Just over 2,000 years ago, when the Roman republic turned itself into an empire and extended the Pax Romana over most of the known world, Rome exercised direct control over about half the population of the world, and was able to tax them and raise troops from them. So the Roman empire lasted over 400 years.
Many people in Washington now talk openly of turning the American republic into an imperial power that enforces a Pax Americana around the planet. But the United States of America has only four per cent of the planet’s population, and its people are equally averse to high taxes and US casualties. The demand for US troops and money will rapidly outrun the supply, so the American empire will last about 20 minutes — but it may be a hectic and painful twenty minutes.
The dream of an American empire has attracted American neo-conservatives for decades, but it gained a much broader following after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The only constraint on US power had been removed, and the idea that the world would be a safer place if governed by multilateral organizations under the rule of law began to give way to the fantasy that the US can and should make the world a safer place (particularly for American interests) by the unilateral exercise of its own immense power.
As Boston University professor and retired US army officer Andrew Bacevich wrote recently in The National Interest, “In all of American public life, there is hardly a single prominent figure who finds fault with the notion of the United States remaining the world’s sole military superpower until the end of time.” This is called hubris, and it is generally followed by nemesis. That will probably come in the next phase of the fantasy: the wildly ambitious project to make the conquest of Iraq the cornerstone of a wholesale restructuring of the Arab world along American lines.
“America has made and kept this kind of commitment before, in the peace that followed a world war,” said George W. Bush late last month, comparing the project to the rebuilding of German and Japan after 1945. “We will remain in Iraq as long as necessary.” You don’t know whether to laugh or cry, but tears are probably more appropriate, for that is where this is all going to end.
But occupying Iraq is likely to prove too heavy a burden for the US public to tolerate for very long. The Kurds in the north will try to keep the de facto independence they have enjoyed for the past 10 years, and the Turkish army will move in to ensure that they don’t set up an independent Kurdistan that will act as a beacon for Tur- key’s own huge Kurdish minority. The Iraqi Kurds will fight if the Turks invade, and the US can either intervene in this no-win situation or leave the north of Iraq to another round of bloody fighting.
Doomed from start
The Shia Arab majority of Iraq’s population, long excluded from power by the Sunni Arab minority, will also try to leave Iraq unless it gets a lion’s share of power in Baghdad. That won’t happen because the loyalties of Iraqi Shias lie with their co-religionists in Iran, and Washington will not allow a pro-Iranian government to emerge in Baghdad that would control Iraq’s oil and threaten Saudi Arabia. So the US will end up running Iraq through the same Sunni Arab elite that Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party draws most of its members from, and Shia militants will soon be attacking American occupation forces in southern Iraq.
The Romans dealt with this sort of stuff all the time. In fact, they often had four or five situations like this going on in various parts of their empire at the same time. They just spent the money, put in the troops, took their casualties, and killed enough of the locals to keep the rest quiet. But does anybody seriously think that the current generation of Americans is going to pay that sort of price for a world empire that nobody, except a narrow Washington-based elite, really wants' We are probably no more than two years away from a Somalia-style US withdrawal from Iraq.