American imposition

July 04, 2005|By Douglas A. Macgregor

AMERICA CELEBRATES its independence at a point in history when its armed forces are trying to secure Iraq's independence through a dramatic transformation of Iraqi society. But the use of military power to transform society is more problematic than Americans may realize.

The United States and Europe spent most of the 20th century coping with the forces of nationalism unleashed by the French Revolution and Karl Marx's mock-scientific theory of history as the systematic unfolding of a predictable, dialectical process. The Bolsheviks, later called communists, united the two and tried to perfect human society through force of arms at home and abroad.

They and their offshoots in Asia, Africa and Latin America turned much of the 20th century world into a battlefield. Today's world is littered with the wreckage of their failed utopian projects. The irony was that in using military power to re-create human society as it should be, scientific socialism effectively destroyed cultures and societies that were the products of hundreds, even thousands, of years of human experience.

These utopian projects failed because they threatened culture, religion and race, the enduring foundations of human identity. By century's end, the world's multinational empires were replaced by smaller, ethnically and culturally homogeneous states. Only criminals such as Saddam Hussein were left to govern culturally and ethnically diverse states in the shadows of that revolutionary violence.

Since 1991, a succession of American presidents, confirmed in the rightness of free-market economics and democratic governance, have been sorting through the wreckage of the past, pursuing policies shaped by an idealistic longing to remake the world in America's image.

Firm in their belief that the chief cause of victory in the Cold War was unstoppable American military power, all three presidents since 1991 concluded that the great task for the U.S. military in the 21st century was to create conditions fostering the emergence of new, healthy cultures and economies from the wreckage of the last century. This conviction is not only evident in the $5 billion to $6 billion a month that vanish into the black hole that is Iraq, it is also demonstrated by the presence of U.S. forces all over the world, from Uzbekistan to Kosovo, from Colombia to Pakistan.

Now, Americans are reconsidering these actions, because the problem in Iraq today is not the military intervention that could be justified on many grounds but the decision to dismantle the Iraqi state's national institutions and occupy the country with U.S., British and other allied troops. Americans are delighted to have Army and Marine ground forces provide a shield behind which new, prosperous and democratic societies can eventually rise. But Americans are learning that soldiers and Marines cannot and should not administer other people's societies.

When Americans conduct house-to-house searches in Arab towns and cities, when Americans incarcerate or kill thousands of Muslim Arabs, U.S. troops are cast in the unwelcome role of occupying police officers and nation-builders in the xenophobic Muslim Arab World. They confront the truly unstoppable forces of culture, religion, race and ethnicity.

Frankly, the whole notion of forcibly incorporating countries such as Iraq into an imaginary globalized world must be discarded lest we precipitate the very opposite of what we want to achieve. It is vital that we understand that the evolution of the Islamic world into new prosperous societies will take decades and that the evolution will be shaped and driven by the people who live in the Islamic world, not us.

In 1950, when Seoul had been retaken from the North Korean Communists, Gen. Douglas MacArthur reinstated South Korea's pre-war dictator, Syngman Rhee. The State Department, which disliked Mr. Rhee's authoritarian politics, vehemently objected. It wanted South Korea to become a modern, democratic society on the English-speaking model. General MacArthur resisted, arguing, "Asians must govern Asians." Because of his opposition to bad policy, South Korea is now everything the State Department wanted, but only after a systematic 50-year program to build a middle class, a flourishing economy and a multiparty system.

If there is a lesson for the United States, it is to heed the words of the late Sen. Robert Taft, an Ohio Republican. He warned in the aftermath of World War II that it would be tempting for Americans "to slip into an attitude of imperialism and to entertain the idea that we know what is good for other people better than they know themselves. From there it is an easy step to the point where war becomes an instrument of public policy rather than the last resort to maintain our own liberty."

Douglas A. Macgregor, a former Army colonel and Persian Gulf War veteran, is the author of Transformation Under Fire: Revolutionizing the Way America Fights.

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