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Robert Kaplan: Empire Without Apologies | The Nation

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Robert Kaplan: Empire Without Apologies

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Kaplan's reporting, however, belies his thesis, both as to the imperial past and the military imperatives of the present. Two examples will suffice to make the point.

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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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Kaplan's chapter on the Philippines details his stay in Zamboanga, where Filipino authorities have been engaged in a never-ending struggle against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. After 9/11 Washington classified the Moros as part of the global terrorist conspiracy and dispatched a contingent of military advisers to assist the Filipino army. For the Pentagon the southern Philippines became, in Kaplan's words, "a laboratory for drying up an Islamic insurgency, as well as for small-scale nation-building."

This is not, to put it mildly, the first time that American soldiers have undertaken such an enterprise. For well over a decade during the "First Expeditionary Era," Zamboanga had been the headquarters for khaki-clad Americans tasked with pacifying what was then called the Moro Province. US Army forces, under a succession of famous commanders such as Leonard Wood, Tasker Bliss and John Pershing, employed the "Peace Corps with guns" approach, combining naked coercion with ambitious programs of political reform, social engineering and economic development. Although the phrase "humanitarian intervention" had yet to be invented, the American officers sent to deal with the Moros had no doubt that their own intentions were humane and high-minded.

The effort yielded a meager harvest. Although the Americans killed plenty of Moros, including notoriously large numbers of women and children, resistance to US rule proved to be inextinguishable. Imaginative and energetically implemented nation-building programs had a negligible impact. Several decades of colonial tutelage produced a present-day Philippine nation that Kaplan himself describes as "dysfunctional, intractable, and poverty-stricken," not to mention "pathetically corrupt." Indeed, Kaplan observes--correctly--that "from 1902 to 1913, America's attempt to impose democracy had led to a more militant Islam." Why will present-day attempts to dry up this perpetual insurgency yield a different result? He does not say.

Kaplan conceived of his visit to Iraq as an opportunity to witness US Marines, tapping their rich history in "small wars," winning Iraqi hearts and minds. But unforeseen events intervened. When insurgents murdered four American contractors in Falluja on March 31, 2004, priorities changed: Cultural sensitivity suddenly mattered less than brute force. Battering Falluja into submission saw Marines resorting to the "Big Army" methods that Kaplan had earlier disdained, complete with tanks, fighter-bombers and an abundance of firepower. The assault on Falluja was the "classic, immemorial labor of infantry" reminiscent of Vietnam and World War II. It wasn't tea with warlords; it was a bloodbath.

On whether the effort advanced the boundaries of free society and good governance, Kaplan remains silent. But certainly the successive battles for Falluja--indeed, the mess that is present-day Iraq--calls into question Kaplan's contention that scattering Special Forces teams hither and yon will enable the United States to bring the Injuns to heel. There will always be recalcitrants willing and determined to fight.

Kaplan introduces Imperial Grunts with this typically bold assertion: "By the turn of the twenty-first century, the United States military had already appropriated the entire earth, and was ready to flood the most obscure areas of it with troops at a moment's notice." Whether such an assessment of US military power was ever accurate is doubtful. By 2005, however, it had become demonstrably false. Hard-pressed to hold on to the new provinces to which today's architects of empire have laid claim, America's armed forces are in no position to appropriate more. As for the Pentagon's ability to flood additional obscure quarters of the earth, the troops required to do so simply do not exist.

The real story of the present-day US military, which the peripatetic Kaplan somehow has managed to overlook, is one of power squandered--lives lost, dollars wasted, a glittering reputation sullied. It's enough to suggest that a militarized empire might not be such a great idea after all.

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