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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IT IS STRIKING--and no coincidence--that America now faces the prospect of military action in many of the same lands where generations of British colonial soldiers went on campaigns. Afghanistan, Sudan, Libya, Egypt, Arabia, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Palestine, Persia, the Northwest Frontier (Pakistan)--these are all places where, by the 19th century, ancient imperial authority, whether Ottoman, Mughal, or Safavid, was crumbling, and Western armies had to quell the resulting disorder. In Egypt, in 1882, Lieutenant General Sir Garnet Wolseley put down a nationalist revolt led by a forerunner of Nasser, Colonel Ahmed Arabi. In Sudan, in the 1880s, an early-day bin Laden who called himself the Mahdi (Messiah) rallied the Dervishes for a jihad to spread fundamentalist Islam to neighboring states. Mahdism was crushed by Sir Horatio Herbert Kitchener on the battlefield of Omdurman in 1898. Both Sudan and Egypt remained relatively quiet thereafter, until Britain finally pulled out after World War II.

In Afghanistan, the British suffered a serious setback in 1842 when their forces had to retreat from Kabul and were massacred--all but Dr. William Brydon, who staggered into Jalalabad to tell the terrible tale. This British failure has been much mentioned in recent weeks to support the proposition that the Afghans are invincible fighters. Less remembered is the sequel. An army under Major General George Pollock forced the Khyber Pass, recaptured Kabul, burned down the Great Bazaar to leave "some lasting mark of the just retribution of an outraged nation," and then marched back to India.

Thirty-six years later, in 1878, the British returned to Afghanistan. The highlight of the Second Afghan War was Lieutenant General Frederick Roberts's once-famous march from Kabul to Kandahar. Although the British were always badly outnumbered, they repeatedly bested larger Afghan armies. The British did not try to impose a colonial administration in Kabul, but Afghanistan became in effect a British protectorate with its foreign policy controlled by the raj. This arrangement lasted until the Third Afghan War in 1919, when Britain, bled dry by World War I, finally left the Afghans to their own devices.

Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets. Is imperialism a dusty relic of a long-gone era? Perhaps. But it's interesting to note that in the 1990s East Timor, Cambodia, Kosovo, and Bosnia all became wards of the international community (Cambodia only temporarily). This precedent could easily be extended, as suggested by David Rieff, into a formal system of United Nations mandates modeled on the mandatory territories sanctioned by the League of Nations in the 1920s. Following the defeat of the German and Ottoman empires, their colonial possessions were handed out to the Allied powers, in theory to prepare their inhabitants for eventual self-rule. (America was offered its own mandate over Armenia, the Dardanelles, and Constantinople, but the Senate rejected it along with the Treaty of Versailles.) This was supposed to be "for the good of the natives," a phrase that once made progressives snort in derision, but may be taken more seriously after the left's conversion (or, rather, reversion) in the 1990s to the cause of "humanitarian" interventions.

The mealy-mouthed modern euphemism is "nation-building," but "state building" is a better description. Building a national consciousness, while hardly impossible (the British turned a collection of princely states into modern India), is a long-term task. Building a working state administration is a more practical short-term objective that has been achieved by countless colonial regimes, including the United States in Haiti (1915-1933), the Dominican Republic (1916-1924), Cuba (1899-1902, 1906-1909), and the Philippines (1899-1935), to say nothing of the achievements of generals Lucius Clay in Germany and Douglas MacArthur in Japan.

Unilateral U.S. rule may no longer be an option today. But the United States can certainly lead an international occupation force under U.N. auspices, with the cooperation of some Muslim nations. This would be a huge improvement in any number of lands that support or shelter terrorists. For the sake of simplicity, let's consider two: Afghanistan and Iraq.