“That’s not the way we do things in America,” George Bush told an Arab world seething with anger about the photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. As usual, he was lying.
The abusers were indeed Americans, apparently guided broadly by Bush administration directives. The pictures may have been new and shocking in their details, but the practices, unfortunately, have a lengthy American pedigree, from Vietnam through the work of School of the Americas graduates in Latin America. Even some Bush supporters acknowledged that it is indeed the way things are done in America, but dismissed the prisoner abuse as “no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation” (Rush Limbaugh) or identified it with those who are “more outraged by the outrage than we are by the treatment” (Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe).
But with his denial Bush was not simply trying to distance himself and the country from political damage at home, in Iraq and throughout the world. He was reasserting the powerful and dangerous collective self-delusion that America is a uniquely privileged nation, set apart from history and embodying a divine mission. This deep-rooted sense of American exceptionalism that goes back to the Puritans underlies the justifications for the creation of a new, benign American empire. But Iraq already is showing the cracks in the empire’s foundation.
Politically, Bush must pretend that the abuses are the work of a few bad apples. The real problem is the rotten apple-barrel of American policy. Evidence mounts that American intelligence and military operatives mistreated, or tortured, prisoners not only in Abu Ghraib but in scattered sites under varied jurisdictions, from Guantanamo to Iraq to Afghanistan. As Seymour Hersh reported in the May 24 New Yorker, many of the abuses grew out of a “special access program” in Afghanistan set up at the instigation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to pursue “high value targets” of the war on terror that was then exported to Iraq as the war began going badly. The program rules, a former intelligence official told Hersh, were simple: “Grab whom you must. Do what you want.”
Bush did not directly authorize female soldiers to hold naked Iraqi prisoners on a leash, but he set the context for such abuse of power by framing America’s post-9/11 foreign policy as a battle of good versus evil and by refusing to allow international treaties or the United Nations to constrain U.S. actions. Bush was not the first American president to launch preemptive war. Reagan, after all, invaded Grenada. But Bush, armed with his national security doctrine, has gone further than any other in claiming an American right to attack preemptively and unilaterally any challenge to its power and to define American-style capitalism as the only acceptable model for nations everywhere. Using military force to pursue empire, however, America proves no exception to imperial patterns: power over others leads to abuse, especially as resistance to occupation grows.
Over the protests of liberals and conservatives who supported an internationalist foreign policy to thwart communism, critics on the left have for decades disparagingly described the United States as imperialist. But with the collapse of the Soviet bloc and especially since 9/11, some analysts — principally neo-conservatives but also varied liberals and traditional conservatives — began to argue that America is an imperial power by virtue of its military, economic and technological superiority. So, some argued, it should consciously act like an empire, guaranteeing order and protecting human rights, especially since the United Nations lacks power to function as an embryonic world government (thanks, partly, to U.S. policy).
In a twist on the traditional leftist claim that humanity faced a choice of socialism or barbarism, author David Rieff claimed in a 1999 World Policy Journal essay that “our choice at the millennium seems to boil down to imperialism or barbarism.” Apologists contend that America as an empire will once again be an exception, a disinterested force for freedom and human rights, ruling as much by “soft power” — the appeal of its culture — as by force. But political scientist James Chace argues that this messianic vision of American empire is rooted in a dangerous and impossible quest for absolute security that is linked to the vision of America as a unique “empire of liberty,” as Thomas Jefferson put it.
Europeans rationalized their empires as civilizing missions. Today the utopian rhetoric of American exceptionalism masks the primary intent of the United States to create, not actual colonies, but a global market subservient to transnational capital. Even in the late 19th Century, as historian William Appleman Williams has written, the United States denounced European colonialism as a ploy to open closed colonial markets to American goods. Americans’ messianic sense of their country as a “city on a hill” embodies both a hope for something better and a claim that America already is “number one” in all regards, even when it clearly is not — or when it garners dubious firsts. The United States, for example, is a world leader in economic inequality and percentage of its citizens in prisons.
American messianic utopianism also ignores history, a particularly treacherous pitfall in western Asia. Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi explains in his new book Resurrecting Empire that Britain and other European powers shaped the Middle East that exists today — drawing arbitrary boundaries in Iraq, undermining Arab movements that sought to develop European-style parliamentary democracy, and supporting undemocratic regimes (like the Saudis with their ties to fundamentalist Wahhabism, one root of Islamist terrorist ideology). Arab enthusiasm for the United States as an alternative to colonial powers was dashed as the United States began to indirectly share the imperial rule of the region, such as helping overthrow the elected Iranian government of Mohammed Mossadegh when it tried to nationalize oil production in the ’50s or increasingly favoring the most conservative Israeli policies over Palestinian interests. As a result, U.S. policies have ultimately, though not intentionally, nurtured the emergence of the Islamist terrorists that threaten the world. Now, with its occupation of Iraq, Khalidi writes, “the United States is wittingly or unwittingly stepping into the boots of earlier imperial powers,” something that “cannot possibly be ‘done right.’ ”
Once again imperial dictates provoke rebellion. Any goodwill won by ousting Saddam has disappeared as the United States has become more occupier, less liberator. That is the first crack in the imperial edifice. American popular opinion is turning against the war: it bears no resemblance to the fanciful promises, brings growing casualties, corrupts American soldiers and politicians, and costs more than $50 billion a year at the same time that health care, education and other needs of average Americans are being shortchanged. Throughout the world, the United States is losing moral stature and political support, making it harder to achieve legitimate goals, such as international cooperation against terrorists like Osama bin Laden or for multinational humanitarian campaigns.
The costs of the new imperialism ultimately are likely to prove too high for both dominated countries and for average Americans. Although some Bush strategists share the Leo Straussian view that leaders must lie to mobilize popular support, they are discovering that lies often backfire. The contradictions between America’s utopian image and the reality of empire will eventually become unsustainable. The United States, its power unrivaled, faces the prospect that its imperialism will become barbarism, not its alternative.
David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.