WASHINGTON -- Colin Powell's masterful argument last week boosted public support for military action against Saddam Hussein, but did not convince his counterparts at the United Nations. The U.S., therefore, is poised to attack on its own, without the U.N. Security Council passing a second authorizing resolution. However, presumed military success projects an American imperium that evokes apprehension among some conservative supporters of President Bush.
This imperial mission has staunch proponents inside the Bush administration, definitely not including Secretary of State Powell. Worried Republicans in Congress and outside government question U.S. capability to bear so heavy a burden. The nation-building exercise in Afghanistan is faltering, and the task of dealing with North Korea while mobilizing against Iraq strains the government's capacity.
The path to war is clearly marked. Russia and China have signaled opposition to a second resolution unless they see hard evidence of nuclear weapons development by Iraq, and France is likely to take the same position. The International Atomic Energy Agency several weeks from now is expected to declare Iraq free of nuclear weapons development, but the U.S.-led coalition will have attacked by then and, probably, driven Hussein from power.
This will be no mere change of regime in Baghdad. George Friedman, chairman of the Stratfor.com private intelligence service, last week wrote: "The conquest of Iraq will not be a minor event in history: It will represent the introduction of a new imperial power to the Middle East and a redefinition of regional geopolitics based on that power. The United States will move from being an outside power influencing events through coalitions, to a regional power that is able to operate effectively on its own."
Friedman neither praised nor condemned this change, but suggested that "countries like Saudi Arabia" will not enjoy "living in a new and quite unpleasant world." With Iraqi oil in hand, U.S. dependence on Saudi Arabia would end. The Saudis, fearing an Islamic revolt followed by U.S. intervention in their own country, are frantically trying to avert American intervention in Iraq (which explains reports of Saudi efforts to depose Hussein).
After pondering Powell's presentation during a sleepless night, one conservative Republican prominent in Washington's think tank culture e-mailed a friend his concern about a U.S. strategy for "remaking the entire Middle East." He added: "It's not that I care one whit whether or not Iraq is a crummy little dictatorship, but I do care that once we cross the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, we may have started down the road to a Pax Americana through an American imperium from which there is no return."
Whether or not it is desirable, taking up this burden strains the nation's capacity. Senior Republican senators note the government's difficulty in dealing simultaneously with confronting Iraq, the Korean crisis and nation building in Afghanistan. Indeed, the follow-up to military victory in Afghanistan casts doubts on America running an empire.
A former senior diplomat (and official in the first Bush administration) who specializes in Central Asia, last week wrote a private memo about "winning the war and losing the peace in Afghanistan." He cited "the administration's confused, underfunded 2002 reconstruction approach," which faces superior al Qaeda and Taliban resources. He expressed fear that democratic friends of the West may lose power in Kabul.
At last Thursday's White House briefing, spokesman Ari Fleischer was asked whether the president was retreating from 2000 campaign opposition to the use of U.S. troops for nation building, since they now are stationed in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia and probably soon in Iraq. "No," responded Fleischer, "the president continues to believe that the purpose of using the military should be to fight and win wars." Instead, he talked about U.S. relief workers distributing humanitarian aid in occupied Iraq along with "a variety of international relief organizations."
Watching Fleischer on television, a skeptical Republican in Congress could only chuckle. It will take more than civil servants to bring order to Baghdad after the coming war. In quest of national greatness at home and of a Middle East that is safe for America and Israel, George W. Bush faces a daunting task. While disdaining nation building, he is embarking on empire building.