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America's Dreams of Empire

January 26, 2003|Pervez Hoodbhoy | Pervez Hoodbhoy is professor of high-energy physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Street opinion in Pakistan, and probably in most Muslim countries, holds that Islam is the true target of America's new wars. The fanatical hordes spilling out of Pakistan's madrasas are certain that a modern-day Richard the Lion-Hearted will soon bear down upon them. Swords in hand, they pray to Allah to grant war and send a modern Saladin, who can miraculously dodge cruise missiles and hurl them back to their launchers.

Even moderate Muslims are worried. They see indicators of religious war in such things as the profiling of Muslims by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the placing of Muslim states on the U.S. register of rogues and the blanket approval given to Israeli bulldozers as they level Palestinian neighborhoods.

But Muslims elevate their importance in the American cosmography. The U.S. has aspirations far beyond subjugating inconsequential Muslim states: It seeks to remake the world according to its needs, preference and convenience. The war on Iraq is but the first step.

High ambition underlies today's American foreign policy, and its boosters are not just in Washington. Aggressive militarism has been openly endorsed by America's corporate and media establishment. Mainstream commentators in the U.S. press now argue that, given its awesome military might, American ambition has up to now been insufficient.

Max Boot, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Wall Street Journal editor, wrote in the Weekly Standard that "Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets." Washington Post editorial writer Sebastian Mallaby, writing in Foreign Affairs magazine, noted that the current world chaos may point to the need for an "imperialist revival," a return to the day when "orderly societies [imposed] their own institutions on disorderly ones." Atlantic Monthly correspondent Robert Kaplan, in his book "Warrior Politics," suggests that American policymakers should learn from the Greek, Roman and British empires. "Our future leaders could do worse," he writes, "than be praised for their ... ability to bring prosperity to distant parts of the world under America's soft imperial influence."

Although many Americans still cling to the belief that their country's new unilateralism is a reasonable outgrowth of "injured innocence," a natural response to terrorist acts, empire has actually been part of the American way of life for more than a century. The difference since Sept. 11 -- and it is a significant one -- is that, now that there is no other superpower to keep it in check, the U.S. no longer sees a need to battle for the hearts and minds of those it would dominate. In today's Washington, a U.S.-based diplomat recently confided to me, the United Nations has become a dirty term. International law is on the way to irrelevancy, except when it can be used to further U.S. goals.

So although extremists on all sides -- from Islamic warriors to Christian fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to the leaders of Israel's right-wing parties -- may yearn for another crusade, the counter-evidence to a civilizational war is much stronger. Examining the list of America's Muslim foes and friends over the years makes clear that it is perceived self-interest rather than ideology that has dictated its policy toward Muslim nations.

During the 1950s and 1960s, America's primary foes in the Muslim world were secular nationalist leaders, not religious fundamentalists. Mohammed Mossadeq of Iran, who opposed international oil companies grabbing at Iran's oil resources, was overthrown in a coup aided by the CIA. President Sukarno of Indonesia, accused of being a communist, was removed by U.S. intervention. Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt, who had Islamic fundamentalists like Sayyid Qutb publicly executed, fell afoul of the U.S. and Britain after the Suez crisis. On the other hand, until very recently, America's friends were the sheiks of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, who practiced highly conservative forms of Islam but were the darlings of Western oil companies.

In Afghanistan during the early 1980s, the United States aided Islamic fundamentalists on the principle that any opposition to the Soviet occupation was welcome. Then-CIA Director William Casey launched a massive covert operation after President Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 166, which explicitly stated that Soviet forces should be driven from Afghanistan "by all means available."

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