Politics & Policy

Imperial Musings

Michael Ignatieff misses the debate.

Back in 1999, both in Britain’s Prospect and World Policy Journal and elsewhere, David Rieff — who is best known for chronicling Bosnia’s destruction at the hands of rival chauvinisms — published a number of insightful essays on the subject of “liberal imperialism” — that is, the use of armed force by the great powers to establish and maintain order in failed states. For Rieff’s Left-leaning audience, this was a hard pill to swallow, and indeed, Rieff himself wrestled with the concept, recognizing both its limitations and its ironies. To the extent he embraced this brand of imperialism, with all its connotations of a mission civilatrice, he did so reluctantly. But embrace it he did. Rieff recognized that institutions don’t materialize out of thin air, and that American power is needed to realize liberal ideals. Rieff was, of course, neither the first nor the only person to note the resemblance between latter-day interventions and old-fashioned imperialism; but he was unusually successful at confronting the hard questions raised.

Last week, Michael Ignatieff, the acclaimed author and human-rights sage, wrote a piece on a similar theme, this time for the prestigious New York Times Magazine. Since 1999, Afghanistan has joined Sierra Leone, Kosovo, East Timor, and Cambodia as the latest in what is sure to be a long line of international protectorates — and Iraq may well be on the way. It would seem like a good moment to revisit the question of empire — except that a vigorous debate on the subject has been going on more or less continuously since 2001. Max Boot (my boss) and Sebastian Mallaby, among others, both have forthrightly endorsed imperialism. Like Rieff, both Boot and Mallaby call for the rich and powerful nations, led by America, to take up what was once known as “the white man’s burden” — to fulfill humanitarian obligations by building humane, decent governments where none exist. Several writers on the libertarian Right and the antiwar Left have, predictably enough, condemned this impulse as either utopian or menacing or both. Ignatieff chooses not to address the debate, instead offering what appears to be a series of impressionistic meditations.

In all fairness, Ignatieff has been engaged with the new imperialism from the frontlines; if anyone’s qualified to offer impressionistic meditations, he is. His book on the Kosovo campaign, Virtual War, is indispensable, as is the more-recent Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, a short, dense work on the meaning of human rights. Ignatieff gives public intellectuals a good name — which makes it all the more disappointing that Ignatieff’s musings on “American empire” in “The Burden” add nothing to our actual understanding of the subject. Instead, he merely uses bold and arresting language to sell a very old policy.

The article opens by describing the nature of the American empire, which “is not like empires of times past . . . It is an empire without a consciousness of itself as such, constantly shocked that its good intentions arouse resentment abroad.” The U.S. is, however, unmistakably an empire:

It is the only nation that polices the world through five global military commands; maintains more than a million men and women at arms on four continents; deploys carrier battle groups on watch in every ocean; guarantees the survival of countries from Israel to South Korea; drives the wheels of global trade and commerce; and fills the hearts and minds of an entire planet with its dreams and desires.

Others would refer to this as “global leadership,” a term dismissed by some as a euphemism for empire.

And yet, couldn’t we just as easily say that “empire” is a polemical euphemism for global leadership? When understood as “unilateral globalism” — a state of affairs in which one state, by virtue of its overwhelming power, provides a number of global public goods (foremost among them being the essential public good of security against predatory states) — global leadership is a concept embraced across the political spectrum, both in America and, in fits and starts, abroad.

Surely Ignatieff must have had something else in mind. What does “empire” tell us that “leadership” doesn’t? It tells us that in confronting Saddam’s Iraq, we’re embarking on a mammoth project — which seems plausible enough. Between the lines, “empire” tells us something else: that we must take America’s new direction in foreign policy very seriously. Leadership is a hardy perennial of postwar American politics — who doesn’t want to lead? “Empire,” on the other hand, has all kinds of hoary, highbrow associations. It is, as the title of Ignatieff’s article suggests, a burden, and one not to be taken lightly.

Armed with this new seriousness, Ignatieff gets to the heart of the matter. An imperial America must use its leverage to force a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. After all, that’s exactly what empires do: throw their weight around and rein in recalcitrant vassal states. Buried in the middle of the article is the following:

Properly understood, then, the operation in Iraq entails a commitment, so far unstated, to enforce a peace on the Palestinians and Israelis. Such a peace must, at a minimum, give the Palestinians a viable, contiguous state capable of providing land and employment for three million people. It must include a commitment to rebuild their shattered government infrastructure, possibly through a United Nations transitional administration, with U.N.-mandated peacekeepers to provide security for Israelis and Palestinians. This is an awesomely tall order, but if America cannot find the will to enforce this minimum of justice, neither it nor Israel will have any safety from terror. This remains true even if you accept that there are terrorists in the Arab world who will never be content unless Israel is driven into the sea. A successful American political strategy against terror depends on providing enough peace for both Israelis and Palestinians that extremists on either side begin to lose the support that keeps violence alive.

It’s déjà vu all over again. Ignatieff’s blueprint closely resembles a proposal put forth by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in 2002, and it happens to be what pro-Arafat Left-wingers have been advocating since long before Oslo. That Arafat’s murderous intentions have long since become entirely clear is ignored, as is the fact that “extremists on either side” are not equivalent, morally or otherwise. Thankfully, Ignatieff does concede that Israel’s refusal to negotiate under fire is justified, but this is — one assumes — only yet another reason to dictate terms.

Call it Left-wing unilateralism.

Reihan Salam is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.


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