Imperial designs: theological ethics and the ideologies of international politics

Imperial designs: theological ethics and the ideologies of international politics

Gary Dorrien

Belatedly, but suddenly with intensity, Americans have begun to debate whether their country is some kind of empire. Most of the world has no doubt that the U.S. is an empire, but now it has plenty of doubt about the kind of empire that the U.S. wants to be. I shall argue that there are four dominant perspectives in contemporary politics and ethics regarding the relation of the United States to international politics; that all four of them have a theological version; that one of them is not compatible with Christian ethics; that that perspective is the one that is currently in power; and that we need a constructive alternative.

The question of imperialism is slippery and connotatively loaded. Imperialism does not apply only to overseas possessions; Native American reservations amount to colonies; and for almost ninety years the U.S. was a slave state, many of whose leaders wanted to create a Western empire based on the extension of slavery throughout the Caribbean. From the Monroe Doctrine onward, American presidents have issued doctrines about what a country has to do to deserve an invasion from the United States. Theodore Roosevelt, who viewed his imperial ambition as a natural outgrowth of the American story, was fond of saying that America’s entire national history was one of expansion. His corollary to the Monroe Doctrine declared that the U.S. reserved the right to invade any Latin American country that engaged in “flagrant wrongdoing.” Latin Americans took that to mean any action that conflicted with U.S. interests.

Long before TR added the clarifying Roosevelt Corollary of 1906, the U.S. had an ample record of intervening in Latin America. Afterwards, up to World War II, it added interventions in Colombia, Panama, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, Mexico, and Guatemala; China was another frequent destination of American forces. In the sense of the term that applies only to the colonization of overseas territories, America’s formal dance with empire began in 1898, when it annexed and occupied Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Phillipines, and the Hawaiian islands. In the sense of the term that applies to global military networks, the United States became a world empire after World War II, beginning with its new military bases in western Germany, Japan, Korea, and the eastern Mediterranean.

In the dictionary sense of the term, setting aside the Native American reservations, the U.S. is not an imperial power. It does not exercise direct dominion over conquered peoples; it does not formally rule an extensive group of countries under a single sovereign authority. America’s official colonies have been few and scattered, most of its occupations have been brief, the largest of its 14 dependent entities is Puerto Rico, and its domination of Latin America has been mostly indirect. Americans as a whole are very short on imperial consciousness. But since 1989 the United States has forged a new kind of empire–one not based on the conquest of territory–that outstrips all colonizing empires of the past.

The United States is the most awesome world power that the world has ever seen. Its economy outproduces the next eleven nations combined, accounting for 31 percent of the world’s output. It floods the world with its culture and technology. It spends more on defense than the next eighteen nations combined. It employs five global military commands to police the world; it has 750 military bases in 130 countries, covering two-thirds of the world; it has formal military base rights in forty countries; each branch of the armed services has its own air force; the U.S. Air Force operates on six continents; the U.S. deploys carrier battleships in every ocean; and the U.S. Special Forces conducts thousands of operations per year in nearly 170 countries.

Moreover, the United States is not merely dominant; it assumes imperial responsibilities and reaps the benefits that derive from them. It is imperial in the sense of enforcing its own idea of world order in America’s interest, presuming the right to lay down the rules of trade, commerce, security, and political legitimacy. It rewards or punishes nations on the basis of their willingness to create open markets, support American military policies, and establish pro-American governments. Today the U.S. is redesigning the economy of Iraq, ignoring longstanding Iraqi laws that limit foreign ownership and principles of international law that limit the powers of occupiers. Waging an offensive war to change the government of a sovereign country and restructure its economy is obviously an imperial enterprise. Doing it to consolidate one’s power and change the political culture of a sprawling, explosive, multinational region halfway around the globe is more so on an unprecedented scale.

The central problem of U.S. foreign policy today is to modulate the natural tendency of an unrivaled power to regard the entire world as its geopolitical neighborhood. This would have been a defining challenge for the Bush administration even if terrorists had not struck the United States on September 11, 2001 and it would have been so even if Democrats had won the 2000 election. America at the turn of the twenty-first century was overdue for a moral and political reckoning with the compulsive expansionism of unrivaled power. But the problem of world empire increased by several orders of magnitude with the election of George W. Bush, his selection of a unipolarist foreign policy team, their urging after the fiendish attacks of 9/11 to conceive the struggle against terrorism as a world war, and his decision to do so. Thus the reckoning must grapple with the fact that the problem is both old and new.

Four distinct perspectives have long dominated national debates on foreign policy, but the key perspective–the one that is in power today–underwent a key transformation in the early 1990s. None of these positions is exclusively conservative or liberal; each has a wide-ranging right/center/left continuum; all have a history in modern Christian social thought. The first is liberal internationalism, which emphasizes world management in some of its forms, enterprise cooperation and trade in others, and democracy-building in others. In all its forms the liberal internationalist approach seeks to secure world peace and stability by securing collective agreements from nation states to comply with international law. Proponents of this strategy invest great importance in the attainment of multilateral state agreements to respect each other’s national sovereignty, maintain the rule of law, uphold human rights, and minimize trade barriers. In its more aggressive or idealistic forms, liberal internationalism conceives the struggle for world peace and sustainable order as a struggle for world democracy.

