The high cost of building an empire on the cheap.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 18 2003 4:08 PM

How To Run an Empire

There's more to intervention than fighting wars.

During the 20th century, people concerned with American foreign policy often worried about how to keep the country's resources and commitments in balance. Every few years somebody would discern a looming crisis and call, in the name of prudence, for some kind of retrenchment. Now, during an era of American primacy, those debates seem almost quaint. The Bush administration inherited not a power deficit but a power surplus, and after the 9/11 attacks, it had both reason and domestic political backing to splurge on a variety of ambitious new foreign commitments. Today the United States finds itself with both extraordinary power and extraordinary responsibilities; what it lacks is the institutional capacity to apply the former to the latter.

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The current situation in Iraq brings the dilemma home acutely. Barely flexing its muscles, the United States has just won a brilliant military victory and toppled a reasonably powerful regional tyrant. It has also announced that it intends to transform the tyrant's benighted land into a showcase of freedom and prosperity—a goal so breathtakingly ambitious that most of the world doubts it can be achieved. And yet the same United States did little to stop the looting of hospitals, museums, and libraries in the conquered enemy capital; wants its troops to come home quickly; and only recently began pondering how to bring social, political, and economic order out of chaos.

Since the postwar problems in Iraq were entirely predictable, you'd think appropriate solutions for them would be waiting in the wings. But you'd be wrong. As in Afghanistan and the Balkans, postwar events in Iraq are being handled largely on the fly and far less smoothly than they could be because the U.S. government has yet to face its new global role squarely and plan for it appropriately.

Somewhat to their surprise, throughout the 1990s American policymakers found themselves intervening around the world—to preserve order, protect human rights, stop civil wars, and so forth. From Somalia and Haiti to Bosnia and Kosovo, the operations were controversial. They were undertaken reluctantly, in hopes that they could be finished quickly and cheaply. Responsibility was dumped onto the military, largely because nobody else had the resources or administrative capacity to do the job. The generals grumpily followed orders but treated the missions on an ad hoc basis, regarding them as annoying distractions from their "real" task of preparing for large-scale war. As one officer told a friend of mine, "I don't want to do these things. I don't want to get good at doing these things. The military is like a hooker: The better we are, the more people want to screw us."

After 9/11, the interventions increased in scale, but similar attitudes persisted. Despite the Bush administration's grandiose rhetoric, in practice, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, there has been a strong bias toward casting the American role in simple negative terms—beating up the enemy—as if the complex positive tasks of building a thriving new order afterward could and should be left for someone else. But just who that someone else is supposed to be, and how and why they should finish the job for us, has remained unclear.

This simply will not do. Bungling the peace in Afghanistan would be a tragedy; bungling the peace in Iraq would be a catastrophe. So unless the Bush administration changes its mind and decides to hand off responsibility to the United Nations and the rest of the international community, it will have to do much of the work of postwar nation-building itself. Interestingly, one result of going it alone might be to force the United States to finally develop the institutions required to run what is now a de facto empire (albeit one designed to be temporary and managed on behalf of the dominions rather than the metropolis).

Much has been made of the Rumsfeld Pentagon's determined and well-considered efforts to "transform" the war-fighting abilities of the U.S. armed forces, making them smarter, quicker, lighter, and more nimble. What has not been generally appreciated yet, however, is that it is now just as important to bulk up their other abilities as well—whether or not this fits the military's view of its appropriate duties. As Rachel Bronson of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote last fall, Washington needs to develop "a greater appreciation for the fact that intervention entails not simply war-fighting, but a continuum of force ranging from conventional warfare to local law enforcement." That means creating plenty of units in unsexy job categories such as civil affairs and military police—the sort of folk we could use to run Baghdad today. (If George Steinbrenner were in Rumsfeld's position, he might just buy or trade for the Italian Carabinieri.)

Taking interventions seriously would mean changes outside the Pentagon as well. As Andrew Bacevich of Boston University notes, "imperial governance is a politico-military function," so the State Department has to be a critical player in the game. That means the absurdly low funding of State should be increased, as should policy integration between State and Defense both at home and in the field. "The empire may need proconsuls," Bacevich says, "but it will need them to take a perspective that looks beyond military concerns." The foreign service will need to cultivate old-fashioned political officers who know their way around a country's hinterlands and people as well as its capital and elites. And the White House will have to get used to the lengthy, costly, and often thankless engagement with the world that nation-building necessarily involves.

The United States has been acquiring its 21st-century empire of liberty in a fit of absent-mindedness. Now it is time to acknowledge the responsibilities that come with it and do the job right.

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