The War in Context

   War with Iraq, the War on Terrorism, and the Middle East Conflict - in Critical Perspective
It's the empire, stupid!
Paul Woodward, The War in Context, February 22, 2003

The anti-war movement is on a roll! Millions marched in London and Rome, hundreds of thousands gathered (but were banned from marching) in New York, while countless other demonstrations large and small spanned the globe. For a movement opposing a war that hasn't even begun, these are heady times.

As the US and Britain now face major obstacles in the UN Security Council, the prospect that war might be averted seems tantalizingly close. Even so, the Bush administration is itching to stop talking and start fighting and we mustn't forget that this is an administration that pays far more attention to public relations than public opinion. The warmongering may be toned down for a few days, but we can expect it to come back in full force before very long.

While the anti-war movement is now showing its collective strength, this is the time to remember that the effectiveness of this movement will depend not only on strength in numbers but clarity of purpose and the ability to endure. War is just as imminent now as it was last week. The movement needs to reflect on its goals beyond the onset of war and not merely as war approaches.

In the United States, much of the opposition to a war against Iraq has been couched in terms that avoid facing the fear that now weighs heavily on the rest of the world. That fear is the fear of America's imperial ambitions.

In the aftermath of September 11, nations and individuals outside America who expressed sympathy for grieving families and a wounded nation were neither offering America a license for vengeance, nor inviting the imposition of America's own conception of global security. Neither were critics of American foreign policy implicitly supporting terrorism. But rather than countenance the need for debate in a time of crisis, the self-appointed defenders of American freedom cast a shadow over their critics by suggesting that dissent at such a time amounted to lying down with the enemy.

This taboo on dissent, while it has since diminished, has yet to be fully shaken off. Fearful that criticism of government will be labeled "unpatriotic" or "anti-American," the language of dissent inside America has frequently been tailored so that it minimizes any risk of offense. Thus it assumes sanitized forms through populist slogans such as "peace is patriotic" and "win without war." Rather than attempt a direct challenge against the full scope of US foreign policy, many critics of war seem to favor speed bumps rather than a roadblock down the path to war. Instead of an unqualified and emphatic "No," the appeal has frequently been a tepid, "Not yet!"

"Give the inspectors a chance," "respect the authority of the Security Council," "provide the evidence" - these are not appeals that can slow down, let alone halt an administration that draws no distinction between consensus and support.

Though the coming war is intended to increase the security of Israel and provide greater control over US oil supplies, it aims to advance a much larger purpose.

Many of the leading figures in the war lobby – Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Norman Podhoretz, Bill Kristol and Daniel Pipes – are frequently cited as Likud supporters, which they undoubtedly are, but it should not be forgotten that their allegiance lies first and foremost with America. After all, like so many other Americans whose affection for Israel falls short of the desire to live there, these particular Likudites, even while they espouse an identity of Israeli-American interests, experience Washington, not Jerusalem, as the center of their universe.

Along with the service of Israel's strategic ambitions, the Bush-Cheney oil interests also no doubt exercise a significant influence in the crafting of the administration's foreign policy.

Nevertheless, the over-arching vision, the vision that Deputy Defense Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, has been nurturing for more than a decade focuses above all on America's unique position as a global power. Wolfowitz's "Defense Policy Guidance" written in 1992 (and ten years later reborn as the Bush administration's National Security Strategy) asserted that the United States must "endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power." The challenge he had in mind then and the challenge that has not gone away comes from China.

As recently as August, 2001, Wolfowitz was describing China as a strategic threat to the United States. In its first few months in office, the Bush administration – both in its handling of the spy plane incident off the shores of China, along with expressing its willingness to use all possible means to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion – underlined its determination to hold this would-be superpower in check.

The neo-conservative perception of China as a threat has been commensurate with the pace of China's economic growth. That growth depends on oil.

For the past decade, China has been a net-importer of oil and by 2010 may depend on the Middle East for as much as 80% of its supply. Thus, as Sergei Troush, Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institute writes, "with such a heavy dependence on the Middle East for oil, U.S. strategic domination over the entire region, including the whole lane of sea communications from the strait of Hormuz, will be perceived as the primary vulnerability of China's energy supply. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the key objective of China's oil strategy will be to avoid this strategic vulnerability."