For much of the past century, American liberal internationalism was the creed of a management-oriented diplomatic and religious establishment. During World War I, the Federal Council of Churches called for the creation of a League of Nations to promote cooperation and carry out international police functions. In the 1920s and 1930s, after Americans returned to the normalcy of isolationism and nationalism, mainline Protestant leaders campaigned for American participation in the League of Nations, the Kellogg-Briand Pact to Outlaw War, and other international institutions. After World War II, liberal internationalists played the leading role in creating the United Nations, the World Bank, and various security alliances designed to promote Western-style international stability, cooperation, and economic development. They opposed the Soviet Union as an enemy of liberal democracy, but also worked out terms of coexistence with it. More recently, the Clinton administration epitomized the business form of the liberal internationalist worldview, promoting trade agreements and the vision of a world brought together by interlocking commercial and diplomatic interests.

The second basic perspective is realism, which judges that even in its milder managerialist forms, liberal internationalism is presumptuous and overreaching. Realists such as Henry Kissinger, Lawrence Eagleburger, Brent Scowcroft, and Alan Tonelson begin with the assumption that the purpose of American foreign policy should be to advance and defend the nation’s vital interests, especially its security and economic interests, while giving little regard to moral or ideological factors. Realists view the world as a theater of perpetual struggles for power among competing interests. The object of realpolitik is to ensure a balance of power among existing regimes, not create some kind of world community. From this perspective, it is foolish for the United States to give its blood or treasure to the cause of “building democracy” in Bosnia, Iraq, or North Korea, but a self-confident America will protect its national interests in any region, principally by helping to create or maintain a stable correlation of forces. Thus the first Bush administration left Saddam Hussein in power, not because Bush 41 was squeamish about invading Baghdad, but because the U.S. had an overriding interest in maintaining Iraq’s national unity and its balancing leverage against Iran, and because George H. W. Bush didn’t want to be the president of Iraq.

Balance-of-power realism has a history in modern American theology principally through the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr. In the 1930s and 1940s, Niebuhr blasted the moral idealism and pacifism of liberal Protestant leaders while teaching the church to speak the language of power politics. He attacked the “soft utopianism” of the social gospelers and secular liberals, who imagined that the world could be transformed by greater rationality and/or religiously inspired goodwill. The liberal idealists were soft, Niebuhr argued, because they failed to accept the inevitability of collective egotism in all social groups, as well as the necessity of using violence to make gains toward social justice. Because they refused to recognize the brutal character of all social relationships and the violence that permeates all forms of political rule, liberals confused and impeded the struggle for justice. (1)

Niebuhr did not reduce realism to a Machiavellian lesser-evilism; as a Christian ethicist, he spent much of his later career cautioning his secular followers that political realism without a moral dimension is inevitably cynical and corrupting. John Bennett, Paul Ramsey, Kenneth Thompson, Carl Mayer, and Ronald Stone variously carried out this aspect of Niebuhr’s thinking. But Niebuhr never doubted that his primary vocation as an American Christian ethicist was to help America use its power to contain communism, maintain a Western-dominated world order, secure balances of power within geopolitical regions, and establish a balance of power domestically among commercial enterprises, trade unions, and the government.

In the 1920s most of the social gospel movement converted to the third major perspective, principled anti-interventionism. Social gospelers such as Harry Emerson Fosdick, George Buttrick, Kirby Page, and Georgia Harkness were internationalists, not isolationists; they supported international cooperation and the League of Nations. As Christian pacifists, however, they contended that war is always evil, unredemptively destructive, and un-Christian. From the liberal Christian neo-pacifism that Niebuhr attacked, to the isolationist nationalism of the Old Right, to the antiwar radicalism of the New Left in the 1960s, to the antiwar and antiglobalist movements of today, American society has produced sizable movements that oppose military interventions on principle. This persuasion has been too wide-ranging to be called a tradition; but in all its forms it has pressed the much-needed question whether the good is ever served by invading or ruling over one’s neighbors.

The most prominent advocate of Christian pacifism today is Stanley Hauerwas. For him, the center of Christianity is the community-forming way of Christ that inspires a new kind of corporate spiritual existence in an alien world. Christianity is the messianic community faith of those who inhabit the new aeon, the kingdom of God, in the face of the prevailing principalities and powers. To those who argue that Christian pacifism abandons the church’s moral responsibility to maintain a decent social and world order, Hauerwas replies that there is no shortage of Constantinians who want to manage the world in a ‘good’ way. America’s policy institutes and universities are bursting with people who believe they can make the world a better place if they attain power. It is not any part of the church’s moral mission to reinforce this disposition, he argues. The Christ-following church is not called to promote democracy or sustain American society, but to live faithfully in the light of Christ’s proleptic kingdom, and to oppose war and the war-making power of the state without exception.

