Iraq Is An Imperial Project

Says John Judis :

On Sept. 13, 2007, George W. Bush issued his report to the nation on the progress of "the surge" in Iraq. Echoing the British in Egypt, he promised "a reduced American presence" in Iraq, but he added ominously that "Iraqi leaders from all communities … understand that their success will require U.S. political, economic, and security engagement that extends beyond my presidency. These Iraqi leaders have asked for an enduring relationship with America. And we are ready to begin building that relationship -- in a way that protects our interests in the region and requires many fewer American troops." (Emphasis mine.) In other words, Iraqi leaders who owe their positions to the U.S. occupation want the Americans to stay indefinitely, and Bush is ready to oblige them, albeit with a smaller force.

British Prime Minister William Gladstone insisted in 1882 that the British would not make Egypt a colony. He wanted, his private secretary recorded, “to give scope to Egypt for the Egyptians were this feasible and attainable without risk.” But that appeared too risky, and Egypt quickly became part of the British Empire. Bush, too, has insisted that the United States is not engaged in imperialism. America is not “an imperial power,” but a “liberating power,” he has declared. But Bush’s denial rings as hollow as Gladstone’s. What Bush has done in Iraq, rather than what he says he has done, is to revive an imperialist foreign policy, reminiscent of the British and French in the Middle East, and of the kind that the United States practiced briefly under William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

Bush’s foreign policy has been variously described as unilateralist, militarist, and hyper-nationalist. But the term that fits it best is imperialist. That’s not because it is the most incendiary term, but because it is the most historically accurate. Bush’s foreign policy was framed as an alternative to the liberal internationalist policies that Woodrow Wilson espoused and that presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton tried to put into effect as an alternative to the imperialist strategies that helped cause two world wars and even the Cold War. Bush’s foreign policy represents a return not to the simple unilateralism of 19th-century American foreign policy, but to the imperial strategy that the great powers of Europe—and, for a brief period, America, too—followed and that resulted in utter disaster.

There have been empires since the dawn of history, but the term “imperialism,” and its modern practice, originated in the late 19th century. During that time, Britain and the major European powers struggled to carve up the less developed world into colonies, protectorates, and spheres of influence. The new empires spawned during this period didn’t consist of “settler colonies” like the original American colonies or Australia, but indigenous possessions like British India or French Indochina. The United States got into the great game in 1898 when, after successfully ousting Spain from Cuba and the Pacific, the McKinley administration, prodded by Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, decided to annex the Philippines.

Chris Hayes is the host of All In with Chris Hayes on MSNBC.

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