After Iraq, What? Can the US Occupy and Police the Whole World?
I believe I’m as scared of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) as anyone. I’ve spent a good part of my life working to constructively respond to that fear. But these days I feel like a bit player in “Casablanca.” A famous scene in that film takes place in Rick’s Café, a bar, restaurant, and casino in Vichy controlled Casablanca in the 1940s. A Nazi major orders the local prefect of police – the inimitable Claude Rains – to close the café. When asked his grounds, by its owner, he responds "I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is taking place at this café."
Here are some background facts rarely mentioned in the debate in the US, but which strike people throughout most of the world as salient:
Now one could argue that hypocrisy is irrelevant. Why not eliminate one tyrant, one potential possessor of nuclear weapons? Surely one elimination is better than none.
Well, first let’s be honest about what an invasion means. We are not talking about Ari Fleischer’s happy "single bullet." This invasion means thousands more dead Iraqi civilians, further destruction of that already devastated country, destabilization of Iraq and likely the whole region, and no real expectation of democracy. (The history of US-sponsored regime change is not pretty—again, almost at random, consider Pinochet in Chile, the Shah in Iran, or Diem and Thieu in Vietnam—nor is it a history unknown to the rest of the world.)
But will this invasion lessen the threat of WMD? Well, there are two possibilities. Either Iraq has the ability to deliver a WMD or not. Say they do; then our invasion guarantees that they will use them, hardly a happy outcome. Say they don’t. Well then, if we kill Saddam along with the others who get in the way, he won’t build them. But what about all the other countries threatened by nukes, those possessed by the US and our allies? As long as the technology is available, and the threat from other countries is there, proliferation will happen. Will we invade and occupy all these countries? And what about all the non-governmental actors who want to buy from all the various suppliers (of which there are more every day), what about the further hate against the US generated by a war?
Can we occupy and police the whole world? That seems to be the goal of the undefined and unlimited "war on terror." Build an empire in the midst of WMD and hope to police it solidly enough to prevent catastrophe to ourselves.
Just after the scene I described from “Casablanca,” one of Rick’s employees hurries out of the Casino and says to Claude Rains, "Captain, you forgot your winnings," whereupon he pockets a wad of money sheepishly. Forget morality and law. Let’s just ask what is going to happen to us as we invade country after country. The rest of the world has no trouble noticing who plays the role of Capt. Renault. Who receives the handout; who is the collaborateur? To the rest of the world it is ordinary Americans with our cheap gas for our SUVs, our McDonalds and Starbucks, our sweatshop produced clothing, and the tax checks that we send off to imperial Washington once a year like obedient little subjects.
Are we going to be able to police a whole world driven to hate and desperation? Can we change regimes fast enough, kill enough struggling people, root out enough criminals, give away enough civil liberties, to protect ourselves from a descent into violence and chaos at the hands of last month’s ally with last month’s weapons shipment?
This has been the strategy of Israel through 35 years of occupation. Ignore international law, human rights and justice, but surround, attack, protect. And even that tiny country with one of the most powerful militaries in the world has failed utterly to protect its citizens. If Israel cannot defend itself from attack by the desperate and the hopeless, how will the US? There are ten million terrorist targets in the US. It is absurd to think we can ring police around each one, bring security by surveilling everyone and everything, by searching every car, arresting every foreigner, attacking every country that gets out of line.
Some of you may not like the analogy with Israel. So consider another. After WWI, German society, and the German economy, were destroyed and exploited. In the end this led to Hitler. After WWII, another approach was tried, with rather better results. This suggests an alternative vision. In my vision to rid the world of WMD, we:
Is it hyperbole to call the US an empire?
Sounds like an empire to me.
My friends, life in the time of empire demands stark choices. Not merely stark moral choices, though moral choices there are. But stark pragmatic ones as well.
I say this because our choice is not between empire and anti-imperialism. Not really. This empire is already falling. It is overextended, economically fragile, and most importantly, has lost all legitimacy in the eyes of the people it would rule. Empires never survive when people stop believing. And it is not only the rest of the world, but the US which is cynical. How many people really believe our government seeks justice, speaks to us honestly? How many believe we would care about the Iraqi Kurds if they lived in Turkey, or just a random country without oil?
No, our historical choice is between methods of imperial disintegration.
On the one hand, we have the movement for peace and justice that is sweeping the world. The struggling, fragile, error-prone movement of people working for economic democracy, environmental sanity, anti-militarism, feminism, human rights. This movement is learning, learning from itself as it brings together people from all over the world with diverse expertise, finding its voice, studying its history, struggling with the usual difficulties that come with real democracy and broad inclusiveness. It is a movement that stands on the shoulders of Philippine liberation, Timorese independence, South African freedom, Seattle, Quebec City, Genoa, Papua New Guinea, Porto Allegre, Durban, a movement that sees the ties of solidarity between Johannesburg and Nablus, Buenos Aires and Dili, Bolivia and Tibet, DC school children facing a 30% budget cut and victims of the US military.
That movement represents one post-imperial vision. Sept. 11 represents the other.
A person with something to live for, and control of her own life, does not choose to die solely to kill another. A person with nothing to live for, greeted with arrogant and brutal domination, may do almost anything.
If there was a hope of this empire standing, I would nonetheless devote my life to struggling against it. Empires are wrong.
But I do not believe there is such hope. For those who look, as Hunter Thompson said, "with the right kind of eyes," the decay is already apparent. One way or another, US arrogance and domination will end, as surely as did the thousand-year reich, the British empire, and eternal Rome. It can end in a long darkness, brought on by the likes of Al Qaeda, Aryan Nations, nameless snipers, and the parents of millions of children killed each year by the daily operation of a ginding economic and military system, or it can end in a new birth of democracy, economic justice, and solidarity as people stand together and demand an end to war and empire. Demand control of their lives, meaningful work, social services, demand peace, demand justice!
These are our choices. Pray
no, don’t just pray, go out and WORK LIKE HELL to see to it that we choose wisely.
Mark Lance is an associate professor at Georgetown University. His areas of specialization include Philosophy of Language, Philosophy of Logic, Epistemology and Feminist Epistemology, and Wittgenstein. Outside of philosophy, Prof. Lance is an activist and an organizer, the former director of and current professor in the Program of Justice and Peace at Georgetown University, and co-editor of Peace and Change.
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This story was published on April 4, 2003.