The fourth perspective is more recent in origin and it lacks a settled name, but today it is in power. This ideology is rooted in cold war conservatism, and it is usually called unipolarism, neoconservatism, or neo-imperialism. In 1947 the godfather of cold war conservatism, James Burnham, argued in his book The Struggle for the World that World War III had already begun and that the U.S. could not win the cold war if it did not adopt an aggressive ideology of its own. Anti-communist containment strategy was too weak and defensive, he argued, just like the liberal internationalist and realist theories on which it depended. What was needed was an aggressive American ideology that proclaimed the superiority of the American system, the necessity of fighting communism wherever it existed, and the need to consolidate American military power in every region of the world.

In the 1950s Burnham and William F. Buckley, Jr. espoused this ideology in their new magazine, National Review. Most of the leading cold war conservatives were refugees from the left, notably Burnham, Whittaker Chambers, William Schlamm, Max Eastman, Frank Meyer, and Richard Weaver. In the 1970s and 1980s another group of strongly ideological hawks with backgrounds in the left became a significant force in American politics; they came to be called neocon-servatives. Neocons such as Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Richard Pipes, Michael Ledeen, Paul Wolfowitz, and Frank Gaffney warned that the Soviet Union was winning the cold war, that Americans were too cowardly to fight Soviet Communism, and that the Soviet Union was superior to the U.S. in nuclear capability, military strength, political efficiency, and ideological effectiveness. The neocons were the last true believers in communism, and thus the last holdouts in the cold war.

Many of them were appalled that Ronald Reagan conducted arms negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev was a cunning Leninist who seduced America into lowering its guard, they contended; just as Lenin loosened economic constraints during the 1920s to impede an economic collapse, Gorbachev opened the Soviet system just enough to entice Western aid and cause America to disarm. More than a dozen neocons had won high-ranking positions in the Reagan administration, but their ideological militancy alienated the next Republican president, George H. W. Bush. The first Bush took very few neocons or old-style hardline conservatives into his administration, surrounding himself with conservative realists like Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, and Lawrence Eagleburger. In the top tier of the Bush 41 administration, only Defense Secretary Dick Cheney was a hardline cold warrior.

To the very end of the cold war Cheney argued that America was in great danger, and his policy chief, Paul Wolfowitz, conjured scenarios that showed how the Soviets were still trying to conquer the world. But in the fall of 1989 the communist regimes of Eastern Europe collapsed overnight, most of them without violence, and the theory of totalitarianism collapsed with them. The following year I began to write a book on neoconservatism. I conducted my interviews just after the Soviet Union disintegrated, when some of my subjects were in a state of shock. To the neocons the end of the cold war was exhilarating, confounding, and deflating all at once. Norman Podhoretz fell into silence. When I asked him why he had stopped writing, he explained that he couldn’t believe the cold war was over, but he didn’t know how to make a case that it wasn’t. (2)

But some of the neocons were already responding with their most ambitious idea yet, and Podhoretz soon joined them. The neocons argued that the moment had come to create an American-dominated world order. Instead of cutting back on military spending and foreign military bases, the U.S. needed to consolidate its power in every region of the world and put down its remaining enemies. Some of them called it the “unipolarist imperative.” The foreign policy mission of the United States should be to create a new Pax Americana, they urged, preventing any other nation or group of nations from becoming a great power rival of the U.S.

Not all the neocons went along with this transition. Edward Luttwak and Michael Lind moved to the left; Peter Berger and, for a while, Jeanne Kirkpatrick rediscovered their realism; some neocons distinguished between defending American superiority and assuming the burdens of a Pax Americana. From the beginning there were key differences between the movement’s nationalistic realists and its democratic globalists. But all the neocons and hardline conservatives who made the transition took for granted that U.S. foreign policy must be committed to sustaining and extending America’s unrivaled global dominance.

Charles Krauthammer offered an early version of this creed in 1989, arguing that “America’s purpose should be to steer the world away from its coming multipolar future toward a qualitatively new outcome–a unipolar world.” Ben Wattenberg urged nervous politicians not to be shy about asserting American superiority: “We are the first universal nation. ‘First’ as in the first one, ‘first’ as in ‘number one.’ And ‘universal’ within our borders and globally.” Wattenberg believed that America’s unique universality gave it the right to intervene in other nations on behalf of world order; with a lighter touch he observed: “A unipolar world is a good thing, if America is the uni.” In 1992, at Cheney’s request, Wolfowitz and his Pentagon policy staff developed a new grand strategy for the United States that took as its fundamental objective the prevention of any nation or group of nations from threatening America’s unrivaled dominance. The plan caused an uproar after it was leaked to the New York Times, and the first President Bush disavowed it. Wolfowitz kept quiet during the uproar, fearing that his government career was over. But two administration officials announced that they supported the Wolfowitz plan: Dick Cheney, who spoke through a Pentagon aide; and Colin Powell, who defended it publicly.

