Arrogance of Empire

Most of the commentators, analysts, journalists and establishment talking heads have professed to be astounded this week that Ariel Sharon didn't snap to immediately when President Bush, over the weekend, suggested that Israel should withdraw its forces from the West Bank "without delay." The phenomenon says more about the naivetй of most observers and the imperial mindset of the talking heads – and, I'm afraid, a good deal of the American public – than it does about the situation on the ground.

For all the complex ties of history, sympathy and aid that exist, Israel is a separate nation, not a province of the United States. Whether or not you approve of the notion of independent, sovereign nation-states – and I'm inclined to be critical of the concept and to hope the era of the nation-state that began to flower with a vengeance in the 16th century is drawing to a close – that is the current reigning myth of international relations.

The only way it would be likely that a President of the United States could simply issue orders to another national leader would be if he were the Emperor of the World. To be sure, the United States is the dominant power in a largely unipolar world, accounting for roughly 40 percent of all the "defense" spending in the world. But for all that the president is still not quite in a position to bark orders and expect the leaders of other countries to snap to.


In short, the president hasn't quite achieved the level of the Leonardo di Caprio character in the movie "Titanic," who fantasized on the prow of the vessel that he was King of the World. He may sometimes wish he were, and plenty of neocons fantasize (fanaticize?) in their wet dreams that he should be.

What's interesting and a little dismaying is that so many Americans seem to assume almost without reflection that the proper and legitimate role of the United States really should be to jump in and settle every feud that might peripherally affect the interests of a few businessmen and cable news channels. Prior to the decision to send the ever-peripatetic Colin Powell to the region, the main criticism the administration got was to the effect that it wasn't doing enough to bring peace to the Middle East. And this wasn't just from the talking heads but from viewer and listener call-ins and e-mails.

I didn't monitor all the networks and cable channels – besides being physically impossible it would be just too depressing to try – but I didn't hear any alternative view presented, with the possible exception of Pat Buchanan. Despite some disagreements I've had with him over the years I bless Pat for his willingness to use his notoriety to speak out on issues of U.S. intervention. But he isn't the only spokesman for the viewpoint and perhaps not the best spokesman.


I'm inclined to be ever the optimist, but for the first time in a while I'm wondering whether the American people have finally signed on to the imperialist agenda. I've long been convinced that most Americans, unlike many of their political leaders, have no desire for their country to run a global empire, but would rather it concentrate on defense and the occasional retaliation against attackers and imminent threats.

Lately, however, the inclination to intervene seems to have become more widespread. Ordinary Americans beyond the Beltway seem almost eager to have US military and diplomatic power be exercised wherever the media spotlights a problem or even a potential problem. The impulse is often simplistic, operating on the assumption that the Americans can go in, kick a little butt and straighten things out, whereas the more sophisticated Beltway types understand they're talking about semi-permanent garrisons in numerous overseas outposts. But if my impressionistic soundings are correct, it's there among ordinary American more than in the past, which I find somewhat dismaying.

One of the reasons, of course, is that the "mainstream" communications organs, network and cable, hardly ever bring on intelligent non-interventionists to argue the case. I work for a large general-circulation newspaper which expresses skepticism about intervention regularly, in editorials and columns. We get more approval than disapproval from our readers (which is not to say we don't receive plenty of indignant criticism) and lots of calls and letters from readers who express gratitude that somebody with a printing press agrees with them. So healthy skepticism is out there.

But as long as the major media present only one side of the discussion – although it is true that some of their gung-ho interventionists will discuss complexities and warn that setting the world straight won't be as easy as some might hope – ordinary Americans will be less willing to express skepticism about imperial adventures. I don't know what the real sentiment out there is about interventionism in general – certainly Dubya's approval ratings for managing international conflict have continued to be remarkably high – but until more skeptics are heard and seen approval will appear to be somewhat higher than it probably is in reality. We have plenty of work ahead of us.


It is just possible that the current effort in the Middle East will yield a bit more realism both from the general public and from some of the commentariat. There, is after all, more remembered history for Americans here than in Afghanistan. A few commentators and more in the general public might adopt the sensible attitude that after 30 years that have included numerous intensive agreement-forcing episodes that the burden of proof rests with those who imagine the US can dictate or even jump-start a resolution.

Then will come not only the acknowledgment of difficulty and complexity, but the preferences of groups with heavy influence in American politics. The "Israeli Lobby" is not as powerful as once it was (and was never as utterly dominant as some imagine) but it still has clout. Those who tend to support Israel will be quick to remind American leaders that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon may well be mistaken in his determination to continue the military incursion, but he is the elected leader of Israel, accountable to Israeli voters, not US diplomats or the "world community."

But pro-Israel sentiment is far from universal, either in the policymaking elites or in the general public. The State Department has long been mildly Arabist and it seems possible that there will be tugging and pulling among policymakers as they move beyond pious formulas. I think Dubya is more pro-Israel than his father and most of his father's associates were, for example, but he could become exasperated. And the Muslim population in the United States is larger and more politically active than it was in previous crises. So even if the United States government decides to try even more actively to arrange a settlement, the domestic politics of such an arrangement will be more complex than many expect.


What the American people and their leaders need to consider now is the possibility, tragic as it might be, that contrary to the conventional wisdom intensified US efforts might actually make a resolution more difficult to achieve.

It might just happen that Colin Powell will beat the odds and find a way to bring about at least a temporary cease-fire. But there is little question that the US decision to step up direct involvement has created an incentive for both sides to try to achieve as much as possible – whether it's territory, dead enemies, demoralization, destruction of infrastructure, strengthening of resolve, whatever – before kindly Uncle Sam puts his foot down, indirectly leading to excesses.


The likelihood, of course, is that perceived gains will be transitory. Israeli leaders, for example, hope they are stamping out the ability to perform terrorist attacks, but at the same time they are almost certainly creating the seeds of future hostility and terrorist attacks. The Israeli Defense Forces (as well as the Palestinian Authority and the various terror groups in the region) are certainly open to valid criticism.

For example, the international humanitarian group based in France, Medecin sans Frontieres (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders, which has provided medical relief in 80 countries and has been remarkably even-handed about the politics of disasters it has tried to alleviate, is indignant about several incidents.

Last Saturday an MSF team trying to enter the village of Yatta was refused access for five hours before being able to help at a maternity clinic and transport two teenagers with broken legs to a hospital. MSF has faced an increasing number of obstructions from the IDF as it tries to treat civilian casualties created by both sides in the current conflict. Whether this interference is illegal under international law, as MSF maintains, might be an open question. But it doesn't do Israel's reputation any good.

If wishes were horses, my father used to say, then beggars would ride. We all may wish the United States could fix the Middle East. But at the very least the burden of proof is on those advocating intervention.

Alan Bock

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