Robert Kaplan is a hugely well-informed, indefatigable journalist who combines firsthand reporting, mostly from poor, badly governed or ungoverned countries, with wide reading on the political, economic and ecological ills facing the same lands. He is read with care by policy-makers. His terrain has been the “arc of crisis” that extends from West Africa through the Middle East and Central Asia to the Far East. More recently, he has turned from reporting to prescription. In an article in the July/August Atlantic Monthly, he has written “Supremacy by Stealth: Ten Rules for Managing the World.”
Because Kaplan is a serious reporter, his recommendations deserve to be taken seriously–the more so as they closely parallel the actual policies of the Bush Administration. That America now “possesses a global empire,” he says, is a given–a “cliché”–and the only real question is how it should be run, which is to say how the United States should “manage an unruly world.” Others–including Michael Ignatieff, author of the New York Times Magazine article “The American Empire: The Burden”; Andrew Bacevich, author of American Empire; and Niall Ferguson, author of Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power–have taken the same view. These writers have been equivocal in their support for the project, but Kaplan is an unapologetic imperialist. He frankly advocates a policy of American global domination that others leave between the lines.
An “empire” is more than a foreign policy; it is a form of government, and American citizens might well ask exactly when it was that the United States, formally a republic, became one. It’s famously said that the British acquired their empire in a fit of absence of mind. Has it been the same with the United States? When was it decided? But never mind. For now, let’s look at what this empire is said to be, and what its apologists want it, and us, to become.
There is, Kaplan admits, a contradiction between the democratic principles the United States professes and the empire it seeks. The solution, he says, must be deception–the “stealth” of his article’s title. The United States will have to operate “in the shadows and behind closed doors.” The CIA and Special Forces will play key roles. They should not bother too much with instructions from Washington. Kaplan approvingly cites a Marine lieutenant colonel who says, “We back into deployments. There doesn’t need to be a policy directive from the Pentagon.” Thus is policy made in a stealth empire. Often, he notes, in poor countries a phone call from a US military officer will be more effective than one from an ambassador. In fact, the “very distinction between our civilian and military operations overseas is eroding.” Congress should be circumvented. Limitations it places on military operations can be safely ignored by “the U.S. ambassador and the U.S. military commander in the host country.”