Merriam Webster defines “imperialism” as : “the policy
We Americans don’t like to think of ourselves as imperialists, but given the foregoing definition, it would seem that we are. Of course, we do not seek territorial acquisition. We do what we do ”for the good of the world”. And therein lies the rub.
When we think of imperialism, we think of the classic Empires – British, Roman, Ottoman, Persian, Russian and on and on. Such empires went out and militarily conquered other areas of the world. No one can say that America did that. On the contrary, it is generally conceded that the American form of imperialism has been quite different, at least until Iraq.
American Imperialism began in the 1890’s in the aftermath of the Spanish-American war. It brought us the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico, all former Spanish possessions. Despite those territorial acquisitions, America added another page to the book begun by Christianity and Islam. Just like those great religions, in the 20th Century we based our imperialism on American exceptionalism - political, economic, and cultural power and influence, not on our military.
That has been the nature of American Imperialism. We are not like the conquering imperial armies and navies of the 19th Century and before. As a nation driven by American exceptionalism, we are convinced that since our system is the best, we are bound to share it, by force if necessary, with the rest of the world.
Our motivation is not so different from that which drove our predecessor imperialists. We need markets and we are concerned with challengers. We are convinced that If we were able to install our system in Iraq, for example, then liberal democracy would spread like wildfire in Islam and we would have nothing to fear from fundamentalist terrorists. Since Iraq is essentially immune to our unique economic, political and cultural form of imperialism, we had to go at them militarily, but the result is the same. Our plan was that, after having demolished the existing government and installed one of our choosing, we would get out.
However, the ideal scenario for us involves pure economic, political and cultural penetration, resulting in a slow metamorphosis to liberal democracy.
Either way, military or nonmilitary, the world, particularly the Islamic world where our dreamers thought they would succeed, has not show much willingness to bend to our will. Even if that were not the case, there is another critical issue. Does America have the goods to be successful imperialist power?
Liberal democracies don’t make good imperialists. In America today, we have the built-in possibility of extreme, electoral political change every two years. Radical policies, like the invasion of Iraq, can and do result in the architects of the policy getting booted out.
We have been sold counterterrorism as a long-term issue. The Bush Administration began the “War on Terror” and consistently referred to it as the “Long War”. They, as well as the Obama administration, saw this struggle in military terms, not realizing that military engagement with fundamentalist terrorism would lead inexorably to the unintended result of seeing counterterrorism morph into counterinsurgency and on into the export of democracy and nation building, all very long term issues.
We are an attention deficit nation, unable or unwilling to follow one issue for any reasonable amount of time. Imperialism demands a level of patience, focus and persistence that is alien to us. Even under the most perfect circumstances, we change our leadership every eight years or less, far too short a time to be successful imperialists who must see their world in centuries rather than decades.
Just about every nation with a terrorism problem has found that the best counterterrorism programs are police and intelligence driven and that a military response is self-defeating.
In our military response, we have repudiated John Winthrop’s message, later echoed by Presidents Kennedy and Reagan : “For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us”.
Instead of setting ourselves as a model for others to emulate, we decided to militarily export our economic, political and cultural models abroad. It began over a century ago with America trying to find new markets for investment and ended up with Iraq and Afghanistan.
American politicians need to read and learn from history.
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.