Politics & Policy

American Imperialism? Please

Obama’s decision to leave Iraq should deal a staggering blow to America’s critics.

And so it ends. The United States is leaving Iraq.

I’m solidly in the camp that sees this as a strategic blunder. Iraqi democracy is fragile, and Iran’s desire to undermine it is strong. Also, announcing our withdrawal is a weird way to respond to a foiled Iranian plot to commit an act of war in the U.S. capital. Obviously, I hope I’m wrong and President Obama’s not frittering away our enormous sacrifices in Iraq out of domestic political concerns and diplomatic ineptitude.

#ad# Still, there’s an upside. Obama’s decision to leave Iraq should deal a staggering blow to America’s critics at home and abroad.

After all, what kind of empire does this sort of thing?

Critics of U.S. foreign policy have long caterwauled about American “empire.” The term is used as an epithet by both the isolationist Left and Right, as a more coldly descriptive term by such mainstream thinkers as Niall Ferguson and Lawrence Kaplan, and with celebratory enthusiasm by some foreign-policy neoconservatives such as Max Boot.

The charge in recent times has centered on the Middle East, specifically Iraq.

The problem is, contemporary America isn’t an empire, at least not in any conventional or traditional sense.

Your typical empire invades countries to seize their resources, impose political control, and levy taxes. That was true of every empire from the ancient Romans to the Brits and the Soviets.

That was never the case with Iraq. For all the blood-for-oil nonsense, if America wanted Iraq’s oil it could have saved a lot of blood and simply bought it. Saddam Hussein would have been happy to cut a deal if we only lifted our sanctions. Indeed, the U.S. oil industry never lobbied for an invasion, but it did lobby for an end to sanctions. We never levied taxes in Iraq either. Indeed, we’re left holding the tab for the liberation.

And we most certainly are not in political control of Iraq. If we were, we wouldn’t have acquiesced to the Iraqi government’s desire for us to leave. Did Caesar ever cave to the popular will of Gaul?

Some partisans will undoubtedly say that the key difference is that Barack H. Obama, and not George W. Bush, is president.

But this lame objection leaves out the fact that Obama acceded to a timeline drafted by the Bush administration. Moreover, Obama has moved closer to Bush than anybody could have predicted.

Consider Libya. Obama pursued exactly the same policy goal — forcible regime change — that critics of the Iraq War routinely denounced as the heart of American imperialism. There are significant differences between the two adventures, to be sure, but at the conceptual level there’s little difference at all, and neither has much to do with imperialism.

More important, for the imperialism charge to mean anything it needs to describe something larger than mere partisan policy difference. If our imperialism can be turned off and on like a light switch with the mere change of parties, then how imperialistic could we have been in the first place?

The word “regime” has been defined down in recent years to mean nothing more than presidential administrations. “What we need now is not just a regime change in Saddam Hussein and Iraq, but we need a regime change in the United States,” Sen. John Kerry said in 2003.

Regime actually describes an entire system of government. And if the American regime is imperial only when Republicans are in power, then it’s not a serious claim, it’s just a convenient and partisan slander.

In many quarters of the Middle East, the War on Terror is cast as a religiously inspired front for crusader-imperialism. This nonsense overlooks the fact that America has gone to war to save Muslim lives more often than any modern Muslim country has. Under Democrats and Republicans we’ve fought to help Muslims in Somalia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya. We’ve sought the conversion of no one and — with the exception of Kuwait — we’ve never presented a bill. When asked to leave, we’ve done so.

To say we did these things simply for plunder and power is an insult to all Americans, particularly those who gave their lives in the process.

— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can reach him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2011, Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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