Imperial Inertia

09/19/2011 10:25 am ET | Updated Nov 19, 2011

The United States' audacious bid to dominate the greater Middle East by military force is going at close to full throttle. This is despite the talk in Washington about over-extension, budgetary constraints, and war fatigue. Three stories this week reveal this dismaying truth while conveying the flavor of the prevailing mindset in the White House and the security agencies.

First is the revelation that the imperial-scale American embassy complex in Baghdad already needs expansion to accommodate the 6,000 mercenaries there to ride shotgun for the 9,000 civilian employees whenever they clamber out of their bomb-proof offices. That number includes roughly 1,200 U.S. officials and 7,800 hired help from places like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to do the laundry, clean the rooms and serve the food. The mercenaries also will guard the citadel and its satellite fortresses in Basra, Mosul and Erbil. These Blackwater types have the additional duty of escorting salesmen and agents for American businesses selling and servicing weapons for the Iraqi military. The forces commander-in-chief will be Hillary Clinton. They are in addition to the 10,000 troops that Washington is trying to impose on the reluctant Iraqi government and thousands more on call next door in Kuwait.

We are not withdrawing from Iraq; we are redeploying our various levers of power so as better to control the country. What is the strategic justification? We have yet to hear one. Understandably. Since there was no credible reason to go into Iraq in the first place, it is hard to come up with an excuse for staying. In truth, we are trying to stay on because we already have sunk so much in the futile attempt to turn Iraq into an American satellite that the administration and its allies remain ashamed to admit what a pointless fiasco the past eight and a half years have been. So they mouth catch phrases like "we need to counteract Iranian designs on the country," or "we must counteract the growing presence of al-Qaida," or even "we have to maintain Iraq as an island of stability in an unstable Middle East." Take your pick of illogical excuses.

The second story recounts the Obama administration's plans to escalate further the drone campaigns in Yemen and Somalia. There is a mild debate between those who want to restrict assassinations to (supposedly) identified leaders of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Qaida in East Africa. Others are keen to expand the target list to include (suspected) foot soldiers; other radical Islamist groups who use violence against people on our side, i.e. remnants of the Saleh regime in Yemen or those who currently reside in the presidential palace in Mogadishu (with an American-sponsored African Union force having taken the baton from the Christian Ethiopians whom we earlier inflicted on the Muslim Somalis in a foregone bloody failure to hold at bay the Islamists); and even radical fundamentalist organizations only potentially hostile to the United States. In this latter perspective, a manifest threat to the United States is unnecessary for targeted killings and Special Forces operations. Again, there is no public statement of exactly why it is imperative to do these things that not only violate international law and national sovereignty but are counter-productive by their provoking bitter anti-American feelings among the natives -- leading some to contemplate doing us harm directly.

Finally, there is the mounting military campaign to eliminate all anti-American groups in Northwest Pakistan -- be they local al-Qaida residue, some variety of Taliban, the Haqqani network, their Kashmiri and Punjabi based allies and whomever else gets in the way. These operations are being conducted with minimal Pakistani approval or cooperation. We in effect have declared political war on the Pakistani leadership, in particular the Army, since the Abottabad affair. Here too we hear nothing as to what our objectives are, how reasonable they are in terms of our national interests, how realistic they are, and the risks associated with sowing instability while fostering hostility toward the United States in a nuclear armed Pakistan. All we know for sure is that the blueprints are completed for monumental embassies in Kabul and Islamabad and that we are dedicated to retaining control over massive air bases scattered throughout Afghanistan. Silk Road commerce looks better protected than at any time since the Mongols imposed order on Central Asia during the thirteenth century. Protected from whom? Ask Barack Obama, David Petraeus or Leon Panetta -- not necessarily in that order.

America is becoming an impulsive power that relentlessly pursues audacious ventures out of the momentum to prevent any and all risk by preventive liquidation of whomever may harbor ill-will toward us, and by controlling all those places where any such persons may crop up. This behavior may rightly be called 'imperial' in the sense that it embraces actions directed at taking charge of others without their permission.

A strong sense of superiority is the bedrock of the imperial mindset. It enables and it justifies imposing oneself on others. The ingredients of superiority are physical, political and moral. Psychologically, they reinforce each other. They also are fungible -- to varying degrees.
Military prowess, in making the practical tasks easier, feeds the 'we are better" syndrome while emboldening the nation to pursue audacious ambition. Being able to do something shifts the balance in judging whether we ought to do it. For it promises to confer success. Political superiority manifests itself in two ways: as the factor that makes possible the projection of military power, and in the conviction that "we" can actually improve the life of the natives by providing them with the order and 'enlightened' institutions of which they themselves are incapable.

