Benevolent Hegemony Goes Down the Tubes


U.S. or insurgent victory?

A quick neoconservative question: Do you want a U.S. victory in Iraq, or do you want the insurgents to win? Although this question is designed to separate Republicans from Democrats (libertarians and market anarchists don’t count), here’s a quick answer: Neither. Choosing American victory means American soldiers and other personnel staying in Iraq indefinitely without a realistic chance of victory (whatever that word now means). It means continuing a cluster of neoconservative ideas that add up to a failed theory: benevolent neocolonialist hegemony. This theory has completely miscarried.

U.S. victory now means trying to win the unwinnable and, in the process, losing more and more. American victory has been continually fading as an option almost from the instant the war began. Generals and politicians are finally beginning to acknowledge that fact publicly. The main question remaining for Washington now is how to withdraw with the least loss of face, prestige, and power, doing the least damage to its credibility.

U.S. or insurgent victory? Neither. Choosing one or another insurgent winner is impossible. A virulent civil war now rages in Iraq and there is little that Americans or anyone else can do about it. Many Iraqis want us out and some want us to remain. Some say that our presence prolongs the conflict, and others find it in their interests to keep us around supporting them. Americans are being pulled into the civil war, whether they like it or not.

Benevolent neocolonialist hegemony

Our leaders, who apparently did not know a Shiite from a Sunni, have made a fine mess of things. We do not know why America invaded Iraq in 2003. Our leaders have given us many reasons, and we suspect others that are hidden. I focus on one very important set of ideas that is still being voiced: benevolent neocolonialist hegemony. We know that before the invasion, neoconservatives argued that America was a superpower whose foreign policy should be benevolent American hegemony. According to this doctrine, America should spread democracy, even by force of arms if necessary. It should use its (super)power to remake the world in its image. We know that, right up until the present, Washington and Condoleezza Rice in particular looked upon Lebanon as another example of this doctrine. After 9/11, this doctrine was combined with the war on a tactic — terror. The idea became that spreading democracy was not only right (everyone wants freedom) but also practical (it would stop terrorism). And it was argued that preemptive war was a legitimate tool in the democracy-building neocolonialist toolkit.

On the ground in Iraq, benevolent neocolonialism has been thoroughly discredited. It will soon be found wanting in Washington and hopefully throughout America. Benevolent hegemony didn’t work in Iraq because it is impracticable. It is impossible for it to work, no matter how benevolent the U.S. tries to be or thinks its motives are! Benevolent colonialism is a contradiction in terms. A truly benevolent colonialist doesn’t enter a country in the first place. It doesn’t manipulate a country’s government or support dictators. If it has occupied a land, it quickly turns rule over to its inhabitants. But in these cases, what does a benevolent colonialist accomplish? It gains no colonial benefits and installs no friendly government. Benevolence has just as little place in international political affairs as it has in the operation of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. States are not churches.

When the U.S. takes over another country like Iraq, it has few palatable alternatives. The very acts of taking over and occupying a country pre-emptively are not benevolent. Every land usually has natives who are rebellious against an occupier’s rule. They create insurgencies unless they are suppressed. If America acts as a traditional empire and puts these insurgencies down, ruthlessly if necessary, then it is not acting benevolently. American occupiers have somehow to impose their will and rule if they attempt to create a democracy or a friendly state. Either America puts in a colonial governor with full ruling powers or it does not. If it has such a governor who uses his power to suppress and rule, which is hardly benevolent, this itself will generate insurgencies against American rule. If America imposes a vision, a form of government, and creates a bureaucracy and armed forces, then the conquered land has no real democracy. It has no real self-determination, and this is not benevolent. If America tries to be a neutral arbiter of competing local interests, it is inevitably drawn to one side or another, earning the enmity of the other sides. It loses its claim to benevolence. Under certain conditions, where the country has strong competing interests or tribes or religions, the ruler finds himself presiding over civil war.

If America tries to act as a benevolent occupying empire without an empire’s full range of often ruthless ruling alternatives, it ties its own hands and dooms itself to failure. If it tries simultaneously to occupy and not occupy a country, it will fail. Benevolent hegemony is a confused and contradictory (neoconservative) foreign policy that simply cannot occur. Hegemony means to dominate others, and domination of one country by the rulers of another can’t be benevolent.

The empire blunders – American style

In the past the American version of empire has been some form of economic, political, and military alliance and/or control by which the local satraps are tied to American interests. America attempts to gain its dominance with a minimum of its own military forces being interjected. Perhaps it supplies military and economic aid or technology to keep the local ruler such as a Shah or a Somoza in power. Perhaps it supplies World Bank or IMF loans. Even these milder forms of dominance can lead to insurgencies and trouble spots or even terrorism directed at America itself as when two Puerto Rican nationalists tried to kill President Truman. With American support and assistance, the locally supported dictators often suppress their populations ruthlessly. These policies can lead to obstreperous competing hegemonists like Iran, some of which are supported or urged on by other great powers. The empire’s policies lend credence in some quarters to Usama bin Ladens and suicide bombings striking against the new Rome and its Western allies. These enemies of America have long memories of occupations and invasions that we have forgotten or even know nothing about. They do not need the American empire in order to rekindle ancient enmities or imagine new ones. They can find plenty of grounds for terror in their own religious and political agendas. They commit their own crimes, but the American empire provides plenty of ammunition for their grievances and propaganda.

