The Great Game returns, greater than ever

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Today, I include three pieces on the United States as empire and some random thoughts on the subject.

A question comes to mind: How new is all this anyway? Certainly, we’re acting in a way and on a global scale that is staggering; certainly, our imperial basing system has now penetrated areas, like the various ‘stans of Central Asia, that were out of bounds in the two-superpower world of the Cold War, but of course we’ve been fighting these small, colonial-style, lopsided wars with remarkable regularity in the post-Vietnam era. Each of them has had an explanation (or in the case of Iraq maybe ten of them) and, depending on who you are, any of those explanations — “humanitarian intervention,” “the war against terrorism,” bringing democracy and liberation (or even simply “regime change”) to some benighted land — may have made sense to you. But taken together they call out for a different set of questions, for a different framework.

In fact, most of them even taken individually, but in a larger context, call out for another way of looking at matters. For instance, let’s say for the sake of argument that we are indeed bringing democracy to Iraq, which I imagine the Iraqis might indeed appreciate. But, as Toronto Star columnist Haroon Siddiqui points out below, both before and after this war to bring democracy to Iraq the Bush administration has juggled bases and military allies in a great arc of lands stretching from Eastern Europe to Central Asia and “the singular feature of all those new allies is that they are weak states. Most are undemocratic, if not repressive.” (By the way, Paul Woodward of actually found the Siddiqui piece. He’s got a great eye. I urge you to visit his site.) So the American gift of democracy in Iraq, should it someday appear, will be part of a larger “gift” of support for a whole shelf full of undemocratic and repressive regimes.

I wouldn’t mind seeing someone revisit our wars of the last quarter century en masse from our invasion of the island of Grenada through our second Iraq War. For instance, one now forgotten but fascinating little war of ours (they’re never so little, of course, for the recipients) was our invasion of Panama, which in a sense might be considered our first Iraq war. Like Saddam, Noriega, the man who ruled Panama was a former “asset” and former ally of ours, who was repositioned as an evil-doer (though he was no more evil when we opposed him than when we supported him). Then, of course, young Bush’s father committed “regime change” (though without the term) by sending in the air force and having our troops invade Panama City.

Below, Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jay Bookman, one of the first mainstream opinion writers to suggest early in the prewar period that war in Iraq would be a matter of empire-building returns to the subject below to consider what kind of “half-hearted” empire we are — or rather how uninformed Americans really are about the imperial stakes their leaders are playing for. (And it’s true that I, too, will be curious to see where exactly the money, not to speak of the will, to “reconstruct” Iraq will ever come from, given an occupation which still doesn’t seem to have been able to restore minimal telephone service in Baghdad weeks after the war.)

The Bush administration may be half-hearted about its promises (and about what it cares to tell the American people about our imperial aims), but militarily, in terms of bases and control, it’s clearly been playing the “Great Game,” so familiar to British imperialists, for all it’s been worth. At least the Brits, however, thought they were playing in Central Asia against the Russians. But who are we shadow-boxing against? Could it be against the people, that “other superpower” of history (as Jonathan Schell and others including myself have suggested), who may have swept empires and tyrannies galore aside in recent history, but have yet to operate at a supra-national level? (This is what, by the way, made the pre-war global demonstrations, like the antiglobalism movement, so new and important.)

At the Foreign Policy in Focus website Conn Hallinan suggests that — as our government moves quietly into alliance with India — we may, at least in part, be shadowboxing against the country our neocons fear as the next superpower: China. This is an intriguing thought and fits with much right-wing writing and strategizing in the period before the September 11th attacks.

But I wonder as well whether the greatest imperial changes haven’t been taking place not abroad but at home — a subject on which far less of interest has been written. Sheldon Wolin has a piece, Inverted Totalitarianism, in the May 19th Nation magazine which is worth looking at, though as with a number of other pieces in this period, I find the comparisons to Nazism, however muted, simply to be over-the-top. They obscure what’s actually happening here and, given the Holocaust, unavoidably ring the wrong bells. But take a look for yourself because his warning about the changes in the American polity is worth heeding. Tom

Real American agenda now becoming clear
By Haroon Siddiqui
The Toronto Star
May 4, 2003

A superpower like the United States does not invade a pipsqueak power like Iraq – outside the framework of international law and against worldwide opposition – only for its publicly stated reasons, in this case, fighting terrorism, liberating Iraq and triggering a domino effect for the democratization of the Middle East.

The real American agenda is only now becoming clearer.

The conquest of Iraq is enabling a new Pax Americana that goes well beyond the much-discussed control of oil, as central as that is to the enterprise.

America is redrawing the military map of the region with amazing alacrity. It has pulled its bases out of Saudi Arabia and Turkey in favour of less-demanding hosts.

Its relations with Egypt have been placed on the back burner.

Haroon Siddiqui is the Star’s editorial page editor emeritus.

To read more Siddiqui click here

Now in open, ’empire’ talk unsettling
By Jay Bookman
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
May 8, 2003

The concept of America as world empire, so controversial as to be almost unsayable just a few months ago, is now close to conventional wisdom. The topic is featured regularly on the covers of national newsmagazines, is discussed in popular books and is celebrated on newspaper op-ed pages.

In fact, some of those who once shied from the word “empire,” even as they advocated policies to that effect, now embrace the label with varying degrees of fervor.

”We need to err on the side of being strong,” says Bill Kristol, the neoconservative editor of the Weekly Standard and chairman of the Project for a New American Century. ”And if people want to say we’re an imperial power, fine.”

To read more Bookman click here

U.S. and India–A Dangerous Alliance
By Conn Hallinan
Foreign Policy in Focus
May 6, 2003

In the wake of the Iraq War, growing tensions with Iran, and a possible confrontation with North Korea, it would be easy to miss the formation of yet another Washington think tank. But the freshly minted U.S.-India Institute for Strategic Policy is an organization to watch and one that may help reveal the next target of American power: containing China.

The Institute, closely aligned with the ultra-conservative Center for Security Policy, is the outcome of a series of quiet meetings and low-profile joint military operations between the U.S. and the government of prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, dominated by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

In May of last year Douglas Feith, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and one of the most hawkish members of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s inner circle, hosted a meeting of the U.S.-India Defense Policy Group to map out joint defense strategies for the two countries.

Conn Hallinan <[email protected]> is the provost at the University of California at Santa Cruz and a political analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus (online at

To read more Hallinan click here