Before and after the controversy, Joshua Muravchik wrote books that cast the unipolarist idea in idealistic terms: “For our nation, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. Our failure to exert every possible effort to secure [a new world order] would be unforgivable. If we succeed, we will have forged a Pax Americana unlike any previous peace, one of harmony, not of conquest. Then the twenty-first century will be the American century by virtue of the triumph of the humane idea born in the American experiment.” (3)

The neocons and their hardline conservative allies were frustrated by the first Bush administration, and in 1992 they fell out of power altogether. They seemed to be fading; they were identified with bygone debates; and to a considerable degree they blended into the Republican mainstream. The movement’s icons, Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol, reasoned that neoconservatism had faded by succeeding. Having changed American conservatism–making it more international, cosmopolitan, and ideological–the neocons had made it possible for their offspring such as Bill Kristol to call themselves, simply, conservatives.

But that was not quite right. The neocons merged into the mainstream Republican right, but the term persisted, because it referred to something that was still too important not to be named. The neocons had a more dramatic idea of politics than other kinds of conservatives, one that featured a radical, expansive faith in American power. For many of them, this faith was their operative religion. Many neocons were not religiously observant; a significant number were not Jewish, contrary to the stereotype; and their ideology was not a cover for hardline Zionism, though virtually all of them are Likud-style Zionists. The hallmark of neoconservatism was and is its radical faith that the maximal use of American power is good for America and good for the world.

A few of the neocons flirted briefly with Clinton, but all of them quickly judged that Clinton had wasted America’s hegemonic power. Clinton was solicitous of world opinion, he intervened in nations that didn’t matter, and he indulged Iraq, Iran, North Korea, China, and the Palestinians. Fueled by their intense opposition to Clinton and the opportunity to overtake the Republican party’s realist establishment, the neocons refined their strategic vision and regrouped organizationally. They strengthened their hold over the leading conservative think tanks and magazines, forged alliances with Cheney and Rumsfeld, founded the Weekly Standard magazine, and got a huge boost from the rise of the Fox network. They were deeply involved in the culture wars of the ’90s, which enhanced their standing in the Republican party.

In 1996 Clinton beat the Republicans again, this time by co-opting most of their winning issues, and the neocons declared that establishment Republican realism was bankrupt. The following year Bill Kristol founded the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a neocon foreign policy think tank closely affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute, which called for a foreign policy of global dominion. The year after that the PNAC issued a letter to President Clinton, urging him to overthrow the government of Iraq. Many of the PNAC unipolarists supported John McCain in the Republican primaries, but Wolfowitz, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Richard Perle supported George W. Bush; and Wolfowitz became one of Bush’s two chief foreign policy advisers, along with Condoleezza Rice.

The rest of the neocons rallied around Bush after he won the nomination, and two months before the presidential election of 2000, the PNAC issued a position paper that spelled out the particulars of a global empire strategy: repudiate the ABM treaty, build a global missile defense system, develop a strategic dominance of space, increase defense spending by $20 billion per year, establish permanent new forces in Southern Europe, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, and reinvent the U.S. military to “fight and decisively win multiple, simultaneous major theater wars.” They also remarked that it might take “a new Pearl Harbor” for Americans to realize the necessity of dramatically expanding America’s military force and strategy.

When Bush won the presidency, the unipolarists came with him. Of the 18 figures who signed the PNAC’s 1998 letter to Clinton calling for regime change in Iraq, 11 took high-ranking positions in the Bush administration, including Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Elliott Abrams, Dick Armitage, John Bolton, Paula Dobriansky, Zalmay Khalilzad, Richard Perle, Peter W. Rodman, William Schneider, Jr., and Robert B. Zoellick. Other PNAC associates and prominent unipolarists who landed high-ranking positions included Stephen Cambone, Devon Gaffney Cross, Douglas Feith, I. Lewis Libby, William Luti, Abram Shulsky, and David Wurmser.

Cheney was the key to this incredible windfall of appointments. Bush had asked Cheney to select the best vice-president, and they settled on Cheney. During the campaign Bush zigged and zagged between realist and unipolarist positions, but Cheney was determined to exclude the realpolitikers who had frustrated him in the first Bush administration. Colin Powell was too prominent not to be named Secretary of State, and he believed in the ideology of global preeminence, but Cheney and the neocons rightly viewed him as a reluctant warrior and foreign policy realist. Thus Cheney limited Powell’s influence by tapping Rumsfeld for the Pentagon, who in turn hired Wolfowitz. The hardline unipolarists amplified their power in the White House by securing three positions for Scooter Libby, a Wolfowitz protege who served as assistant to the President, national security adviser to the vice president, and Cheney’s chief of staff. That was unprecedented, and it amplified Cheney’s influence. The Pentagon civilian leadership and Vice-President’s office were pervaded by neocons, and the White House planted a strident neocon, John Bolton, on Powell’s staff at the State Department.

The neocons were thrilled by their success, but for seven months they found it very frustrating to have so much power and do so little with it. They wanted a huge increase in the Pentagon budget, new military bases, and military intervention in the Middle East; Bush only talked about the latter and he said no to military expansion. He shot down the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, and the ABM Treaty, but these were second-rate issues. By July the Weekly Standard magazine was so frustrated that it called upon Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz to resign in protest.

