No one wants to say it out loud, but we are all colonialists now.
Conservatives want to provide security and decent government to far-flung parts of the world for our own good -- to protect America's interests; liberals want to provide security and decent government to far-flung parts of the world for other people's good -- to protect humanitarian principles.
The unspoken assumption of both sides is that swaths of the world have proven incapable of self-government, and they're both right. So conservative Republican President George W. Bush sends American troops to take over from the nasty dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, and liberal Democrat Howard Dean wants to send American troops to take over from the nasty dictator of Liberia, Charles Taylor.
Beneath all the vitriolic partisan disagreements about American foreign policy, then, there is a sort of colonialist consensus, which is why American troops are in Afghanistan and Iraq (a Republican president's colonialism), Bosnia and Kosovo (a Democratic president's colonialism), and perhaps soon Liberia, too (a Republican president's colonialism that is pleasing to Democrats).
The covert return to colonialism implicitly admits that old-fashioned colonialism -- at least of the civilizing British Empire sort -- never deserved its bad name. The British were capable of brutality and greed, but the historical ledger of the British Empire is positive. As British historian Niall Ferguson writes in his new book, Empire: "No organization in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labor than the British Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And no organization has done more to impose Western norms of law, order and governance around the world."
That we forgot all this -- buried under an avalanche of guilt and of Marxist and multiculturalist self-critiques -- is a sign of how no one can beat the West at anti-Westernism. Sept. 11 was a blunt reminder that the piratical regimes that have flourished in Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa in the absence of Western assertion are not just a disaster for people living under them, but are dangerous to us.