The Magazine

The Case for American Empire

The most realistic response to terrorism is for America to embrace its imperial role.

Oct 15, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 05 • By MAX BOOT
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MANY HAVE SUGGESTED THAT THE September 11 attack on America was payback for U.S. imperialism. If only we had not gone around sticking our noses where they did not belong, perhaps we would not now be contemplating a crater in lower Manhattan. The solution is obvious: The United States must become a kinder, gentler nation, must eschew quixotic missions abroad, must become, in Pat Buchanan's phrase, "a republic, not an empire." In fact this analysis is exactly backward: The September 11 attack was a result of insufficient American involvement and ambition; the solution is to be more expansive in our goals and more assertive in their implementation.

It has been said, with the benefit of faulty hindsight, that America erred in providing the mujahedeen with weapons and training that some of them now turn against us. But this was amply justified by the exigencies of the Cold War. The real problem is that we pulled out of Afghanistan after 1989. In so doing, the George H.W. Bush administration was following a classic realpolitik policy. We had gotten involved in this distant nation to wage a proxy war against the Soviet Union. Once that larger war was over, we could safely pull out and let the Afghans resolve their own affairs. And if the consequence was the rise of the Taliban--homicidal mullahs driven by a hatred of modernity itself--so what? Who cares who rules this flyspeck in Central Asia? So said the wise elder statesmen. The "so what" question has now been answered definitively; the answer lies in the rubble of the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

We had better sense when it came to the Balkans, which could without much difficulty have turned into another Afghanistan. When Muslim Bosnians rose up against Serb oppression in the early 1990s, they received support from many of the same Islamic extremists who also backed the mujahedeen in Afghanistan. The Muslims of Bosnia are not particularly fundamentalist--after years of Communist rule, most are not all that religious--but they might have been seduced by the siren song of the mullahs if no one else had come to champion their cause. Luckily, someone else did. NATO and the United States intervened to stop the fighting in Bosnia, and later in Kosovo. Employing its leverage, the U.S. government pressured the Bosnian government into expelling the mujahedeen. Just last week, NATO and Bosnian police arrested four men in Sarajevo suspected of links to international terrorist groups. Some Albanian hotheads next tried to stir up trouble in Macedonia, but, following the dispatch of a NATO peacekeeping force, they have now been pressured to lay down their arms. U.S. imperialism--a liberal and humanitarian imperialism, to be sure, but imperialism all the same--appears to have paid off in the Balkans.

The problem is that, while the Clinton administration eventually did something right in the Balkans, elsewhere it was scandalously irresolute in the assertion of U.S. power. By cutting and running from Somalia after the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers, Bill Clinton fostered a widespread impression that we could be chased out of a country by anyone who managed to kill a few Americans. (Ronald Reagan did much the same thing by pulling out of Lebanon after the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks.) After the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, Clinton sent cruise missiles--not soldiers--to strike a symbolic blow against bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. Those attacks were indeed symbolic, though not in the way Clinton intended. They symbolized not U.S. determination but rather passivity in the face of terrorism. And this impression was reinforced by the failure of either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush to retaliate for the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000, most likely carried out by Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network. All these displays of weakness emboldened our enemies to commit greater and more outrageous acts of aggression, much as the failure of the West to contest Japan's occupation of Manchuria in the 1930s, or Mussolini's incursion into Abyssinia, encouraged the Axis powers toward more spectacular depravities.

The problem, in short, has not been excessive American assertiveness but rather insufficient assertiveness. The question is whether, having now been attacked, we will act as a great power should.