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.

First known as Mesopotamia when it was cobbled together by a British civil servant from provinces of the Ottoman Empire and established as a Hashemite kingdom in 1921, Iraq has always been a composite state with deep internal divisions. Saddam’s regime—a Western-style secular dictatorship modeled on the Stalinist Soviet Union and National Socialist Germany—held Iraq together while inflicting severe repression on the Shia majority, the Kurds, and others. Overthrowing the regime emancipated these groups, and at the same time left the Iraqi state without power or legitimacy. American forces discovered they had destroyed a tyranny only to create a failed state.

The response of the Bush administration was to launch a program of “democratization,” but the belief that democracy will bring stability is a delusion. When democracy spreads into countries containing populations that are long and deeply divided, the result is commonly that the state fragments. Iraq is divided not only by historic ethnic-religious enmities but also by rival claims to its oil reserves. In these conditions liberal democracy is a utopian project. A kind of democracy may be established, but it will be democracy Iranian-style—an Islamist version of Rousseau’s illiberal dream.

Against this background a war over internal resources between the country’s antagonistic communities is practically unavoidable, and in fact the process of disintegration seems already to have begun. Fundamentalist groups appear to have secured control of sections of key institutions such as the police and security forces and some cities are under de facto rule by Islamist militias. In these circumstances building up Iraqi forces that could replace those of the US and the UK in containing the insurgency—which is the basis of the administration’s exit strategy—is impossible. Some critics of the administration see this situation as arising from an initial failure to deploy sufficient troops. Ralph Peters, a former army intelligence officer and well-known writer on strategic matters, blames “the apparatchiks of the Rumsfeld Pentagon,” who “refused to allocate sufficient forces to mount a convincing occupation throughout Iraq.”1 No doubt modish theories that understand warfare as an exercise in managerial efficiency contributed to the debacle. However, if America is facing strategic defeat in Iraq the reason is not that its forces there are insufficiently numerous. It is that their operations have never served any political goal that could be realized.

The most likely legacy of the war appears to be a balkanized Iraq and the enhanced power of radical Islam throughout the region, with Iran being the main beneficiary. This is hardly what might be expected of an imperial grand strategy designed to advance American interests, and Kaplan seems conscious of the discrepancy between his large claims for America’s imperial role and the chaotic blundering reality. Commenting on the assault on Fallujah, he writes: “To be sure, the decision to invest Al-Fallujah and then pull out just as victory was within reach demonstrated both the fecklessness and incoherence of the Bush administration.” It would be hard to fault his judgment of the administration. A rational foreign policy cannot be compounded from a mix of oil-driven realpolitik and millenarian faith in the transforming power of democracy.

Yet Kaplan’s view of America’s imperial mission is no less incoherent. He is a devoted reader of Joseph Conrad—he wrote an enthusiastic introduction to an edition of two of Conrad’s greatest novels—and shares Conrad’s insight into the fragility of imperial power.2 But he shows no sign of Conrad’s understanding of the inescapable shabbiness and cruelty of such power. For Kaplan, empire is a grand adventure and to shrink from it is petty-minded and craven. In the book’s prologue (titled “Injun Country”) he declares:

To be an American in the first decade of the twenty-first century was to be present at a grand and fleeting moment, a moment that even if it lasted for several more decades could constitute but a flicker among the long march of hegemons that had calmed broad swaths of the globe.

Writing in this vein, Kaplan is a Romantic elegist of an American imperium he suspects has already reached its prime. He eulogizes the simple piety and “unpretentious willingness to die” of his imperial grunts, castigates America’s “more prosperous classes” whom he sees as being “in the process of forging a global, cosmopolitan elite,” and berates the press and television for their sniping criticism of the military. It seems not to occur to him that if the press has reservations about the way military force is being currently used this may be because reporters are aware of the blowback it has produced throughout much of the world.

After all, it is not only journalists who have doubts about the way America’s armed might is being deployed. There seems to have been serious concern about the wisdom of launching the Iraq war in some of the major branches of American government, including the State Department, the CIA, and (not least) senior echelons of the uniformed military in the Pentagon. Predictably, public support for overseas involvements is falling and the American public mood is once again turning inward. The limits of American military power in dealing with an intractable world have become painfully evident, and it cannot be long before the demand for large-scale troop withdrawals becomes extremely hard to resist.

America’s political leadership has encouraged the belief that grandiose political goals can be realized through the use of streamlined forces in short, low-cost campaigns. In reality, while a strategy of “shock and awe” can destroy the armed forces of an enemy state, it cannot overcome the resistance of its population. Rupert Smith, the British general who commanded UN forces in Bosnia and served as NATO’s deputy allied commander in the Kosovo war, has argued that a new type of conflict waged “among the people” has to a large extent replaced the old-style industrial warfare of the last century. The key to success in this new form of warfare, he writes, is that military force must be used in the service of feasible political objectives.3

Kaplan also recognizes that old-style industrial warfare is in some measure obsolete, but seems blind to this political requirement. More than once he cites with apparent approval the view of a retired US Army general, who told him that “policing the world [means] producing a product and setting it loose.” However, if US forces are set loose without guidance they will not know what they are meant to be doing, or why. They may prevail in combat and inflict heavy casualties, but they will achieve nothing that is lasting aside from the enmity of the civilian population whose lives and cities are laid waste. Military operations conducted on this basis will be self-defeating, as in Iraq. Kaplan’s description of US forces as fighting in “Injun Country” is repugnant and absurd; but even if the analogy were legitimate it would fall short of capturing the folly of a “global war on terror” in which undirected force is deployed in the service of indeterminate or utopian political goals.