When the American empire resorts, as in Iraq, to its own armed forces and occupation, the chances of failure rise dramatically. The U.S. pulled out a win in the Philippine-American War, a stalemate in Korea, a loss in Vietnam, a loss in Cuba, a small win in Grenada, a loss in Somalia, and now another loss in Iraq. (No full scorecard here.) Some of these battles were very long, bloody, and expensive. Iran has become a loss, but America hasn’t given up yet. It still hopes to re-install a friendly government. The overall record when there is large-scale intervention is not encouraging. In the long tide of history, Iraq looks like a mistake made by an inept emperor. This emperor and his men (including Condi) have a new and faulty theory. If they continue to follow it, we will see more such mistakes. The empire will be severely weakened. It may collapse.

Empires often have used ruthless tactics to rule provinces. The alternative is to absorb them, lay down the empire’s laws, and provide peace so that the people can integrate into the empire and progress. Sometimes a combination of these methods subdues the conquered. Did American leaders know what they were doing in Iraq? Did they expect that Iraqis would behave like defeated Germans or Japanese? They haven’t. Did they expect that a new country would quickly arise from the old? It hasn’t. The Germans and Japanese were utterly defeated. The Iraqis were not. They faded into the population to fight another day. Saddam Hussein and a deck of cards were mostly tracked down. Many were not. Determined people who know how to hide and make bombs can defeat rulers on their home turf.

Rumsfeld doctrine fails

John Paul Vann thought that America could introduce Americans on the ground and win such conflicts with the right tactics and the right ways of dealing with populations, and maybe he was correct. Maybe rural pacification all but defeated the Viet Cong guerillas in Vietnam. Maybe the invasion of North Vietnamese regulars won for the North Vietnamese. But do Americans have the stomach and the patience for pacification tactics in Iraq and other distant lands? Are our armed forces trained and capable of doing these sorts of things? Is America consciously a new kind of democracy-building colonialist power? Is this what America is about? If so, it will have to instill a supportive ethic at home. This in fact is the American direction. America can’t be such a militaristic power without destroying its own calling card of freedom. Even the empire-building of the last 100 years through uniquely American means that combined Marines, CIA, World Bank, IMF, foreign aid, naval fleets, and local dictators is inconsistent with what America stands for. Such empire-building must ultimately unravel the pacific moral foundations of the country in favor of militarism.

Is on-the-ground pacification the kind of war that Rumsfeld envisaged? Far from it. His idea was and is to replace men on the ground with smart bombs and smart reconnaissance and intelligence. His aim was to avoid on-the-ground pacification. If he could have engineered a CIA-type removal of Saddam Hussein and replacement by a friendly ruler, he would have been overjoyed. His aim was empire-on-the cheap via shock and awe, a kind of surgical military operation followed by a clean American remaking of Iraq. His aim was to replicate the supposedly successful Afghanistan campaign in Iraq.

The Rumsfeld doctrine of war on the cheap has been discredited in Iraq. And little by little, Afghanistan is also reverting to form. It is amazing that our leaders believe that the governments of societies can be torn down and rebuilt like so many engines. They don’t seem to understand that benign internal politics are not often the rule. It is amazing that Rumsfeld is still holding office promoting the same ideas for war on Iran and Syria.

Choosing up sides

U.S. victory in Iraq or insurgent victory? Neoconservative columnists like to pose questions like this. Let’s ask them a few questions. Why pursue an impossible policy of benevolent neocolonialist hegemony? Doesn’t the U.S. engagement in Iraq reveal more clearly than ever that the U.S. is an empire? What right does it or any empire have to impose its will on another country? Don’t empires rely upon domination? And doesn’t such domination lead to insurgencies that they cannot control? Won’t the extension of American empire bankrupt America? What is a U.S. victory in Iraq? Where and who were all the insurgents before the U.S. invaded Iraq?

The Iraq War is not a football game in which there will be a winner after 60 minutes or so of play. Every move by one player creates new players all around. Every overtime leads to more overtimes. Even when one side is supposedly "defeated," the game goes on. The players fight to the death, and they make up new rules as they go along. The outcome of the Iraq game depends on the Lebanon game and the Iranian game. The outcome depends on the support of the cheering sections.

Like their policies, the neoconservative question is oversimplified. The hidden premise is that these are the only two logical choices. Where is the answer "none of the above"? Where are the third, fourth, and fifth choices?

First best is to settle the conflict peaceably, without victory by anyone. First best is for the common Iraqi people to win peace and for Americans at home to give up the idea and love of war. First best is for the soldiers from many countries to go back home where they came from. Second best is to withdraw from Iraq and leave Iraq to its warring factions. Sooner or later, they will reach a peace.


U.S. victory or insurgent victory? The President has said: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." He has said: "Either you’re with us or against us." The premise is that one or the other of these two choices is the right choice. Choose "us" because we are right. Choose the U.S. because its policies are right. Or choose the insurgents because their actions are right. Well, neither side is right. Benevolent neocolonialist hegemony is wrong both morally and as a practical matter. Whoever the insurgents are that are killing 100 people a day in Iraq, they too are dreadfully wrong.

President Bush is a Bible-reading man. He knows the words of Jesus in Luke 11:23: "He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth." The Biblical premise is that one or the other of these two choices is the right choice: God or Satan. Jesus laid down a far more meaningful choice than have either Bush or the neoconservatives.

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