On September 11, 2001 President Bush joined his own administration. The neocon fantasy of military expansion, preemptive warfare, and regime-changing unilateralism became American policy. Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld urged Bush to respond to Al Qaeda’s destructive attacks by invading … Iraq. It didn’t matter that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11; what mattered was getting rid of Saddam and imposing a pro-American regime in the middle of the Middle East. Bush told Richard Perle at Camp David that first they would take care of Afghanistan, then hit Iraq.

The main reason that the U.S. invaded Iraq and became its occupier was not the reason that Bush officials emphasized in selling the war, and the latter reason did not pan out. The Bush administration claimed to know that Iraq had massive stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, a nuclear weapons program, and operational links to al Qaeda, but it knew very well that it lacked any hard evidence on all of these points. The Pentagon had to create a special intelligence unit and rely on stories from exiles just to claim that it had some evidence.

More important than the assurance that Saddam Hussein threatened our safety was the realization that Saudi Arabia did not provide a secure basis for American influence in the Middle East or ensure a stable oil supply for the West. Fifteen of the September 11th hijackers were Saudis; the Saudi people despised the ruling regime of their country; and they deeply resented the presence of American troops there. Bush officials wanted to change the Middle East, creating a pro-American Iraq that gave the U.S. a direct power base, ensured the oil supply, set off a chain-reaction of regime changes, gave relief to Israel, and got rid of a thuggish enemy. On the 11th day of the Bush administration, at its first National Security Council meeting, President Bush put Iraq at the top of his foreign policy agenda, urging that it was the key to reshaping the entire Middle East. Two days later Rumsfeld put it this way at a National Security Council meeting: “Imagine what the region would look like without Saddam and with a regime that’s aligned with U.S. interests. It would change everything in the region and beyond it. It would demonstrate what U.S. policy is all about.” (5)

The visions of a new American power base and the political/cultural transformation of the region were tightly intertwined. Bush wanted Arab leaders to get the picture. During the war in Afghanistan they kept their heads down; afterward they carried on as though the world had not changed; Bush wanted to smash into their terrorist-breeding world at its center. Iraq was the best candidate, because Iraq had a vast oil supply, it was a warm-water port with 72 airfields in the middle of the Middle East, it was under UN sanctions, its tyrannical leader had tried to assassinate Bush’s father, and Bush’s key advisers had been long determined to overthrow it. They convinced Bush that Iraq would break without much of a fight and a pro-American government could be readily imposed.

Today we have 135,000 troops bogged down in a miserable occupation of Iraq and neocons are pleading that we need more troops. To them, the fact that we have no troops to spare only proves what they have been saying for years: that America needs to dramatically expand its military reach and force structure. Max Boot says that after the November election the Pentagon budget has to be increased by more than $100 billion. If the American empire is overstretched, it simply has to ramp up its warfighting and occupying capacity. Some neocons want to fight for democratic globalism and others believe that democracy is the last thing we should want in the Middle East; some are advocates of high-tech warfare and others want overwhelming conventional force; some contend that peacekeeping is built into the idea of a Pax Americana and others argue that peacekeeping is a job for Swedes and Canadians, not an unrivaled superpower. But all of them are advocates of American global dominion, and increasingly, the neocons are debating whether to become more frank in speaking the language of empire. (6)

Max Boot, Stanley Kurtz, Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Robert D. Kaplan, and Niall Ferguson are leading advocates of the school that says, “let’s stop using euphemisms for a neo-imperialist strategy.” Last summer the American Enterprise Institute sponsored a debate on this question between two leading unipolarists, Ferguson and Robert Kagan. Ferguson, a historian who teaches at New York University, is the author of an excellent new history of the British empire. He and Kagan share the same concern, that the U.S. is too quick to come home from its wars and doesn’t have the stomach to be a good occupier. In their debate, Ferguson complained that America pursues nation-building “on the Wal-Mart principle of low prices always” and in two-year time frames, the electoral cycle. Would it help if Americans relinquished their innocence about not being an imperial power?

Ferguson used the quacking duck argument, observing that America walks and quacks exactly like an empire and the whole world thinks so; only Americans believe that America doesn’t have an empire. It is time for Americans to overcome their preciousness and do a better job of imperial maintenance, he argued. Kagan replied that Americans will intervene in the name of ideals or interests, but not empire; as for himself, he preferred to describe America as a global hegemon, not an empire, because the U.S. invades only to do good. (7)

That was exactly what Ferguson expected him to say. He replied: “Do you really think the British didn’t make exactly this argument throughout the 19th century? The whole characteristic of 19th century British imperialism was its self-proclaimed altruism … ‘We come not as conquerors, but as liberators.’ I wonder who said that?,” he remarked, repeating Bush’s mantra. “It does sound awfully familiar, doesn’t it? It was General F.S. Maude in March 1917, following the British occupation of Baghdad.” Ferguson explained that Americans get their sincere belief in their own righteousness from their British forerunners: “Ladies and gentlemen, it is a distinguishing feature of both the great Anglophone Empires that they insist they are acting in the best interests of the people that they subjugate. It is part of our charm. It is our share of culture.” The difference was that the Brits wrote songs and poetry about their imperial generosity while Americans denied that they had an empire. (8)

