Liberal Imperialism

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In late January 2002 Hamid Karzai, the newly installed leader of Afghanistan, visited Washington and New York. He received a standing ovation at the President’s State of the Union address, and glowing press attention, in no small part because of his gentle demeanor and splendid attire. But he did not receive what he had come for, an enlarged U.S. peacekeeping presence in his wartorn country. President Bush turned him down cold, offering him economic aid, military aid, anything but what he really wanted: U.S. troops to patrol his country and bring peace to his people. America was not going to engage in “nation building,” Bush declared.

This should have come as no surprise. To large segments of the Republican foreign policy establishment and the military, nation building became anathema in the 1990s, thanks to the debacle in Somalia so powerfully depicted in Black Hawk Down. During the 2000 presidential campaign, Condoleezza Rice, now Bush’s national security adviser, complained that our troops had no business escorting children to kindergarten, a reference to the American peacekeeping role in Bosnia and Kosovo. Yet U.S. attempts at nation building—otherwise known as imperialism—long predate the Clinton administration.

The most successful examples are, of course, post-World War II Germany, Italy, and Japan. The U.S. Army helped transform three militaristic dictatorships into pillars of liberal democracy—one of the most important developments of the twentieth century. Critics of nation building argue that those examples aren’t relevant to today’s world, that Germany, Italy, and Japan were advanced industrialized nations that had some experience with the rule of law and democratic institutions. And besides, the United States made a very large, very long-term commitment to those countries, a commitment justified by their importance to the world, but one that can not be so urgent in small Third World countries like Afghanistan and Haiti.

Fair enough. Let’s leave Germany, Italy, and Japan aside, and look at the U.S. peacekeeping record in what is now known as the Third World. Between the Spanish-American War and the Great Depression, the United States embarked on an ambitious attempt at “progressive” imperialism in the Caribbean, Central America, and the Pacific. Successive administrations, from McKinley to Wilson, were emboldened to act by a variety of concerns. There were strategic reasons (keeping foreign powers out of areas deemed vital to American interests, such as the Panama Canal Zone) and economic ones (expanding opportunities for American businesses in promising markets, such as China). Above all, there was the pull of “The White Man’s Burden,” the title of a famous poem written in 1899 by Rudyard Kipling in an attempt to persuade Washington to annex the Philippine islands.

The United States did annex the Philippines. It also occupied a number of territories that remain part of the United States to this day, under various legal guises: Samoa, Guam, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. A number of other places were occupied temporarily: in addition to the Philippines, the Panama Canal Zone, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and the Mexican city of Veracruz, the shortest occupation being that of Veracruz (seven months) and the longest that of the Canal Zone (almost a century). In the process the United States developed a set of colonial administrators and soldiers who would not have been out of place on a veranda in New Delhi or Nairobi. Men like Leonard Wood, the dashing former Army surgeon and Rough Rider, who went on to administer Cuba and the Philippines; Charles Magoon, a stolid Nebraska lawyer who ran the Panama Canal Zone and then Cuba during the second U.S. occupation (1906–09); and Smedley Butler, the “Fighting Quaker,” a Marine who won two Congressional Medals of Honor in a career that took him from Nicaragua to China.

They were tough, colorful, resourceful operators who used methods not found in any training manual. There is, for example, the story of how the Haitian-U.S. Treaty of 1915, which gave a legal gloss to an American occupation that would last 19 years, came into being. For years Marines told one another that when Major Butler was sent over to the presidential palace to obtain the signature of President Philippe Sudre Dartiguenave, the president, not wanting to sign, hid in his bathroom. Butler simply commandeered a ladder and climbed up through the bathroom window to present the treaty and a pen to the startled Dartiguenave. “Sign here,” the major commanded, and the president did. Whether or not this “gorgeous legend” (as one Marine called it) is actually true, it gives an accurate flavor of how U.S. rule was consolidated.

Most of these occupations followed a pattern. The United States was usually drawn in by political unrest and a threat to its foreign financial interests; Washington often feared that if it did not act, some other power would. The United States would then occupy the capital, and its armed forces, usually a handful of Marines, fan out over the countryside to establish order. Often there was some guerrilla resistance, but it was usually put down quickly by a small number of American troops, who had more sophisticated weaponry and (even more important) better training than their adversaries. In Haiti in 1915, 2,000 Marines pacified a country of two million people, at a cost of only three dead Americans. The longest and most arduous American colonial campaign was waged in the Philippines. It took 70,000 soldiers four years and more than 4,000 American casualties to consolidate American control over the islands.