An IDC Analysis 


New Delhi, 05 May 2003


TWO CONTRADICTORY lessons are emerging from the initial experiences of American forces in postwar Iraq. Officials concerned with restoring Iraqi infrastructure, services and government have quickly realized that they face humbling challenges, and that reaching the goal of a stable Iraq under a democratic regime may take a few years to accomplish –– not months. Secondly, do Americans have the patience and will to go through this painful and difficult transitional phase of a free Iraq to whose people Bush has promised democratic self-rule –– just like handing over an American product?

IDC came across a very incisive and pithy write-up in New York Times – “The Empire Slinks Back” by Niall Ferguson, a Herzog professor of financial history at the Stern School of Business, New York University, a senior research fellow of Jesus College, Oxford and author of ''Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power'' that may give our viewers an insight into the size of the problem lying before the Americans.

Ferguson starts with an epithet, “Wheresoever the Roman conquers, he inhabits. — Seneca”  thus emphasizing the virtue of avoiding short cuts specially where nation-building is involved and that too in a foreign land. He recalls the pax Britannica of Queen Victoria's reign and compares it with the pax Americana in the reign of George II (Bush); and then describes the qualities of British imperialism and the price they were willing to pay for running an empire. “As seen in Afghanistan and now in Iraq, American power is far from soft. It can be very, very hard. The trouble is that it is ephemeral. It is not so much Power Lite as Flash Power –– here today, with a spectacular bang, but gone tomorrow.” The first basic question therefore, is how long US plans to stay/involve itself in Iraq? Now that “America has embarked on a new age of empire, it may turn out to be the most evanescent empire in all history. Other empire builders have fantasized about ruling subject peoples for a thousand years. This is shaping up to be history's first thousand-day empire. Make that a thousand hours.”

The difficulty American ‘neo-conservatives’ will find is in recruiting the right sort of people to run the empire. America's educational institutions excel at producing young men and women who are both academically and professionally very well trained. It's just that the young elites have no desire whatsoever to spend their lives running a screwed-up, sun-scorched sandpit like Iraq. “America's brightest and best aspire not to govern Mesopotamia, but to manage MTV; not to rule Hejaz, but to run a hedge fund; not to be a CBE (Commander of the British Empire), but to be a CEO. And that, of course, is one reason so many of the Americans currently in Iraq are first-generation immigrants to the United States. Despite their vast wealth and devastating weaponry, Americans have no interest in the one crucial activity without which a true empire cannot enduringly be established. They won't actually go there. ''Don't even go there!'' is one of those catch phrases you hear every day in New York or any other big city.”

In contrast, “the British regarded long-term occupation as an inherent part of their self-appointed ''civilizing mission.'' This did not mean forever. The assumption was that British rule would end once a country had been sufficiently ''civilized'' –– read: anglicized –– to ensure the continued rule of law and operation of free markets (not to mention the playing of cricket). But that clearly meant decades, not days. When the British intervened in a country like Iraq, they simply didn't have an exit strategy. The only issue was whether to rule directly –– installing a British governor –– or indirectly, with a British ''secretary'' offering ''advice'' to a local puppet like Faisal.

One would ask, “Why were so many products of Britain's top universities willing to spend their entire working lives so far from the land of their birth, running infernally hot, disease-ridden countries? Why, to pick a typical example, did one Evan Machonochie, an Oxford graduate who passed the grueling Indian Civil Services exam, set off for Bengal in 1887 and spend the next 40 years in India? One clue lies in his Celtic surname. The Scots were heavily over-represented not just in the colonies of white settlement, but also in the commercial and professional elite of cities like Calcutta and Hong Kong and Cape Town. The Irish too played a disproportionate role in enforcing British rule, supplying a huge proportion of the officers and men of the British army. For young men growing up on the rainy, barren and poorer fringes of the United Kingdom, the empire offered opportunities.”

This is in sharp contrast with today's ''wannabe'' imperialists in the United States –– call them ''nation-builders'' and the following five points stand out :

  • “First, not only do the overwhelming majority of Americans have no desire to leave the United States; millions of non-Americans are also eager to join them here. Unlike the United Kingdom a century ago, the United States is an importer of people, with a net immigration rate of 3.5 per 1,000 and a total foreign-born population of 32.5 million (more than 1 in 10 residents of the United States).

  • Second, when Americans do opt to reside abroad, they tend to stick to the developed world. As of 1999, there were an estimated 3.8 million Americans living abroad. That sounds like a lot. But it is a little more than a tenth the number of the foreign-born population in the United States. And of these expat Americans, almost three-quarters were living in the two other Nafta countries (more than one million in Mexico, 687,700 in Canada) or in Europe (just over a million). Of the 294,000 living in the Middle East, nearly two-thirds were in Israel. A mere 37,500 were in Africa.

  • Third, whereas British imperial forces were mostly based abroad, most of the American military is normally stationed at home. Even the B-2 Stealth bombers that pounded Serbia into quitting Kosovo in 1999 were flying out of Knob Noster, Mo. And it's worth remembering that 40 percent of American overseas military personnel are located in Western Europe, no fewer than 71,000 of them in Germany. Thus, whereas the British delighted in building barracks in hostile territories precisely in order to subjugate them, Americans today locate a quarter of their overseas troops in what is arguably the world's most pacifist country.

  • Fourth, when Americans do live abroad they generally don't stay long and don't integrate much, preferring to inhabit Mini Me versions of America, ranging from military bases to five-star ''international'' (read: American) hotels.

  • The fifth and final contrast with the British experience is perhaps the most telling. It is the fact that the products of America's elite educational institutions are the people least likely to head overseas, other than on flying visits and holidays. The Americans who serve the longest tours of duty are the volunteer soldiers, a substantial proportion of whom are African–Americans (12.9 per cent of the population, 25.4 per cent of the Army Reserve). It's just possible that African–Americans will turn out to be the Celts of the American empire, driven overseas by the comparatively poor opportunities at home. Indeed, if the occupation of Iraq is to be run by the military, then it can hardly fail to create career opportunities for the growing number of African-American officers in the Army. The military's most effective press spokesman during the war, Brig Gen Vincent K Brooks, exemplifies the type.

It can of course be argued that “Americans would prefer 'tours of duty’ (pay flying visits) to such tasks –– rather than settling there” what with latest technology you could go around the world in just one day as against 80 in days of British Empire. Most CIA officers prefer life in Virginia to what the British once called the North-West Frontier. But with the undoubted advantages of modern technology comes the disadvantage of disconnection. Technology cannot replace ‘human touch’. Unless the Americans radically rethink their attitude to the world beyond their borders and “there are more Americans not just willing but eager to shoulder the ''nation-builder's burden,'' adventures like the current occupation of Iraq will lack a vital ingredient. For the lesson of Britain's imperial experience is clear: you simply cannot have an empire without imperialists ––  out there, on the spot –– to run it.”

Finally, “so long as the American empire dare not speak its own name –– so long as it continues this tradition of organized hypocrisy –– today's ambitious young men and women will take one look at the prospects for postwar Iraq and say with one voice, ''Don't even go there.''

But Americans need to go ‘there’ and offer their mite in a good measure, if Bush’s promise to the Iraqi people is to be fulfilled and the world, especially the Islamic one, is made to believe that America’s charter of freedom and democracy is not restricted to its own boundaries but washes beyond the Atlantic and the Pacific.

(The full article by Niall Ferguson is available at:

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