Near the end of the debate Ferguson admitted that he didn’t really care what Americans called it: “Call it nation-building, call it hegemony, call it WalMart as far as I’m concerned.” And he didn’t really think that administration officials should speak of an American empire: “I applaud their ability to disclaim imperial ambitions in all of their public pronouncements. That is precisely the right way to play it. The United States should constantly deny that it’s an empire … This seems to me almost inherently part of the new American Empire. The key thing is not to mean these things.” He wasn’t kidding; the key thing was to do it right while claiming not to do it. Academics can call things by their right names, he reasoned, because students have to come to class. But politicians need to play to the public. (9)

Ferguson was deadly serious about what American politicians had to start doing right. In his view, America’s postwar maintenance in Afghanistan was a disaster, and he worried last summer that Iraq would be even worse. To do the job right, American politicians had to come to terms with America’s imperial role in the world, even if they called it something else.

The neocons are frustrated that the occupation of Iraq has become so draining and consuming, but they have no intention of stopping with Iraq. Before 9/11 they fantasized about overthrowing half a dozen Muslim or Arab governments; since 9/11 they have demanded it. From 9/11 to the invasion of Iraq they earnestly compared lists of the governments and groups that had to be smashed, sometimes debating the sequence. Krauthammer and former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu set the standard immediately after 9/11. Krauthammer called for the overthrow of Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, and Iraq; Netanyahu wanted the U.S. to attack Iraq, Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah. During the build-up to the Iraq War, Angelo Codevilla argued that the second phase of the war on terrorism had to include the overthrow of Iraq, Syria, and the Palestinian Authority. Frank Gaffney believed that Iraq, Iran, and the Palestinian Authority headed the list. Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan wanted to begin with Iraq, Iran, and Hezbollah. Laurent Murawiec told the Defense Policy Board that Iraq was the “tactical pivot” of America’s war in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia was the “strategic pivot” of the war, and Egypt was the “prize.” Michael Ledeen wanted America to overthrow Iran first, then Iraq and Syria, then Saudi Arabia. In their recently published book, Richard Perle and David Frum declare that “we should toss dictators aside with no more compunction than a police sharp-shooter feels when he downs a hostage-taker … Really, there is only one question to ask about Syria: Why have we put up with it as long as we have?” (7)

After the U.S. brought down the Taliban, Norman Podhoretz argued that the U.S. had to continue by killing the regimes in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea; that Syria, Lebanon, Libya, and the Palestinian Authority had to be overthrown as soon as possible; and that Egypt and Saudi Arabia belonged on the list of enemy regimes. Podhoretz allowed that disastrous victories are quite possible in each case. “There is no denying that the alternative to these regimes could easily turn out to be worse, even (or especially) if it comes to power through democratic elections,” he wrote. For that reason, the United States must find “the stomach to impose a new political culture on the defeated parties.” America has to find the will and means to remake its defeated enemies from top to bottom as pro-American social, cultural, and political entities. (8)

Neocons in the Pentagon and Vice President’s office envision creative destruction on a similar scale, while making exceptions of certain allies. Nine days after the 9/11 attacks, former NATO Supreme Commander Wesley Clark was told by a three-star general who had previously served under him that Bush officials were determined to invade Iraq even if Saddam had nothing to do with the attacks. Two months later Clark returned to the Pentagon, where he was told that the administration had a five-year plan to overthrow the governments of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia, and Sudan. The general explained, “We’re not that good at fighting terrorists, so we’re going after states.” Tellingly, the worst state harborers of terrorists–Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia–were not on the Pentagon’s hit list, because they are allies. That briefing inadvertently launched Clark’s presidential candidacy. (9)

The neocons are known for overreaching, but they are known also for pushing American policy in their direction. They “overreached” on Iraq for years, when regime-changing preemption on such a scale was unprecedented. Now they have a huge precedent that has created double or nothing dilemmas in Syria and Iran, and they are relentless in pressing the Bush administration to see the matter through.

I said at the outset that all four of the major foreign policy perspectives have a history in modern Christian theology. The social gospelers were liberal internationalists at heart, always preaching cooperation, collective security, and the common good. But there were realist versions of the social gospel–John Bennett and Walter Marshall Horton regarded themselves as essentially social gospelers–and of course, after World War I most of the movement converted to antiwar activism. Since I love the old social gospelers like Washington Gladden, Walter Rauschenbusch, Shailer Mathews, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Francis McConnell, and Georgia Harkness, it pains me to say this, but even unipolarist ideology has some rootage in the social gospel. To the new democratic globalists, the goal of the Pax Americana is to create American-style democracies throughout the world. America’s blood and treasure should be given to the cause of creating a world community that is a community of democracies. No other nation has the means or stature to put tyrants in their place or uphold the rules of a liberal democratic order.

