WASHINGTON -- Richard Perle is at ease with neo-imperial swagger.
At the White House Correspondents Association dinner on Saturday night, the Pentagon's Prince of Darkness lectured Hans Blix as if he were a colonial subject, instructing him on why an invasion of Iraq had been justified even though no weapons of mass destruction had yet been found.
Asked afterward how Mr. Blix had reacted, Mr. Perle replied merrily: "He's a Swedish disarmament lawyer. He's used to a lot of abuse."
When one partygoer told Mr. Perle that she would miss the buzzy, standing-room-only "black coffee briefings" on Iraq held by hard-liners at the American Enterprise Institute, he suggested the neo-cons might hold another round.
"We'll have green tea briefings on North Korea," he said slyly.
On Fox News, Bill Kristol spoke up for a more brazen imperial attitude. "We need to err on the side of being strong," he said. "And if people want to say we're an imperial power, fine. If three years from now, we have beaten back these threats and have a decent regime there, it'll be worth it."
But imperial flair is rare. America is a furtive empire, afraid to raise its flag or linger too long or even call things by their real names. The U.S. is having a hard time figuring out how to wield its colonial power, how to balance collegiality with coercion, how to savor the fruits of imperialism without acknowledging its imperialist hubris.
When Kofi Annan called the Americans in Iraq an "occupying power" last week, Bush officials freaked. Maybe they would have preferred Honored Guests.
The Pentagon once more outgunned the State Department this week, changing the name of a new governing body of Iraqis from "interim authority" to "transitional government" to signal that the U.S. would leave quickly and give its Armani-clad puppet, Ahmad Chalabi, an advantage. But it doesn't matter what euphemistic name is used; if there are too many militant Shiite clerics involved, Rummy, the real authority, will tell them to take their camels and vamoose.
"America is the empire that dare not speak its name," Niall Ferguson, the Oxford professor who wrote "Empire," told a crowd at the Council on Foreign Relations here on Monday. He believes that America is so invested in its "creation myth," breaking away from a wicked empire, that Americans will always be self-deceiving — and even self-defeating — imperialists.
"The great thing about the American empire is that so many Americans disbelieve in its existence," he said. "Ever since the annexation of Texas and invasion of the Philippines, the U.S. has systematically pursued an imperial policy.
"It's simply a suspension of disbelief by Americans. They think they're so different that when they have bases in foreign territories, it's not an empire. When they invade sovereign territory, it's not an empire."
Asked in an interview about Viceroy Jay Garner's promise that U.S. military overlords would "leave fairly rapidly," Mr. Ferguson replied: "I'm hoping he's lying. Successful empires must be based on hypocrisy. The Americans can say they're doing things in the name of freedom, liberty and apple pie. But they must build a civil society and revive the economy before they have elections.
"From 1882 until 1922, the British promised the international community 66 times that they would leave Egypt, but they never did. If they leave Iraq to its own devices, the whole thing will blow up."
Afghanistan offers cautionary lessons. It was the abandonment by the U.S. after Afghanistan's war in 1989 with the Soviet Union that stoked the fury of Al Qaeda. The regime of the American puppet Hamid Karzai is still perilously fragile.
As Carlotta Gall wrote in The Times last weekend, after two U.S. soldiers were killed by Afghan rebels: "In a very real sense the war here has not ended. . . . Nearly every day, there are killings, explosions, shootings and targeted attacks on foreign aid workers, Afghan officials and American forces, as well as continuing feuding between warlords."
Exiled Taliban leaders have called for a holy war against the "occupying forces." The religious police are once more harassing and beating women over dress and behavior, and schools that take little girls are being attacked and threatened.
Until we can get democracy stabilized in our new colonies, Mr. Ferguson offers two words of advice: "Better puppets."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company