Thus, as much as control of the oil spigots of the Middle East might help satisfy America's addiction to gasoline, just as importantly it would provide America with the strategic power to further constrain China's emergence as a global superpower. What is being described as a pre-emptive attack against Iraq, may turn out eventually to have more to do with containing China than either grabbing oil, fighting terrorism, or destroying weapons of mass destruction.

No wonder then that the US moved so swiftly after 9-11 to expand military bases across Central Asia. American troops now based in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are in the long run much more valuable for containing China and securing newly developed oil supplies, than thwarting al-Qaeda. Moreover, that Pakistan could still be regarded as one of America's allies in the war on terrorism - even while al-Qaeda is establishing new bases inside its western provinces - says far more about Pakistan's strategic significance as a country that borders China, than it says about its role in thwarting global terrorism.

Containing China is, however, only one element in the grand design that aims to establish a New American Century. This vision of America's role as global leader is the brainchild of a group of individuals, many of whom (most notably Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, I. Lewis Libby, Elliot Abrams, and Zalmay Khalilzad) hold key positions in the current Bush administration. As expressed in their Statement of Principles published in 1997, their aim is "to make the case and rally support for American global leadership." To the end, they argue that America "must shape circumstances before crises emerge, and to meet threats before they become dire."

While they hesitate to label it as such, the advocates of a New American Century undoubtedly cherish an imperial vision that, as they see it, represents the fulfillment of America's destiny. That America might not be fulfilling a God-given role by extending its dominion across the globe is a notion foreign to Paul Wolfowitz and his fellow champions of American neo-imperialism. No doubt they are all truly, sincerely driven by the best of intentions. They are not simply conspiring to serve the narrow strategic influence of Israel or boost their personal fortunes. They see in American power and American culture the flowering of human destiny and have a missionary zeal to spread the good news.

Unfortunately, like most people who believe that they have been chosen as the instruments of destiny, they pay little attention to the wishes of the people whose lives they intend to influence. Apparently, whatever is good for America is good for the rest of the world. If the rest of the world thinks otherwise, that's their problem.

While America's duty to lead the world may appear to these neo-conservatives to be a responsibility that they accept (rather than a right yet to be conferred), they are forgetting the founding principle of democracy: the power to lead can only be granted by those who have offered their consent to be led. Yet the Bush administration shows scant regard for the need either to consult or be given consent by a world it does not hesitate to dominate, cajole, deride and patronize.

Since September 11, this administration with the cooperation of a compliant media, has effectively steered public debate in such a way that even as we stand on the brink of war, a mass movement clearly opposed to the administration's imperial designs (and not simply its intentions to start war) has yet to emerge. A movement whose goals shift with as much frequency as the policy statements of the administration, is a movement that ultimately lacks a cause. Now the movement is opposed to a war against Iraq. Last year it rallied briefly in defense of the Palestinians and before that it condemned the bombing of Afghanistan. Six months from now, if Saddam Hussein has been deposed, strife inside Iraq is sufficiently little that the media's attention falls back to its staples of scandal, crime, and the upcoming presidential primaries, what then will be the issue de jour around which the movement is supposed to again coalesce?

Clive Cook, writing in National Journal, says that "suspicion of imperialism seems to unite not only all varieties of critics, but also those same critics and the administration they are criticizing. The president and his advisers would furiously deny that their plans for Iraq have anything to do with empire.

"Is nobody willing to speak up for imperial ambitions - and to say that an American Empire is exactly what the world needs?"

Here is one neo-conservative commentator who has no qualms about laying out the real agenda. It's the empire, stupid! Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz are far too astute to give their crusade its real name. Their opponents however, need not be similarly constrained. Come the day that the administration comes clean and demands that we all take a stand, for or against the empire, the movement, if it has by then solidified around this fundamental cause, can with one voice shout out, we don’t want an empire!

©2003 Paul Woodward

This article previously appeared at