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Sunday, September 06, 2009  

Empire, Hegemony, Whatever

TAE takes issue with my recent post on Afghanistan:

It's not rhetoric of empire because we are not building an empire! Empires are/were built for one purpose and one purpose only: to establish remote holdings from which money will flow to the mother country. The U.S. has never done anything but pour money to Iraq and Afghanistan, and are clearly not empire building.

While I see the points many critics are making about never-ending wars that cannot possibly be won, we all need to step back and remember that not every war should have a magically assumed timeline of 5 years or less = success, >5 years = failure.

To take the second point first, I agree. Success can certainly take a long time, and I think a lot of critics of the Afghanistan deployment would be mollified if the administration were clearer about 1) what would constitute success and 2) how it could be realistically achieved. Are we trying to stamp out all resistance to the U.S. presence in Af-Pak? Count me out for that one, since it won't ever happen (and even if it could, what would be the point of waiting until no one wants us to leave in order to leave?). Are we trying to build a fully-functioning Afghan state that can exert control over the whole country from Kabul? That is a huge mission and one we have no obvious interest in completing. If it's a more modest goal, maybe it could work. The problem is that the habitual dodginess of our leaders is abetted by the utter credulity of the press when it comes to evaluating ends and means.

To address the first point, I don't know. Did the Soviet Union exert imperial control over Eastern Europe? I'm pretty sure they didn't make much money off of it. If you want to define imperialism strictly in terms of wealth-extraction, then there have been relatively few empires in world history. My untutored sense of things is that imperial projects--that is, the exertion of effective control over foreign populations, whether through direct occupation or vassalage--start up and perpetuate themselves for a whole lot of reasons. Civilizing missions, trumped-up claims of self-defense, national prestige, the protection of strategic interests, and plain old belligerence go into the hopper with commercial interests and you end up with a political and military situation that is very hard to get disentangled from. U.S. troops are stationed all over the world, most of them simply ensuring that things go as we wish them to.

I think "empire" is a pretty good way to describe this state of affairs, but if anyone objects, just read "hegemony" for "empire" and you should take my meaning.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 7:14 PM
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