That sentiment is amply rooted in the social gospel of the early twentieth century. Near the turn of the century, American church leaders strongly supported their country’s adventures in democratic imperialism. They used “democratize” and “Christianize” as interchangeable terms; they cheered the Spanish American War as a victory for the kingdom of God; to them, America was the redeemer nation that incarnated the Christian-influenced democratic idea. Liberal Protestant leader Lyman Abbott explained in 1906 that “democracy is not merely a political theory, it is not merely a social opinion; it is a profound religious faith.” According to this faith, it was “the function of the Anglo-Saxon race” to confer the civilizing gifts of commerce, law and education on backward peoples: “It is said that we have no right to go to a land occupied by a barbaric people and interfere with their life. I deny the right of a barbaric people to retain possession of any quarter of the globe. Barbarism has no rights which civilization is bound to respect. Barbarians have rights which civilized people are bound to respect, but they have no right to their barbarism.” His social gospel colleagues, the leaders of American Christian progressivism, typically said the same thing with nicer words. (12)

Today we blush at the cultural arrogance and chauvinism of the social gospelers, but we should not disparage their faith in the regenerative power of democracy. There is a strong correlation between the ways that governments treat their own citizens and the ways they relate to other nations. Moreover, the expansion of democracy usually reduces world conflict. The democratic globalists, like the social gospelers before them, are right that democracy is usually a powerful antidote to violence and oppression. But the growth of liberal and social democracy depends on the very ideas of cooperation, international law, and collective security that the neocons disparage.

Democracy has to do with the character of relationships that are constructed on the principles of freedom and equality. Robust liberal and social democracies are pluralistic, egalitarian, peaceable, and cooperative; they develop from within, seeking to maximize freedom and equality for all people. The neocons wrongly imagine that the U.S. can bash its way to liberal democracy in the Middle East. They ignore the contradiction between advocating American unipolar dominance and upholding the U.S. as the model for other nations. In the opening sentence of his National Security Strategy of 2002, President Bush declared that there exists “a single sustainable model for national success.” Leaving aside that actually there is no single model of national success, the president ignores that the U.S. cannot be a unipolar hegemon and a model for other nations at the same time. The American colossus protects its dominant position in the global capitalist system; thus it is not the exemplar of a way that encourages or yields to imitators.

I believe that we must forge a better policy from our complex political and religious inheritance. The liberal internationalist commitments to cooperation, multilateralism, and universalistic human rights are crucially important, as is the liberal internationalist commitment to create structures that transcend nationalism and support the growth of democracy. We need a stronger United Nations that is fully supported by the United States and that reflects the world of today. The realist emphasis on the pervasive, indwelling, and systemic reality of evil in individuals and society is indispensable to any movement that struggles for attainable gains toward social justice in a world of violence and oppression. Realism is chastening as a reminder of the limits of political action. Because all nations are self-interested and power-seeking, democracy is valuable as a brake on human greed and will-to-power.

Most importantly, the heart of any Christian, Jewish, or Muslim approach to world politics must consist of a strong presumption against war and a predisposition to view the world from the perspectives of the poor, the excluded, and the vulnerable. Anti-interventionist movements are strong on peacemaking, but often weak on the biblical option for the poor. Speaking as a Christian, the church must be a movement that practices the nonviolent way of Christ and that asks at all times, “How does this policy affect oppressed or vulnerable people?” The church is the kingdom-bearing body of Christ that shows the peaceable and justice-making way of Christ. I believe in an integrative perspective that does not equate Christianity with ethical absolutism; at the same time, the presumption against war must be very strong for an ethic to be Christian, and it must see the face of Christ in the faces of the world’s disinherited.

We need new forms of community that arise out of but transcend religious affiliation and culture and nation. If those of us who are Caucasian fail to interrogate whiteness and its privileges, we will resist any recognition of our own racism. If those of us who are male fail to interrogate our complicity in sexism, we will perpetuate it. If those of us who are middle class guard our class privileges, we will be oppressors. If we swear our highest loyalty to our nation, we will share in the guilt of our nation’s international bullying. We need a wider community of the divine good. No one can know whether any of our efforts will succeed, but the necessity of struggling for the divine good is certain.

For months leading up to the war, the Vatican, the World Council of Churches, and many other religious communities pleaded against invading Iraq. Pope John Paul II declared that the future of humanity depends on the courage of the earth’s peoples and their leaders to reject “the logic of war.” The Vatican mouthpiece Civilta Cattolica described the war as “a wound and a humiliation for the entire Islamic world” that was bound to fuel acts of revenge for many years to come. Virtually all of the ecumenical statements emphasized the gospel presumption against war, international law, international cooperation, and collective security.

The case for international community has a realistic basis: that the benefits of multilateral cooperation outweigh the costs and risks of not working together. A superpower that insists on absolute security for itself makes all other nations insecure. All parties are better off when the most powerful nations agree not to do everything that is in their power and nations work together to create new forms of collective security. In an increasingly interdependent world, single nation-states have to cooperate with each other to address security issues that transcend national boundaries.

