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Issue Date:  September 2, 2005

By William E. Odom and Robert Dujarric
Yale University Press, 285 pages, $30
By Amitai Etzioni
Palgrave MacMillan, 258 pages, $29.95
By Meic Pearse
InterVarsity Press, 188 pages, $13
By Rashid Khalidi
Beacon Press, 223 pages, $23
By Sharon D. Welch
Fortress Press, 237 pages, $18
Empire is on its way out


My prized first edition of The Pentagon Papers carries this note on its jacket: “The Pentagon Papers reveal the inner workings of a bureaucracy, set up to defend this country, but now managing an international empire by garrisoning American troops around the world.” As a blurb intended to sell books its perfect reliability may be suspect, but events in our time suggest it was prophetic. The Cold War is over today with its client conflicts, yet each of these five books assumes American troops still guard an international empire. There is considerable disagreement about the nature of the American empire and about how the United States ought to handle this responsibility, yet it seems that neither the empire’s boosters nor its critics any longer argue about its existence.

Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William E. Odom and foreign policy researcher Robert Dujarric assume the United States leads a benign international empire because “countries struggle to become members; they do not have to fight to get out.” Such presumptive benevolence is born from the fact that “the United States did not set out to create” its empire. Instead, it arose in consequence of American dominance in the years following World War II, and Gen. Odom and Mr. Dujarric thus apply the description “inadvertent” to the American imperium. Gen. Odom is a former head of the U.S. National Security Agency, and Mr. Dujarric is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Intentionally or not, they argue it is far better that the United States should embrace its imperial destiny rather than allow its fate to be determined by others. The chief problem with the inadvertent empire envisioned by Gen. Odom and Mr. Dujarric is that “no other state or set of states can effectively call [the United States] to account,” and the “United States alone has the capacity” to transgress the limits that inhere in liberal structures. Lay this problem alongside the stubborn fact that “about 83 percent” of the world’s population (consuming “less than 30 percent of the world’s gross product”) “liv[e] in countries outside the empire,” and we are confronted with “a morally disturbing reality” that entails not-inconsiderable problems of security.

Equally disturbing is the conclusion that “a period of direct U.S. military rule followed by a few decades of continued military presence is the only way we can be reasonably sure that a Liberal regime will take root” in the new nations of our imperial sphere, extending the benefits of our imperial rule to nations around the globe. I will not dwell on the problems posed to their conclusion by current headlines, yet we are right to wonder how effectively liberal institutions can be inculturated by a decades-long garrison or whether American restraint possibly could withstand the seduction of imperial power for so long a period. We are right also to wonder if Gen. Odom and Mr. Dujarric have confronted us with a false choice between administering an empire and leaving the fate of the United States in the hands of other nations. Given the large number of international organizations and alliances of which the United States is a member, it seems as though their either/or scenario has overlooked some possibilities.

Amitai Etzioni, known as the guru of the communitarian movement, foresees a world government that fortuitously resolves the deficiencies of Western liberalism that he has critiqued for decades, bringing his familiar themes to bear on the international crises of our day. Readers familiar with The New Golden Rule or The Spirit of Community will recognize his approach to reconciling the values of liberty to the necessity of community. The postimperial community he envisions would balance the deficiencies of Western liberalism against the “authoritative communitarianism” found in cultures outside the Western world, where “strongly ordered community” is emphasized at the expense of individual freedom. In the marriage of Western and Eastern values, as he has defined them, under a world government, Dr. Etzioni sees the fruitful counterpoise of East and West in a happy exchange of the best of both worlds -- a communitarian ideal.

Dr. Etzioni addresses the most important questions in a chapter of only five pages, and very much like Gen. Odom and Mr. Dujarric, the account (inadvertently) does not draw an entirely hopeful picture. Dr. Etzioni refers to the process of “moral dialogues” that “occur when a group of people engage in a process of sorting out the values that should guide their lives.” The moral dialogues most interesting to us are global, and here Dr. Etzioni is honest about problems, referring to an American official shocked to discover on a visit to Cairo that “ ‘Americanization’ was a code word for corruption of Islam.” The West must approach the world “in ways that show it will respect both Western and Eastern values,” Dr. Etzioni concludes, and he is not shy about the difficulties involved. But the question that lingers is not whether such dialogues are difficult, but whether in consideration of decades of history the Eastern world would care to engage in them at all.

On this point, in sharp contrast to Gen. Odom and Mr. Dujarric, and to Dr. Etzioni, Meic Pearse is more darkly realistic. Dr. Pearse, who was previously on the faculty of the London School of Theology, is presently associate professor of history at Houghton College, Houghton, N.Y. According to Dr. Pearse, “the kind of Western political and journalistic rhetoric that attributes anti-Westernism in general and support for al-Qaeda and the attacks of Sept.11, 2001,in particular to economics (‘It’s about global poverty’) or to religion is profoundly misplaced.” We should more profitably look to “Western foreign policies,” among which Dr. Pearse lists familiar sources of complaint such as support for Israel, and which he sensibly attributes to a Western foreign policy of “self-interest.”

