No empire is ever acquired in a "fit of absent-mindedness." What is true is that all sorts of historical forces go into the acquisition of imperial orders: will and design on the part of a great power, furtive invitations by nations that crave imperial protection but are too proud to admit it, the "vacuum" that often pulls a reluctant power into settings that beckon it and rail against it at the same time. America is coming into an unmistakable imperial hegemony in the Muslim world. And the acquisition of that imperial position is as striking as the reluctance–at times the innocence–with which America approaches this new calling.
War in Iraq, and a new role in that country in the aftermath of that war, would only confirm and deepen this American imperium. There is already talk of Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the Central Command, overseeing in Baghdad the twin goals of demilitarizing and democratizing that country–a high commissioner on the Tigris, Tommy Pasha delivering the land from its historical furies. It is an odd and ironic outcome: Eight decades after Britain's "imperial moment" in the modern Middle East, after the states of that region were put together by administrative fiat, we are now at another historical watershed. A decade earlier, after Desert Storm, America had walked away from any imperial burden in Iraq. The campaign, it was said then, was about freedom of nations (the liberation of Kuwait), not freedom in nations–the liberation of Iraq's brutalized people.
Lands of sorrow. It is not that the American appetite for dominion has grown in the intervening decade. The American reluctance about imperial entanglements endures; the aversion to being on the ground in Arab and Muslim lands is more powerful still. Tragedy had taught us that those are difficult, deadly assignments, that Americans are strangers in Arab-Muslim lands. Imperial duty is never cheap: Beirut taught us that lesson in 1983, when 241 American servicemen perished in a bombing of military barracks by that city's airport. The recent history of the American presence in Islamic lands is punctuated by deeds and place names that have become synonymous with American sorrow and heartbreak.
America's political and military leaders are supremely sober and seasoned men and women. If war it be in Iraq, they will have come to it out of conviction that all other options have failed. They will have arrived at that determination only because the shattering terrors of Sept. 11, 2001, revealed hatreds of America and malignancies beyond our wildest imagination. For all the talk of "hawks" within the Bush administration eager for war, of "sunshine warriors" keen to unleash war on Iraq, the caution of American officials is difficult to miss. It was that horrific Tuesday in September 2001 that tilted the balance in favor of a pre-emptive option in Iraq.
The lesson has sunk in that there are terrors in the shadows that stalk America in that highly resentful, deeply unsettled, Middle Eastern world. On October 8, two young Kuwaitis, who had trained in Afghanistan but had been clever enough to show no outward signs of excessive religious zeal, killed one U.S. marine and wounded another on a little island off Kuwait's coast. One of the two men went out of his way to wear a gold chain around his neck and jeans and to chew gum in public, all terrible lapses to Islamists. The assailants were young, 21 and 26 years of age. As the noted Kuwaiti liberal intellectual Shafeeq Ghabra observed, these terrorists were too young to remember the nightmare that had descended on Kuwait in August 1990, the long months of Iraqi occupation, the terror and the destruction that befell Kuwait at the hands of the Iraqi conquerors, and the American rescue of their country.
Wars of liberation are never simple; gratitude is never guaranteed. We know this, for we never hear Islamists acknowledging the role of American power in rescuing the Bosnians and the Kosovars, both Muslim populations, from the assault of the more powerful Serbian and Croatian nationalisms. In Iraq, we may face a difficult imperial burden.
But, in their wisdom, the American people seem to have factored all that into a subdued recognition that war against Saddam Hussein may emerge as the best of a bad lot of alternatives. Where Britain once filled the void left by the shattered Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the First World War, now the failures–and the dangers–of the successor Arab states are drawing America to its own imperial mission.