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Ivan Eland: Three Strikes for Empire

Three Strikes for Empire

By Ivan Eland
March 28, 2005

Three seemingly unrelated recent events highlight the imperial nature of the Bush administration's foreign policy: U.S. F-16 sales to Pakistan, the creation of an office in the State Department to plan for future U.S military interventions in developing nations and the indefinite detention in Guantanamo prison of a German man held on the basis of secret evidence that even U.S. intelligence disputes.

Ever since his second inaugural address, President Bush and his surrogates have launched a grandiose campaign that claims to “democratize” the world. Of course, one of the glaring exceptions to the administration's rhetoric, demonstrating the cynical opportunism of the whole policy, is the U.S. coddling of the Pakistani dictator General Pervez Musharraf. During a period of increased post-9/11 U.S. support, Musharraf has actually made Pakistan less democratic. When Musharraf assumed the civilian presidency, he promised to abandon the post of chief of the Pakistani armed forces, but has failed to step down. Instead, he has tightened his grip on power in Pakistan, winked at and protected the world's worst nuclear smuggling ring emanating from his country, and conducted a half-hearted effort to round up Osama bin Laden and other top al Qaeda suspects, who are likely on Pakistani soil. The United States has decided to reward such unacceptable behavior with the sale of F-16 fighter jets.

Unfortunately, the end result in Pakistan could resemble that of the Shah's Iran in the late 1970s. Excessive weapons purchases from the United States, buttressing repressive policies by the Shah, caused sluggish economic growth and widespread anti-U.S. sentiment, leading to the overthrow of the Shah by radical Islamic forces. A similar outcome in Pakistan would be even worse, because the radical Islamists would control nuclear weapons.

But the U.S. sale of these sophisticated aircraft to a precarious third world autocrat may not be the worst of it. The nuclear-armed Pakistan is locked in a tense confrontation with India, another nuclear weapons state. In a post-Cold War world, if a nuclear war were to break out, it would most likely occur between these two states. Yet the Bush administration intends to sell aircraft that could improve Pakistan's ability to deliver its nuclear weapons. To soothe India's fears, the Bush administration has also pledged to sell aircraft and other military improvements to that nation. Selling arms to both sides in this tense and dangerous region is not only bad policy but a throwback to the empires of old, which played off regional rivals against each other.

To facilitate this imperial intrigue and smooth the rough edges of the U.S. imperial sword—discovered during the “recent unpleasantness” in Iraq—the Bush administration is setting up a new office in the State Department to manage future occupations of sovereign nations in the wake of U.S. military interventions. The creation of the office assumes the United States should invade and remake foreign societies in the U.S. image. How far we have come from the nation's founders' policy of staying out of other countries' business!

Also taken for granted is that the debacle in Iraq was merely caused by poor planning, which can be corrected by adding a new bureaucracy. Although planning was poor, the main reason for the mess in Iraq is imperial hubris. Popping the top off and then occupying a fractious developing society with no experience in individual liberty and attempting to convert it into a U.S.-style federation is a Herculean task, one that was unlikely to succeed from the beginning.

Finally, a seemingly unrelated development to the Bush administration's brand of modern day imperialism may have the most consequence: the indefinite detention of a German man, Murat Kurnaz, by a kangaroo U.S. military tribunal on the basis of flimsy secret evidence that he is a member of al Qaeda. Yet that evidence shows that U.S. intelligence and German law enforcement agencies had concluded that Kurnaz had no connections to al Qaeda or any other terrorist organization. So the U.S. government has known for two years that it was incarcerating an innocent man. The Kurnaz case reinforces a U.S. district judge's opinion that the military tribunals are illegal, unconstitutional, and unfairly prejudicial against those being held in prison.

Detaining people indefinitely without a jury trial, and instead using a military tribunal that allows secret evidence and no legal representation for the defendant, may be normal practice in authoritarian regimes (such as Pakistan) but should not be used in the “home of the free and the brave.” Empires throughout history have experienced “blowback,” and retaliatory terrorism is the unfortunate price the U.S. Empire will continue to pay for its unnecessary meddling in the affairs of other nations and peoples. When that terrorism comes back to bite the United States, the hysteria generated allows the U.S. government to institute Orwellian practices that are clearly unconstitutional. In the end, as in ancient Rome, the destruction of the republic in the course of maintaining the overseas realm is the most dire consequence of empire. Worse than using arms sales to play off opposing sides against one another in volatile conflicts and institutionalizing empire by creating large imperial bureaucracies is the slow erosion of the Founders' notion of republican government. Republic and empire don't mix.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute in Oakland, California, and author of the books The Empire Has No Clothes, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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