Moral superiority is integral to the mix, especially for those who prize their self-designated virtue -- and see themselves as having a selfless interest in promoting it in other lands. These days that is a critical element. A keen sense of being a 'good' people concerned about uplifting others salves consciences, erases doubts and permits using dubious means to accomplish virtuous ends. This self-serving perspective paves the way of course for the routinization of hypocrisy.

The imperial mindset is comfortable with taking charge of other peoples. Doing so is not felt as odd or improper. Controlling and giving direction to the natives is, in fact, praiseworthy insofar as it carries the promise of improving things for them, as well as for oneself. Imperialist thinking arrogates to itself the right to make that judgment according to its own lights. The decision to intervene is that nation's alone. It requires no higher authority since none is recognized or deemed qualified. Good intentions create their own legitimacy. These days, there is some sensitivity to legitimacy. So it is desirable to have partners who serve as auxiliaries to the enterprise. Their presence masks the truth of it being in essence a unilateral action. The formal laying on of hands by a collective security organization has practical advantages, too, even if it comes after the fact. But the 'world community' in any guise has no rightful place in making key determinations. Our imperialists know best, and know that they know best.

Similarly, it is unnecessary to get the prior approval of the people being subjugated. After all, if they both knew what their own enlightened interests were and were free to express them, the occasion for the intervention would not have arisen. Dictatorships, especially hostile ones, lower the threshold for intervention since they are seen as preventing the latter condition from being met. Post hoc approval by the natives is inferred from their participation in whatever governing mechanisms are put in place; even passive acquiescence is interpreted as confirming the occupier's righteousness and as bestowing legitimacy.

An absence of empathy for the locals and a consonant dulling of sensibilities about the duress they experience is integral to the imperial personality. Cultural knowledge is sought only on instrumental terms. It is extracted and processed as just another kind of information. To develop an understanding of the natives sufficient to allow for identification with them is to threaten the innate feelings of superiority and perhaps to heighten the awareness of being an alien intruder. That is why, nowadays, there is a preference for using native interpreters and home-grown experts as tag-ons in performing occupation missions. Lack of cultural preparation may also can be represented as a sign that there is no intention of being a long-term occupier. A sign to the locals, to outside parties and to whomever looks askance at avowals of no imperial purpose.

In addition, containing empathy is a way of avoiding inhibition about the use of violence. For it allows for a degree of depersonalization of the civilian casualties that are an inescapable accompaniment to military action. Guilt and inhibition about committing unsavory acts are muted when dealing with a depersonalized 'them' rather than persons whose character and individuality emerges from a known socio-cultural setting.

The imperial state of mind is strengthened by being a collective phenomenon. Emotions play a bigger role than does deliberate thought. This is particularly important in countries where invasion and occupation go against the grain of national self-image. A threshold of initial intensity must be crossed to fuel passions that can override habit and inhibition. 9/11 did exactly that. By providing both motivation and a blanket justification for whatever is done, the imperial mindset can grow and sustain itself whatever happens 'out there.' Emotions of this kind have the further effect of silencing and/or ignoring critics who may bring to the fore uncomfortable facts. In other words, group think and implicit group censorship go hand-in-hand. Selective perception thereby becomes a constant in the imperial mind set.

'Imperial' behavior generates momentum that is as much mental and emotional as it is political or organizational. One gets accustomed to doing certain things that may have seemed disagreeable if not unnatural at the outset. The second and third times become instinctively easier. This holds even where the first intervention/occupation has been anything but an unalloyed success. The accommodating attitudes become routinized as inertia of all kinds carries the process forward. The imperial mentality feeds on itself just as one intervention creates a military cum political dynamic that impels a nation towards subsequent interventions.

A companion feature of the imperial mentality is its susceptibility to becoming prisoner of expectations. To set down the path of imposing oneself on others is to make a bet on success. For the stake is not only the stated objective but all that has been invested in the project. Beyond resources -- human, financial, diplomatic -- there is collective self esteem. There is the collectivity's sense of moral worth. This last figures prominently in the mentality of a liberal democratic society that cultivates the idea of its intrinsic virtue. To come up short (much less fail outright) is bad enough. To make hostage to that failure something that one supposedly cherishes is to court a crisis of self doubt and plunging morale. Paradoxically, plowing ahead can put off that day of reckoning by keeping regrets at bay -- for a time. This is so even where the ultimate consequences are more painful.