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The Mirage of Empire

In Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos (2002) Kaplan moved away from reportage and presented a forceful statement of a realist view of international relations. Peace is a precondition of civilized life; but without the ability to deploy force, he argued, peace is in jeopardy, and along with it civilization. In my view rightly, Kaplan and other realist thinkers believe this connection between peace and the possible use of force to be a permanent feature of human affairs. However, at this point the question is who, if anyone, possesses the ability to use force effectively in global conflicts? In Warrior Politics, Kaplan answered that only the United States possesses this ability. America must accept that history has given it an imperial role:

Despite our anti-imperial traditions, and despite the fact that imperialism is delegitimized in public discourse, an imperial reality already dominates our foreign policy.

Kaplan is not alone in arguing that America must embrace an imperial destiny. While they may not talk of empire, many neoconservative and some liberal commentators have presented a similar view of the US as the final guarantor of global security. Where Kaplan is distinctive is in claiming that America’s imperial mission follows from a realist analysis of contemporary international relations, and asking how the sections of the American military that have the task of implementing this mission perceive their role. In Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground, he reports on his travels to US military bases in every quarter of the globe. Kaplan enjoyed a degree of access to US military bases and personnel that is rare if not unique among contemporary journalists. The result has many weaknesses; but it is a consistently thought-provoking and vividly evocative book (the first of several he plans to write on the subject, he tells us) that challenges many preconceptions about the place of the military in American life and the world.

During Kaplan’s travels he talked with (and came ardently to admire) middle-ranking commissioned and noncommissioned officers charged with a variety of demanding and dangerous operations. He seems especially enamored of those he met in Special Forces, “small light and lethal units of soldiers and marines,” who are able to act with a speed and flexibility denied to “dinosauric, industrial age infantry divisions.” For Kaplan, the special commando component of the US Marine Corps (SOCOM) is now the core of the American military. Operating on the front line of the “war on terror” in many far-flung countries, these elite fighters remind Kaplan of the volunteer cavalry and dragoons that fought the highly mobile guerrilla forces of North American Indians who resisted westward expansion in the second half of the nineteenth century:

Just as the stirring poetry and novels of Rudyard Kipling celebrated the work of British imperialism in subduing the Pushtuns and Afridis of India’s Northwest Frontier, a Kipling contemporary, the American artist Frederic Remington, in his bronze sculptures and oil paintings, would do likewise for the conquest of the Wild West.

This reference to the Wild West is not an insignificant detail. It is central to Kaplan’s picture of American Empire. He writes: “‘Welcome to Injun Country’ was the refrain I heard from troops from Colombia to the Philippines, including Afghanistan and Iraq…. The War on Terrorism was really about taming the frontier.”

The suggestion that there is an analogy between the American Indian wars and the global role of the United States today is striking, and so is the comparison between those wars and the construction of the British Raj. In each case the resemblance is tenuous or nonexistent. The British presence in India involved many savage conflicts such as those surrounding the Indian Mutiny—which posed a serious threat to British rule in the mid-nineteenth century—and the Raj was always tainted by racism. Even so, throughout most of the colonial period a few thousand British officers were able to rule the continent without the large-scale use of military force. The primary goal of the Raj was to exploit India’s resources, and so long as this process was uninterrupted the local population and its rulers were left largely to their own devices. In contrast, the goal of the American Indian wars was the expulsion of indigenous peoples from their lands, which in some cases resulted in the destruction of their way of life. Whether or not this can be described as genocide (as some have claimed) it was conquest of a different order from that imposed by the British on India.

The comparison between British imperialism and America’s role in the world is also wide of the mark. American bases span the globe, often serving goals similar in kind to those pursued by European colonial powers, but the US is nowhere engaged in colonial rule of the sort that Britain and other European powers established throughout much of the world. European imperialists made a long-term commitment to the territories they annexed. They spent large parts of their lives immersed in the cultures of the countries they had colonized, learning the languages and often forging enduring alliances with local rulers. As well as subjugating and exploiting their colonies they also ruled and lived in them. European imperialism involved many atrocities—in German Southwest Africa and the Belgian Congo large numbers died in conditions not far removed from slavery, and it was the British who began the use of air power against civilian populations in Afghanistan and Iraq in the Twenties, for example. Moreover, the views formed by European colonial elites of the countries they occupied were colored by a mix of racial prejudice and Orientalist myths. Nevertheless, the close familiarity of some of these colonial rulers with the languages, histories, and ruling classes of the colonies made possible a degree of political control over them that went far beyond anything that could be achieved by military force alone.

