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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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In Afghanistan, as I write, the Special Forces are said to be hunting Osama bin Laden and his followers. Let us hope they do not catch him, at least not alive. It would not be an edifying spectacle to see this scourge of the infidels--this holy warrior who rejects the Enlightenment and all its works--asserting a medley of constitutional rights in a U.S. courtroom, perhaps even in the federal courthouse located just a short walk from where the World Trade Center once stood. But whatever happens with bin Laden, it is clear we cannot leave the Taliban in power. It is a regime that can bring nothing but grief to its people, its neighbors, and the United States.

But when we oust the Taliban, what comes next? Will we repeat our mistake of a decade ago and leave? What if no responsible government immediately emerges? What if millions of Afghans are left starving? Someone would have to step in and help--and don't bet on the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees getting the job done. The United States, in cooperation with its allies, would be left with the responsibility to feed the hungry, tend the sick, and impose the rule of law. This is what we did for the defeated peoples of Germany, Italy, and Japan, and it is a service that we should extend to the oppressed people of Afghanistan as well. Unlike 19th-century European colonialists, we would not aim to impose our rule permanently. Instead, as in Western Germany, Italy, and Japan, occupation would be a temporary expedient to allow the people to get back on their feet until a responsible, humane, preferably democratic, government takes over.

Then there is Iraq. Saddam Hussein is a despised figure whose people rose up in rebellion in 1991 when given the opportunity to do so by American military victories. But the first Bush administration refused to go to Baghdad, and stood by as Saddam crushed the Shiite and Kurdish rebellions. As a shameful moment in U.S. history, the abandonment of these anti-Saddam rebels ranks right up there with our abandonment of the South Vietnamese in 1975. We now have an opportunity to rectify this historic mistake.

The debate about whether Saddam Hussein was implicated in the September 11 attacks misses the point. Who cares if Saddam was involved in this particular barbarity? He has been involved in so many barbarities over the years--from gassing the Kurds to raping the Kuwaitis--that he has already earned himself a death sentence a thousand times over. But it is not just a matter of justice to depose Saddam. It is a matter of self defense: He is currently working to acquire weapons of mass destruction that he or his confederates will unleash against America and our allies if given the chance.

Once Afghanistan has been dealt with, America should turn its attention to Iraq. It will probably not be possible to remove Saddam quickly without a U.S. invasion and occupation--though it will hardly require half a million men, since Saddam's army is much diminished since the Gulf War, and we will probably have plenty of help from Iraqis, once they trust that we intend to finish the job this time. Once we have deposed Saddam, we can impose an American-led, international regency in Baghdad, to go along with the one in Kabul. With American seriousness and credibility thus restored, we will enjoy fruitful cooperation from the region's many opportunists, who will show a newfound eagerness to be helpful in our larger task of rolling up the international terror network that threatens us.

OVER THE YEARS, AMERICA HAS EARNED opprobrium in the Arab world for its realpolitik backing of repressive dictators like Hosni Mubarak and the Saudi royal family. This could be the chance to right the scales, to establish the first Arab democracy, and to show the Arab people that America is as committed to freedom for them as we were for the people of Eastern Europe. To turn Iraq into a beacon of hope for the oppressed peoples of the Middle East: Now that would be a historic war aim.

Is this an ambitious agenda? Without a doubt. Does America have the resources to carry it out? Also without a doubt. Does America have the will? That is an open question. But who, on December 6, 1941, would have expected that in four years' time America would not only roll back German and Japanese aggression, but also occupy Tokyo and Berlin and impose liberal democracy where dictators had long held sway? And fewer American lives were lost on December 7, 1941, than on September 11, 2001.

"With respect to the nature of the regime in Afghanistan, that is not uppermost in our minds right now," Secretary of State Colin Powell recently said. If not uppermost, though, it certainly should be on our minds. Long before British and American armies had returned to the continent of Europe--even before America had entered the struggle against Germany and Japan--Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met on a battleship in the North Atlantic to plan the shape of the postwar world. The Atlantic Charter of August 14, 1941, pledged Britain and America to creating a liberal world order based on peace and national self-determination. The leaders of America, and of the West, should be making similar plans today.

Once they do, they will see that ambitious goals--such as "regime change"--are also the most realistic. Occupying Iraq and Afghanistan will hardly end the "war on terrorism," but it beats the alternatives. Killing bin Laden is important and necessary; but it is not enough. New bin Ladens could rise up to take his place. We must not only wipe out the vipers but also destroy their nest and do our best to prevent new nests from being built there again.

Max Boot, editorial features editor of the Wall Street Journal, is author of The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power, due out in spring 2002 from Basic Books.

October 15, 2001 - Volume 7, Number 5