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An empire in denial

An author calls on the United States to drop the timidity in its imperial endeavors

Issue: "Lebanon: Democracy now," Feb. 26, 2005

Martin Luther reportedly said, "Sin boldly." I take it to mean that if you're going to sin anyhow, don't compound venality with self-deception; be fully aware of the choice you're making. I also glean a less morally problematic meaning-that in all actions, sinful or unsinful, one should plunge in with verve and wholeheartedness, abandoning timid half-measures, euphemism, and the disingenuous daintiness of denial.

Niall Ferguson has written a book that, if it weren't called Colossus: The Price of America's Empire, I would like to retitle "Sin Boldly." Not that the New York University professor of financial history thinks it's sin for the United States to be a "colossus." On the contrary. The point is that our country is in fact a colossus ("empire," "imperialist," "hegemon"-Mr. Ferguson likes all these words), but out of some unfortunate fashion of thinking is embarrassed to own up to it. As a result, we're underachievers.

Why pretend, Mr. Ferguson argues. Why not admit that there are "repulsive little dictatorships" and "basket case countries" out there that could do with a little imperialism! A liberal imperialism, to be sure, one that would benefit the ruled as well as the rulers. Isn't it a bit Pollyannaish to tout the salubrious flow of capital, goods, and labor without admitting that these can't really happen without the establishment of healthy national institutions like the rule of law (constitutions constraining arbitrary despots), property rights, independent monetary authorities, and transparent fiscal systems-all of which are needed to encourage foreign investment?

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If this sounds patronizing or arrogant, Mr. Ferguson doesn't care. He chronicles the woeful failures of Wilsonian self-determination at the sunset of colonialism. There were 29 sovereign states in 1920, 89 in 1950, and 192 by 1995. But the hunch that imperialism had been the cause of poverty proved false. Where democracies were supposed to bloom, the weeds of dictatorship sprang up, making life worse for people than under the old empires of Britain, Holland, Portugal, and Belgium. Loans and aid to poor nations to the tune of $1 trillion between 1950 and 1995 have been cash thrown down a rat hole where corrupt rulers rather than sound institutions have multiplied.

What about Iraq? The author opines, "The trouble with an empire in denial is that it tends to make two mistakes when it chooses to intervene in the affairs of lesser states. The first may be to allocate insufficient resources to the nonmilitary aspects of the project. The second, and the more serious, is to attempt economic and political transformation in an unrealistically short time frame. As I write, the United States would seem to be making the second of these mistakes in both Iraq and Afghanistan. By insisting . . . that they will remain in Iraq only until a democratic government can be established 'and not a day longer,' American spokespeople have unintentionally created a further disincentive for local people to cooperate with them. Who in these countries can feel confident that if he lends support to American initiatives, he will not lay himself open to the charge of collaboration as soon as the Americans go?"

Mr. Ferguson will be heartened by the State of the Union address. President Bush quotes an Iraqi's plea to a reporter, "Tell America not to abandon us." And swimming upstream against a current clamoring for swift withdrawal from postelection Iraq, he serves notice to petitioner and to critics alike: "We will not set an artificial timetable for leaving Iraq because that would embolden the terrorists and make them believe they can wait us out. We are in Iraq to achieve a result: a country that is democratic, representative of all its people, at peace with its neighbors, and able to defend itself. And when that result is achieved, our men and women serving in Iraq will return home with the honor they have earned."

Some will abhor this kind of talk, calling it swagger or, that dirty word, "imperialism." Mr. Ferguson, having no problem with terms like "imperialism" or "nation-building" -defined broadly as the benevolent influence of a powerful nation on other nations for mutual self-interest-will like that talk a lot. And then he will watch to see if resolve is matched by deeds. With the pack after him in his second term, the answer Mr. Ferguson wants to know is patent: Will the president "sin boldly"?

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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