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Robert Kaplan: Empire Without Apologies | The Nation

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Robert Kaplan: Empire Without Apologies

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Why are such people worth defending? How is it that a warped and decadent society manages to produce such sturdy warriors? Hovering in the background of his snapshot, these questions do not interest Kaplan. He prefers to focus on the American soldier in the field, where the order of the day has less to do with defending the country per se than with managing a global empire.

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Andrew J. Bacevich
Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, is the editor of the...

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On that empire Kaplan is bullish. He views the global war on terror as an opportunity to push out its boundaries--if the policy-making twits in Washington will simply give dirty-boots soldiers the latitude to do so. "To be an American in the first decade of the twenty-first century," he writes, "was to be present at a grand and fleeting moment." The events of September 11, 2001, inaugurated what Kaplan calls America's "Second Expeditionary Era"--the first had begun with the expansionist surge of 1898--in which US forces once again sally forth to take up "the white man's burden," a phrase that he employs without irony or apology.

Kaplan laces his narrative with ostentatious references to emperors and adventurers, proconsuls and viceroys, ranging from T.E. Lawrence to "Ligustinus, the Roman centurion." The cumulative effect is to suggest that the United States today is simply doing what empires throughout history have done: shouldering "the righteous responsibility to advance the boundaries of free society and good government into zones of sheer chaos." To imply that other, less exalted considerations just might enter into the equation--power? profit?--becomes unseemly. For Kaplan, the essence of empire is helping those unable to help themselves, creating order out of anarchy and uplifting the downtrodden.

In this sense, as Kaplan sees it, 9/11 returned the US military to its nineteenth-century roots when advancing the boundaries of free society meant removing any obstacles impeding the westward march of the young Republic. Today's war on terror is "really about taming the frontier," with the frontier now literally without limits. According to Kaplan, the vast swath of Islam, stretching from Africa across the Middle East to Southeast Asia, now qualifies as "Injun Country." The "entire planet" has now become "battle space for the American military."

Buried in all of this chest-thumping jingoism and celebration of soldierly virtue is an argument of sorts. The essence of the argument is as follows: America's unconventional warriors hold the key to governing its global imperium. On the outer rim of empire, cultural sensitivity and familiarity with the local languages matter more than firepower. The efforts of the guy on the ground sipping tea with the local warlord count for more than airy pronouncements issued by the Pentagon or the White House. Quality outweighs quantity. Rather than the large, fixed installations favored by what Kaplan contemptuously refers to as the "Big Army," better to establish a small, austere footprint. Only the US military has the ability to run the American empire, but "the fewer troops that policed it the better."

According to Kaplan, the world's sole superpower doesn't especially need tanks and fighter-bombers, artifacts from a military age now past. Instead, it ought to be investing in something akin to a "Peace Corps with guns." During the course of his travels, he discovers that the nation already has this capability in its Special Forces and Marine Corps--elite organizations optimized for imperial policing. All that's required is to turn them loose and to get out of the way. After all, as Kaplan explains in an assertion sure to come as news to the Air Force and the Northern Alliance, a mere handful of special operations troops "conquered Afghanistan by themselves."

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