Suddenly, serious people are rethinking an old idea that's time has come again: colonialism.
For years, colonialism has been discredited. It was considered racist on the left to point out that many people lived better and more productive lives under, say, British rule than they have without it (Belgian rule is another story).
And on the other end of the spectrum, the realist and isolationist wings of the conservative movement, especially after the Cold War, became convinced that anyplace hard to pronounce wasn't worth visiting for long.
Pat Buchanan argued for Fortress America (and against the Gulf War) and Colin Powell championed the "Powell Doctrine," which said, in effect, don't do anything or go anywhere unless you're absolutely, positively, sure you can "get out as quickly as you got in."
The events of Sept. 11 reshuffled the deck. On the liberal-left, neo-colonialism may still be off the table, but military hawkishness certainly prevails. Washington Post columnist, E.J. Dionne, the intellectual conscience of the Democratic Party, has already declared this a "just war." The liberal New Republic is hectoring President Bush from his right and demanding a broad commitment to rearranging the global chessboard.
Perhaps the most revealing canary in the liberal coal mine, Scott Simon, the host of National Public Radio's "Weekend Edition" and a Quaker, recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal that his fellow pacifists must abandon their knee-jerk anti-militarism and support the war effort.
Sure, the zanies on the isolationist right and the in-need-of-medication left are screaming louder than ever, but that's because nobody will listen to them. In an environment in which President Bush's approval ratings scrape the ceiling of mathematical feasibility and Americans hoard gas masks, nobody wants to hear Katha Pollitt of The Nation declare that the American flag "stands for jingoism and vengeance and war."
But Americans may be willing to listen to a serious argument for American Empire. And now we have it. Max Boot, the features editor of The Wall Street Journal, has written a cogent and measured essay in the Oct. 15 issue of The Weekly Standard explaining that our problems abroad don't stem from too much American "imperialism," but too little.
Boot runs through the litany of American foreign policy failures in the last decade and, uniformly, he finds our mistakes stemmed not from an arrogance of power, but from a reluctance to use it.
In Somalia, our nose was bloodied and we ran. This, Boot writes, "fostered a widespread impression that we could be chased out of a country by anyone who managed to kill a few Americans." In 1998, when our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were blown up, we lobbed cruise missiles at some empty tents in Afghanistan and an aspirin factory in the Sudan.
"Those attacks were indeed symbolic," writes Boot, "but not in the way Clinton intended.
They symbolized not U.S. determination but rather passivity in the face of terrorism. And this impression was reinforced by the failure of either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush to retaliate for the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000."
Boot's most telling example is offered by the first President Bush, who chose to abandon Afghanistan once the Soviets were kicked out. We were right to help expel the Russians; we were wrong not to clean up the mess. From that mess, the Taliban were born.
Similarly, our lack of resolve invited Saddam Hussein into Kuwait in the first place. And our reluctance to finish the job by ousting him told the world we were more enamored with the status quo than with our rhetoric about democracy.
Boot argues that the United States should topple the Taliban and Saddam and then revisit such quaint ideas as creating "mandates" as first envisioned by the League of Nations and still possible through the United Nations. The aim, according to Boot, shouldn't be to create nations but to help create states - i.e. working governments. We did this in Haiti (1915-1933), the Philippines (1899-1935) and in Japan and Germany after World War II.
Boot's argument is coldly realistic. Establishing an empire is in America's self-interest. Period. While I agree, I've long believed there's a more obvious argument for American colonialism. It's the right thing to do. All over the globe, particularly in Africa, there are nations slipping further and further back in time, becoming sicker, more impoverished and environmentally degraded while the rest of world becomes richer, healthier and cleaner.
Cutting checks to the criminals and buffoons who run many of these countries doesn't work. America needs to be willing to take a serious look at making examples of a few nations, at gunpoint if need be, in order to stop this horrendous trend and help the people not the dictators. The fact that this is in America's national interest, as Boot delineates, is only one more reason why we should do the right thing.