The truth is that America lacks most of the attributes that make an imperial power. It has a large number of countries over which it has varying degrees of influence—sometimes exercised by the threat of force, more often though a mix of economic sanctions and inducements. It does not govern any of these countries and it has little political control over them. Observing that “the American Empire emerged finally as more implicit than explicit,” Kaplan notes that “America’s imperium was without colonies” and goes on to compare it with the Roman and Persian empires.

However, America’s relations with most of the countries in which it stations troops are not long-term relationships of the kind cultivated by the Romans and the Persians. America’s presence is conditional on the shifting pattern of American interests and the contingencies of American politics. When any American overseas military involvement becomes too costly or unpopular it is likely to be abruptly terminated. As a result of this fact, which is taken as axiomatic in both Washington and the countries concerned, long-term alliances with local ruling classes of the kind that enabled empires to endure for centuries in the past are seldom possible.


The lack of any long-term commitment to the countries in which the US has military bases is mirrored in the military. A feature of Kaplan’s account of America’s “imperial grunts” is his celebration of their unabashed American nationalism. He writes approvingly: “The American troops I met saw themselves belonging to one country and one society only: that of the United States.” It does not seem to occur to Kaplan that this fact might in any way interfere with the imperial mission on which he believes the US to have embarked. Yet the two are at odds at crucial points. The fervent, inward-looking nationalism he identifies and celebrates in the US military does not encourage any sustained interest in other societies. Kaplan writes of US forces in Afghanistan: “With few exceptions, even the counterintelligence officers I met barely spoke the language.” In a “global war on terror,” which relies on good intelligence, a lack of linguistic skills must count as a serious disability.

Kaplan thinks this defect can be remedied by better recruitment and training, but it is of a piece with attitudes and policies that are ingrained in the US military. Consider the doctrine of “force protection,” which makes minimizing American casualties an overriding objective. Against the background of American losses in Vietnam and Somalia this may be an understandable policy, but the effect in countries where US forces are engaged in counterinsurgency warfare is that the population as a whole is perceived as potentially hostile. As may be seen in Iraq, this can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There is a larger difference between the role of the American military today and that of European armed forces in the colonial era. European imperialism was an exercise in state-building, and the military forces of the colonial powers usually worked within guidelines framed with the aim of advancing long-term political objectives. In contrast, US forces view themselves and are seen by others as transients and they often act without well-defined political goals. Kaplan reports a National Guardsman in Afghanistan describing his tour of duty: “You get to see places tourists never do. We’re like tourists with guns.” The assumption is that US forces are charged with a one-time mission, and once it is completed they can move on or return home.

But containing terrorism—which is supposed to be at the core of America’s global military deployment today—requires political and economic initiatives implemented over long periods as well as an ongoing military engagement. The intervention that was mounted by the US and its allies in Afghanistan aimed to destroy the Taliban regime and in this it succeeded; but Taliban forces have since regrouped, and Kaplan’s elite “small light and lethal units” have succeeded only in harrying, not disabling, them. The difficulties faced by US forces in Iraq do not come from any lack of prowess or firepower. They come from the deep mistrust of much of the population and the condition of near anarchy that prevails in most of the country. Overcoming these obstacles—assuming such a thing to be feasible and necessary—requires a labor that extends over decades or generations. There are few countries today with the capacity to sustain such a commitment, and it is manifestly lacking in the United States where impatience with “nation-building” runs deep. Yet without some such continuing engagement there cannot be any kind of American Empire. How can there be imperialism, when there are no imperialists?

The problem is starkly illustrated in Iraq. It has become conventional wisdom that the Bush administration had no plan for the country in the aftermath of the invasion, and many of those who criticize the administration’s conduct of the war do so in the belief that better preparation would have enabled the policy of regime change to succeed. There can be no doubt that the war was launched without proper forethought, but it is questionable whether any degree of planning would have equipped American forces to cope with the anarchy of post-Saddam Iraq. While gross errors in policy such as the sudden disbanding of the Iraqi army by the chief American civilian administrator Paul Bremer contributed to the difficulties, the basic problem comes from the fragility of the state and the inability of American occupying forces to put anything enduring in its place.

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