The Short-Lived American Empire

3 March 2003

The Short-Lived American Empire

By Gwynne Dyer

Just over two thousand years ago, when the Roman republic turned itself into an empire and extended the ‘pax romana’ over most of the known world — western Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, plus the great reservoir of barbarian tribes in eastern Europe and central Asia — Rome exercised direct control over about half the total population, and was able to tax them and raise troops from them. So the Roman empire lasted over four hundred years.

Many people in Washington now talk openly of turning the American republic into an imperial power that enforces a ‘pax americana’ around the planet, but the United States has only 4 percent of the planet’s population, and its people are equally averse to high taxes and US casualties. The demand for US troops and money will rapidly outrun the supply, so the American empire will last about twenty minutes — but it may be a hectic and painful twenty minutes.

The dream of American empire has attracted American

neo-conservatives for decades, but it gained a much broader following after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The only apparent constraint on US power had been removed, and the idea that the world will be a safer place if it is governed by multilateral organisations under the rule of law began to give way to the fantasy that the United States can and should make the world a safer place (particularly for American interests) by the unilateral exercise of its own immense power.

Official Washington was starting to oppose any new international rules that might act as a brake on the free exercise of US power even in Bill Clinton’s administration. It was Clinton, not George W. Bush, who fought an international ban on land mines and tried to sabotage the new International Criminal Court. President Bush’s cancellation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the US veto on new provisions for intrusive inspections under the Chemical Weapons Convention, and Washington’s more recent rejection of similar attempts to write some provisions for enforcement into the Biological Weapons Treaty simply follow in the same path.

As Boston University professor and retired US army officer Andrew Bacevich wrote in a recent edition of ‘The National Interest’, “In all of American public life, there is hardly a single prominent figure who finds fault with the notion of the United States remaining the world’s sole military superpower until the end of time.” This is called hubris, and it is generally followed by nemesis. That will probably arrive during the next phase of the fantasy: the wildly ambitious project to make the conquest of Iraq the cornerstone for a wholesale restructuring of the Arab world along American lines.

“America has made and kept this kind of commitment before, in the peace that followed a world war,” said Mr. Bush late last month, comparing the project with the rebuilding of German and Japan after 1945. “We will remain in Iraq as long as necessary.” You don’t know whether to laugh or cry, but tears are probably more appropriate, for that is where this is all going to end.

Iraq is no more like Germany than Saddam Hussein is like Adolf Hitler. Germany and Japan in 1945 were industrial states with strong national identities, several generations’ experience of democracy, homogeneous populations, and fully professional bureaucracies. Iraq is an artificial state of competing ethnic identities with no democratic tradition and a deeply politicised, totally corrupt state apparatus dominated by a single ethno-religious minority.

Never mind running the world or spreading democracy throughout the Middle East; merely occupying Iraq is likely to prove too heavy a burden for the US public to tolerate for very long. The Kurds in the north will try to keep the de facto independence they have enjoyed for the past ten years, and the Turkish army will move in to ensure that they don’t set up an independent Kurdistan that would act as a beacon for Turkey’s own huge Kurdish minority. The Iraqi Kurds will fight if the Turks invade, and America can either intervene in this no-win situation or leave the north of Iraq to another round of bloody fighting.

The Shia Arab majority of Iraq’s population, long excluded from power by the Sunni Arab minority, will also try to leave Iraq unless it gets the lion’s share of power in Baghdad. That won’t happen because the loyalties of Iraqi Shias lie with their co-religionists in Iran, and Washington will not allow a pro-Iranian government to emerge in Baghdad that would control Iraq’s oil and menace Saudi Arabia’s. So the US will end up running Iraq through the same Sunni Arab elite that Saddam Hussein’s Baath party draws most of its members from, and as a result Shia militants will soon be attacking American occupation forces in southern Iraq.

The Romans dealt with this sort of stuff all the time. In fact, they often had four or five situations like this going on in various parts of their empire at the same time. They just spent the money, put in the troops, took their casualties, and killed enough of the locals to make the rest keep quiet. But does anybody seriously think that the current generation of Americans is going to pay that sort of price for a world empire that nobody except a narrow Washington-based elite really wants? We are probably no more than two years away from a Somalia-style US withdrawal from Iraq.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“Official…path”; and “Iraq…minority”)