bush, the world is divided in two—the good, civilized people and the terrorists, and you're either with them or with us. It's a Manichaean view of the world, which together with the notion of American exceptionalism—America as a city on the hill, separate, uncorrupted—has always been at the root of how Americans think of themselves. The Bush administration has done a very thorough job of creating and shaping that kind of ideology. The question is whether the ideological foundation will prove strong enough to support the military policies derived from it. In Afghanistan the initial response wasn't quite as ideological. It was "Al Qaeda is located in Afghanistan, and we've got to clean it out." We therefore got up a posse. And that seemed to be fairly successful in the sense that we toppled the government, which was supporting Al Qaeda, and we got Al Qaeda on the run. What probably should have been done was to get more troops in there for reconstruction and spend the money, time, and effort to rebuild Afghanistan so that the terrorists wouldn't return. We didn't do that. And that's when the reasons for American intervention in the Middle East began to change to a much broader, ideological response. Bush's explanation for Iraq—we're going to change the region, we're going to build a model democracy—almost exceeded what Woodrow Wilson said when he talked about making the world safe for democracy. As you say, after 9/11 they discovered an ideology that allowed them to act in this way. And I think they believe it. DANNER: Yes, I think they do believe it. Of course, we say they, as if this is one group of people who value the same things. This administration, despite its vaunted discipline, is more riven by rivalries and disagreements than most. From the beginning, a strain of the administration opposed nation building in Afghanistan. They think the military is there to fight wars, not accompany children to school, as they did in Bosnia. So it's a problem, after the U.S. military has fought the wars, when these places refuse to calm down. We're finding that the United States can be a military giant and a political dwarf; that is, the political tasks of reconstruction are much harder— consuming more time and resources—than the wars themselves. CHACE That's true, and there's another, deeper thing going on, which is neoimperialism. It has happened overtly under the second Bush administration, but the imperial structure was there already. The first great imperial thrust of the United States was at the turn of the last century with the belief that we should acquire territory beyond our continental boundaries for security purposes because we felt threatened. During the Cold War there was a kind of informal empire, what one scholar called "an empire by invitation." We didn't even come up with the idea of NATO—the British did. They were fearful that we wouldn't defend Europe and wanted to have an alliance in peacetime. Within a decade, there were bases all over the world. There was an enormous military, a navy that even today remains at least as large if not larger than it was during World War II. So the panoply of empire existed, but it wasn't perceived as an empire. I think this has changed. Once you go into the Middle East with the notion not just to clean out terrorists, but also to change a region of the world and imprint it with American values that will be a model for other Arab states, it is certainly . . . DANNER: . . . an imperialist mission. The interesting question is whether the United States has the will to carry it out. I think we're already seeing the mission being downsized. The difficulties being seen in Iraq, as we speak, may in the end weaken the influence and power of those neoconservatives in the administration who believe in the strongest sense that the region can be remade as a model for democracy in the Middle East. CHACE: Absolutely right, Mark. But if you have more terrorist attacks elsewhere, which I'm afraid is more rather than less likely, then the imperial spirit will expand. DANNER: It's interesting that when the United States responds to provocation by intervening on a large scale, it is, according to the ideology of bin Laden and Al Qaeda, fulfilling its role as colonizer of the Islamic world. To them, we're becoming more and more like their caricature of us as an imperial power. We are, essentially, painting their recruitment posters. That, of course, is no reason not to act, but it does mean that a dynamic is being established in which we respond strongly to provocation and do their political work for them. CHACE: The only way you can get out of this conundrum is to embrace a kind of internationalism that we have not promoted since the post—World War II period of NATO, the World Bank, and other organizations. Instead, you have the likelihood of the United States avoiding and perhaps destroying international institutions. There is the feeling that we have to act unilaterally in most cases. I've seen this in these discussions with the United Nations. We want help from other countries, and especially from the U.N., but we want help that is subject to American direction. Most countries— not just France—simply aren't willing to undergo that. ". . . the present struggle over internationalizing Iraq is really a struggle about much more than Iraq. It's about how the United States is going to deal with—make use of— its power in the world." DANNER: We think the advantage of acting this way is that we call the tune completely without exception, without authority, without having to compromise our plans. But there's also a great disadvantage, which is that we lose the cover of international legitimacy. This makes us politically vulnerable, and makes us assume that caricature of the imperial power. CHACE The other great powers, such as France, Germany, Russia, and China, want a multipolar world. But Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, not long ago said that multipolarity was dead. If it's dead, what then? The implication, of course, is unipolarity. In other words, your job is to work with us, follow along. DANNER: In the early and middle years of the Clinton administration and the last years of the first Bush administration, there was a quest for multipolarity. CHACE: The New World Order. DANNER: Yes. The New World Order, as sketched out by the first George Bush, was a vision for a strong United States acting under the cover of its alliances and the United Nations to enforce world order and international law on the world. It's interesting that we've seen the evolution, between the first George Bush and the second George Bush, of a new multilateralism to a new unilateralism. There was movement in that direction under Bill Clinton, but certainly the major change has occurred since 9/11. CHACE: People always bring up the Marshall Plan when they talk about remaking the Middle East. But General Marshall's view was that his plan had to be a uniquely European initiative. We would back it up, but they must decide what they wanted. His view of internationalism was: "How can we help you?" That's completely different from the tone coming out of Washington today. DANNER: Which makes the point that the present struggle over internationalizing Iraq is really a struggle about much more than Iraq. It's about how the United States is going to deal with—make use of—its power in the world.


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Mark Danner in conversation with author James Chace, published in Spring 2004 issue of the Bardian, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY

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