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Country lacks key ingredient for prolonged imperial adventures: willing people

Posted: Thursday, May 08, 2003

WASHINGTON The word empire'' is being used more often these days to describe America's global role. With Saddam Hussein out of the way, President Bush wants to transform not only Iraq but neighboring countries as well.

Mop-up operations had barely begun in Iraq when pundits began asking: Who's next?''

That is not an unrealistic question to ask about a country that has worldwide interests, produces 22 percent of the world's wealth and dwarfs all other countries militarily.

But, as author and New York University professor Niall Ferguson sees it, the United States lacks at least one ingredient needed for prolonged imperial adventures: people to run them.

America's educational institutions excel at producing young men and women who are both academically and professionally very well trained,'' he says. It's just that the young elites have no desire to spend their lives running a screwed-up, sun-scorched sandpit like Iraq.''

Ferguson, writing in The New York Times Magazine, contrasts the American lack of stamina in far-flung ventures with Britain of a century ago, when its occupation of foreign lands was taken seriously. That often meant decades, and as Ferguson points out, Britons by the thousands eagerly signed up for duty on these civilizing missions'' in Iraq and elsewhere.

When the British left Iraq after 40 years, it was clear their mission had not been accomplished. Instead of an Iraqi Jefferson, it produced Saddam Hussein. Recalling the British experience, many analysts are skeptical about whether the United States can do any better in Iraq, especially given the American reputation for short-windedness.

The odds are not good,'' says Paul Kennedy of Yale University.

Inevitably, when the United States makes a military commitment, public discourse on withdrawal scenarios begins. Indeed, the day after a Baghdad statue of Saddam was pulled down last month, Bush promised in a message to the Iraqi people that American forces will depart following the installation of a peaceful and representative government.''

Two weeks later, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld responded incredulously when he was asked by al-Jazeera television whether the United States was empire building'' in Iraq.

We don't seek empires,'' he replied. We're not imperialistic. We never have been.''

Rumsfeld has a point. The United States occupied Germany and Japan after World War II and left behind democracies that to this day are vibrant, prosperous and peaceful. When Panama and the Philippines wearied of the American military presence in their countries, U.S. forces packed up and left.

Compare this with the Soviet Union, which insisted on knee-jerk obedience from allies in East Europe and elsewhere. Soviet troops spent decades in several of these countries, leaving only with communism's collapse in the late 1980s.

Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations has his own definition of imperialism'' and says the United States has practiced it for two centuries, generally with favorable results.

Shameful episodes aside, including treatment of American Indians, U.S. imperialism has been the greatest force for good in the world during the past century,'' says Boot, writing in USA Today.

It has defeated the monstrous evils of communism and Naziism and lesser evils such as the Taliban and Serbian ethnic cleansing. Along the way, it has helped spread liberal institutions to countries as diverse as South Korea and Panama.''

In Iraq, the administration faces a tough call. A brief U.S presence would be welcomed, at least publicly, in many of the Muslim countries because it would mean the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty.

An early exit could be costly, however, if an unstable Iraq hostile to the United States should emerge.

Bush vows to stay the course. The transition from dictatorship to democracy will take time, but it is worth every effort,'' he says. Our coalition will stay until our work is done. And then we will leave and we will leave behind a free Iraq.''

George Gedda has covered foreign affairs for The Associated Press since 1968.



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