The House of Representatives is debating a new definition of America’s military mission in the world, replacing the mandate adopted immediately after 9/11. Instead of merely authorizing the president to make war against those who “committed or aided” the 2001 attacks, the proposed National Defense Authorization Act expands the notion of America’s enemy to include forces “associated” with named antagonists like Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
According to its critics (including numerous House Democrats who asked last week that such language be dropped), this seemingly innocuous expansion would, in effect, license an open-ended bleeding of the American battle away from Iraq and Afghanistan to any location in which such vaguely defined associates operate. The two present wars could become three, four, or five, and could shift from the Middle East to Africa, South Asia, or anywhere that a photo, say, of Osama bin Laden hung in the barracks.
But wait a minute. For most of a decade, the US military has already operated against an amorphous, transnational terrorist enemy under the broadest possible reading of its 9/11 authorization. Drones, cruise missiles, special-ops, and mercenary forces have hit targets with impunity well beyond the officially acknowledged battle zones. The Obama administration, otherwise so different from its predecessor, is freelancing militarily, just as the Bush administration did.
So why is an expanded mandate needed now?
Though the language in the proposed legislation simply affirms what has become White House and Pentagon practice, more than policy is at stake. The law after 9/11 made an implicit claim to global force projection based on an emergency; the new legislation would explicitly reject any time or place limitations on that force. In other words, a seemingly subtle shift marks a movement from the exceptional to the threshold of normal. There is a word for the realm into which that threshold opens: The legislation is a step toward an open declaration of American empire.
For a time in the Bush era, officials and public intellectuals promoted the idea of American empire, declaring it the duty of the United States to maintain planet-wide dominance through military force for the sake of political order and economic well-being — not only of Americans but of the world. This virtuous purpose would make America, in a phrase of the historian Niall Ferguson, “an empire by invitation.” The arrival of terrorism as a mass threat made this hegemonic mission seem inevitable. At some point, the word “empire” fell out of fashion, even on the right. Yet the structures and ideology — and bases — of world-wide dominion reproduced themselves, and soon enough the central assumption of empires embedded itself in American consciousness — the idea that the global rules of order apply to every nation except the one that enforces them.
America’s war on terrorism, up to and including its climactic assault on the bin Laden compound, has lain bare this superpower double-standard. Washington is simply above the law. What would Americans make of pilotless drone attacks coming in from Mexico to target, say, drug kingpins holed up in mansions in the hills above San Diego? After the 1979 bombing-murder of Lord Mountbatten, what would Americans have made of British commandos launching a raid in IRA-friendly New York to kill or capture the fugitive Provo chief responsible? No such interventions would be tolerated for a moment.
Why then does Washington sponsor their equivalents elsewhere? Because that’s what empires do.
That the common good requires such exceptionalism has been so taken for granted as to not need acknowledgment, though now the Congress aims to convert informal understanding into official legislation. “Associates” beware! Bin Laden is gone, but the American war party rides high.
But is this the only way? Let’s grant that “invited” US imperialism is mainly benign (which requires leaving aside questions of unfair economic structures abroad, and dehumanizing effects of garrison culture at home). Let’s grant also that contemplated expansions of Pentagon belligerence may successfully defang terrorism (instead of sparking it).
Even so, the more far-reaching consequence of 21st-century American empire will be the final destruction of authentic internationalism — nations bound by the power of agreed democratic law, cross-border systems of checks and balances, all abiding by the same rules, mutually enforced. The destruction, that is, of the only world with a hope of real peace and justice.