We are told, in a phrase coined by Paul Wolfowitz, that the work of our generation is to drain the swamp. Because this is a perpetual war, it is not too late to say: No, you are draining my country of its good name and its claim to the good will of other nations. I don’t want my country, the country that I love, spurning the hard work of collective security, fighting wars of aggression that don’t come remotely close to being a last resort, and inflaming resentments that will last for centuries. Not in my name do you invade any more Muslim nations in the name of making America safe.


1. Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947); Niebuhr. The Irony of American History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952).

2. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), p. 24; see Hauerwas, After Christendom?: How the Church is to Behave if Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation are Bad Ideas (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991).

3. Charles Krauthammer, “Universal Dominion: Toward a Unipolar World,” National Interest 18 (Winter 1989), 48-49; see Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment,” Foreign Affairs 70 (1991), 23; Ben J. Wattenberg, The First Universal Nation: Leading Indicators and Ideas about the Surge of America in the 1990s (New York: Free Press, 1991), 24; Wattenberg, “Neo-Manifest Destinarianism,” National Interest 21 (Fall 1990), 54; Patrick E. Tyler, “U.S. Strategy Plan Calls for Insuring No Rivals Develop,” New York Times (8 March 1992), A1; Tyler, “Senior U.S. Officials Assail Lone-Superpower Policy,” New York Times (11 March 1992), A6; Barton Gellman, “Keeping the U.S. First; Pentagon Would Preclude a Rival Superpower,” Washington Post (11 March 1992), A1; Gellman, “Aim of Defense Plan Supported by Bush,” Washington Post (12 March 1992); Paul Wolfowitz, “Historical Memory: Setting History Straight,” Current 423 (June 2000), 19. Joshua Muravchik, Exporting Democracy: Fulfilling America’s Destiny (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, 1991), 227.

4. Project for the New American Century, Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century (Washington, DC: Project for the New American Century, 2000), quote, 6; Project for the New American Century, “An Open Letter to President Clinton: ‘Remove Saddam from Power,'” 26 January 1998, reprinted in The Iraq War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions, eds. Micah L. Sifry and Christopher Cerf (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), 199-201.

5. Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 70-75, 82-86, quote 85.

6. Max Boot, “What Next?: The Bush Foreign Policy Agenda Beyond Iraq,” The Weekly Standard 8 (5 May 2003), 29; Charles Krauthammer, “Help Wanted: Why America Needs to Lean Hard on its Allies to Lend a Hand in Iraq,” Time 162 (1 September 2003), 72; Robert Kagan and William Kristol, “Do What It Takes in Iraq,” Weekly Standard 8 (1-8 September 2003), 7-8.

7. Angelo Codevilla, “Victory: What it Will Take to Win,” Claremont Review of Books (November 2001); Frank Gaffney, “The Path to Victory,” Claremont Review of Books (Fall 2002, Special Issue Symposium), 10; Michael A. Ledeen, The War Against the Terror Masters: Why It Happened; Where We Are Now; How We’ll Win (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002), 147-221, quote 212-213; David Frum and Richard Perle, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror (New York: Random House, 2003), 114.

8. Norman Podhoretz, “In Praise of the Bush Doctrine,” Commentary 114 (September 2002), 19-28, quote 28; Podhoretz, “The Path to Victory,” Claremont Review of Books (Fall 2002), 11-12.

9. Wesley K. Clark, Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism, and the American Empire (New York: PublicAffairs, 2003), 120, 130; Will Dana, “Is Wesley Clark the One?,” Interview with Wesley Clark, Rolling Stone (September 2003), 45-47, quotes, 46.

10. Patrick E. Tyler, “A New Power in the Streets,” New York Times (17 February 2003), “the fracturing,” A1; see Richard W. Stevenson, “Antiwar Protests Fail to Sway Bush on Plans for Iraq,” New York Times (19 February 2003), A1; Tim Weiner, “Sentiment Against War is Voiced Across the World,” New York Times (8 March 2003), A1; John Tagliabue, “Wave of Protests, From Europe to New York,” New York Times (21 March 2003), A1.

11. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “America’s Image Further Erodes, Europeans Want Weaker Ties,” (18 March 2003),, 1-3; The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Views of a Changing World 2003,” (3 June 2003),, 1-10; Christopher Marquis, “World’s View of U.S. Sours After Iraq War, Poll Finds,” New York Times (4 June 2003), A19; Steven R. Weisman, “Bush-Appointed Panel Finds U.S. Image Abroad is in Peril,” New York Times (1 October 2003); Pew Research Center, “Views of a Changing World 2003,” 3; Harry Dunphy, “World Support for U.S. Sinks,” Kalamazoo Gazette (8 June 2003), Albright quote, A14.

12. Lyman Abbott, The Rights of Man: A Study in Twentieth Century Problems (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1901), 274. And a few unipolarists are Democrats and even liberals, such as Michael Ignatieff, Zbignew Brzezinski, and Peter Beinart.

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