For Michael Mandelbaum the preeminent characteristic of the United States at the start of the twenty-first century is its power: “What the United States is, first and foremost, is powerful, far more powerful after the Cold War than any other country.” While he agrees with Kaplan that America has never been more powerful, Mandelbaum does not share Kaplan’s belief in an American imperium: “The American global role differs dramatically from—indeed is the opposite of—imperial rule,” he tells us, since “it is the United States that pays and the rest of the world that benefits without having to pay.” As the only power in a position to supply global public goods, such as the military forces used in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, the US, he writes, acts as the world’s government. He does not deny that America uses its power in its own national interests, but seems to see no possibility of conflict between these interests and those of other countries. For Mandelbaum America

is not the lion of the international system, terrorizing and preying on smaller, weaker animals in order to survive itself. It is, rather, the elephant, which supports a wide variety of other creatures—smaller mammals, birds, and insects—by generating nourishment for them as it goes about the business of feeding itself.

The Case for Goliath is an eloquent statement of the vital role of America in twenty-first-century global security. Yet the picture it presents of America’s unchallenged hegemony passes over some awkward facts. Unlike Britain in the nineteenth century, which was the world’s largest exporter of capital, the United States is the world’s largest debtor. In effect America’s military adventures are paid for with borrowed money—notably that lent by China, whose purchases of American government debt have become crucial in underpinning the US economy. This dependency on China cannot easily be squared with the idea that the US is acting as the world’s unpaid global enforcer. It is America’s foreign creditors who fund this role, and if they come to perceive US foreign policy as dangerously threatening or irrational they are in a position to raise its costs to the point where they become prohibitive. As Emmanuel Todd, the French analyst who, in 1975, forecast the impending Soviet collapse, has noted:

The United States is unable to live on its own economic activity and must be subsidized to maintain its current level of consumption—at present cruising speed that subsidy amounts to 1.4 billion dollars a day (as of April 2003). If its behavior continues to be disruptive, it is America that ought to fear an embargo.4

Given that it would also harm America’s creditors the likelihood of such an embargo may be remote, but it is no longer unthinkable.

When the cold war ended there were some who expected that versions of fin-de-siècle America would be replicated across the globe and an era of global tranquillity would ensue. Mandelbaum has no such illusions, but like many others he imagines that the fall of communism enhanced American power, not realizing that its actual effect has been to reduce it. The cold war was not the kind of competition that could have a winner. It could have only one loser—the USSR, with its enormous military-industrial rustbelt, stagnant economy, and devastated environment. The true beneficiary is not America but Asia. The Soviet collapse quickened the pace of globalization, which is enabling China and India to become great powers whose interests may conflict with those of the United States. The era of Western primacy is coming to a close. It is this fact more than any other that precludes the formation of an American Empire and rules out any prospect of the United States being accepted as a de facto world government.

If American power has limits Mandelbaum fails to recognize, it also has an imperial dimension he denies. Mandelbaum represents the Iraq war as a justifiable response to the prospect of Saddam’s developing weapons of mass destruction, and criticizes the Bush administration for not making clear that this was a preventive war rather than one based on reliable information that Saddam already possessed such weapons. However, a different casus belli would not have enabled US forces to quell the anarchy of post-Saddam Iraq. After the initial, highly successful military campaign, the country would still be ungovernable and US forces would still face an uncontrollable insurgency just as is the case today. Above all, American-backed regime change would still be widely perceived—in Iraq and throughout the region and much of the world—as illegitimate.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq may not have produced anything resembling a colonial administration, but it has allowed the expropriation of the country’s oil reserves. There are many in Iraq and elsewhere who see regime change as a pretext for securing American control over Iraq’s natural resources, and while this may be an oversimplified view it identifies a crucial factor in American policies. America remains critically dependent on the depleting oil reserves of the Gulf at a time when demand is rising inexorably in China and India. Faced with this situation the US has reverted to classical geopolitics. Its forces are in central Asia, in such countries as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, to secure American interests in the current rerun of the Great Game in which it is in competition with other countries for the region’s energy resources. American forces serve the same strategy in the Gulf.

However, it is far from clear that this exercise in geopolitics can succeed. Because of the anarchy that prevails in much of the country, multinational companies are unable to operate in Iraq. Oil production has failed to reach the levels it achieved under Saddam, and if oil facilities elsewhere in the Gulf come under persistent attack it may not be possible to ensure their security. The underlying political reality in the region is pervasive hostility to American power. As a result of its oil dependency America has committed itself to a neoimperial strategy of military intervention that can only aggravate that enmity. It is doubtful whether the US has the capacity to sustain the indefinite period of war that could result, and more than doubtful that the task is worth attempting.

Toward the end of Imperial Grunts, Kaplan writes:

The American Empire of the early twenty-first century depended upon a tissue of intangibles that was threatened, rather than invigorated, by the naked use of power.

It is a sagacious observation, but the damage is already done. As a result of the Bush administration’s intervention in Iraq the dissolution of America’s global hegemony that is an integral part of the process of globalization has been accelerated, perhaps by a generation. The United States will continue to be pivotal, but it cannot expect its interests or its values to be accepted as paramount. We are moving into a world in which peace will depend on concerted action by several great powers. In these circumstances a revival of realist thinking is overdue. Global security is not served by launching messianic campaigns to export democracy. Nor is it advanced by pursuing a mirage of empire, which even now is melting away.


In the ‘Crucible of War’ February 23, 2006

  1. 1

    Ralph Peters, New Glory: Expanding America’s Global Supremacy (Penguin/Sentinel, 2005), p. 69.

  2. 2

    Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim and Nostromo (Random House, 1999).

  3. 3

    Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (London: Allen Lane, 2005).

  4. 4

    Emmmanuel Todd, After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order (Columbia University Press, 2003), p. 197.