Self-interest lies at the heart of individualism and capitalism, the ideological dynamos that drive the Western way of life. It is no coincidence that Dr. Pearse attributes our difficulty to the role of self-interest, inasmuch as his critique of the United States and its foreign policy is rooted in a larger argument with materialism and consumerism. “We, in our hyperprosperity, may be able to live without meaning, faith or purpose, filling our three- score years and 10 with a variety of entertainments,” Dr. Pearse charges, but “normal people (that is, the rest of the world)” cannot. But the depth of Dr. Pearse’s invective against Western life, while it certainly explains what about the United States so intensely riles the rest of the world, ultimately shifts his focus from the rest of the world back to the West.

Dr. Pearse has found the disjunction between “the rest” and “the West” in the Enlightenment values we take for granted, and he joins that insight to an appraisal of American empire that should not comfort us because we “face a demographic meltdown,” in population trends that see the developing world growing far more quickly than the West. Here Dr. Pearse joins Dr. Etzioni in calling for moral outreach to the rest of the world and a recognition that our empire cannot possibly endure. “Nothing less than a massive cultural reversal is necessary,” Dr. Pearse writes, and he calls appealingly for a return to “traditional morality” that would recognize the values of community and spirituality. He evidently hopes to save Western societies from themselves, a quixotic hope he shares with the most dogged and venerable critic of Enlightenment values, Edmund Burke, to whom he refers often. Mr. Burke’s final days proved him darkly prophetic as the Terror settled on France. As tempting as it is to agree with Dr. Pearse, we should wonder how right we want him to be.

Rashid Khalidi’s arguments are the most historically based of any of these, and his aim is to call out the folly of attempting to spread Western values by force in the Middle East. His argument especially is with those in and out of the Bush administration who speak of “benign American hegemony.” Casting aside these assertions of American benevolence, Dr. Khalidi, a Middle East expert at Columbia University in New York, holds that “there are solid historical and political reasons for suggesting that war, external intervention, and foreign occupations are far from being ideal recipes for the introduction of democracy in the Middle East.” He points to the pre-World War I experiments with parliamentary democracy as much as to Western efforts following that war, seeing in them not only failures to establish liberal, democratic political forms but new sources of anti-Western vitriol. Dr. Khalidi’s analysis is a hard blow to Gen. Odom and Mr. Dujarric’s optimism, just as his claim that “unwanted foreign military occupation, or even the threat of it, is incompatible with democratization” challenges Dr. Etzioni’s confidence that some new hope can flower from the meeting of Eastern and Western value systems through empire.

Beyond those historical considerations, Dr. Khalidi offers persuasive evidence that “the [Iraq] campaign was meant to be the first in a new category of wars … waged to assure that American values prevailed.” Yet Dr. Khalidi exposes the hint of realpolitik behind the democratic and liberalizing impulse. No matter the exaltation of American values in defense of our foreign policy, it is unsettling to consider the efforts of the administration to “oblige various democratic states whose peoples and governments were strongly against the war [in Iraq]” to support us. For those allies, as well as for the nations of the Middle East, democracy is fine so long as it does not obstruct American interests. But the war in Iraq fits within a “broad, long-standing American approach to the Middle East … based on studiously ignoring the human rights abuses” of the few allies we have in the region, one that will frustrate American efforts in Iraq and elsewhere so long as history can guide the rest of the world to be skeptical of even our most benign intentions.

Sharon Welch, associate professor of religious and women’s studies at the University of Missouri, has written a very different book from the others. Yet, in this company, it is a necessary book. Unashamedly spiritual and partly autobiographical, Dr. Welch’s approach centers on the mutually reinforcing concerns that “Empire is destructive of the humanity of the colonized, and second, Empire also destroys the humanity of the colonizer,” no matter how putatively benevolent are the intentions of the imperial power. Though it may be tempting to dismiss her autobiographical approach as an indulgence, we should remember that such indulgences have enriched the treatment of universal themes in the work of figures so diverse as Thomas Merton and Eric Voegelin. An author’s personal experience guides her work in any event, and it may in some cases be better to acknowledge it. Dr. Welch has reached the spiritual convictions that shape her book in a journey through three religious traditions, and the explanation of how that happened is as important as what it yields.

Drawing from Christianity, Native American spirituality and Buddhism, Dr. Welch surveys the perspectives of what “a peace mandate” might look like, considering its political and geopolitical possibilities. On one side the possibilities of that mandate are bounded by what empire cannot overcome: the perspective of cultures whose view of American foreign policy cannot overlook “the inevitable exercise of power” and the “self-righteousness” that accompanies it. Nevertheless, a peace mandate calls for an “ethic of empathy and risk” that asks all parties for “audacity” in peace seeking. Audacity rooted in empathy and risk-taking surely calls for a return to traditional morality, as Dr. Pearse suggests, yet goes further to enjoin upon us a solidarity with people around the globe that recognizes their self-determination. Here Dr. Welch is on sure ground with American values, drawing from liberal theorists such as Immanuel Kant and John Rawls to remind us that an American empire does not sit well with a respect for the autonomy of the peoples who find themselves under our influence.

When we consider the legacy of the Vietnam War and the Cold War of which it was a part, we should wonder whether Dr. Welch’s audacity is actually riskier at all by contrast.

Steven P. Millies is assistant professor of political science at the University of South Carolina-Aiken.

National Catholic Reporter, September 2, 2005

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