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The Spirit Of Teddy Roosevelt Stalks The Pentagon

by Jim Lobe

What IS A Neo-conservative, Anyway?
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- "Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords."

So reads a bronze plaque that sits on Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld's massive desk in his office across the Potomac River from here. It encapsulates much of the spirit that animates the hawks in the administration of President George W. Bush, and their supporters.

The quotation is by President Theodore Roosevelt, Bush's favorite president, who led a charge on San Juan Hill in Cuba in a decisive battle of the 1898 Spanish-American War that, with the defeat of the decrepit Spanish Navy in Manila Bay half a world away, established the United States as an imperial power with global reach.

Of course, the current president's reading of TR is rather selective. A passionate environmentalist and social progressive who sought to build up big government to protect the public against private capital, Roosevelt would no doubt find much to vigorously protest in Bush's policies.

But now, more than a century after his presidency (1901-1909), TR's fighting and imperial spirit is being aggressively promoted as a model for U.S. policies overseas in the 21st century by both the civilian policymakers in the Pentagon and their neo-conservative and right-wing allies.

Their basic assumptions are quite consistent with those of the imperialists of the late 19th century: the conviction of cultural superiority; the view that the world is a place of merciless, Darwinian competition where force is the only language that lesser peoples understand, and the belief that the United States and the larger Western world have a duty to civilize the rest -- the basic ideological tenets for imperialism -- are now being openly championed by administration leaders.

Even before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, these hawks argued that much of the world was essentially in chaos and should be actively policed by the pre-eminent powers of the day, of which they believed the United States was by far the most important.

"The great work of disarming tribes, sects, warlords and criminals -- a principal achievement of monarchs of... empires in the 19th century -- threatens to need doing all over again," wrote the British military historian John Keegan.

"Because so many states in the developing world have flimsy institutions, the paramount question in world politics in the early 21st century will be the re-establishment of order," predicted Robert Kaplan, a political writer, in his 2002 'Warrior Politics', a book dedicated to the eminently 'Rooseveltian' notion that "without struggle -- and the sense of insecurity that motivates it -- there is decadence."

But according to the hawks, U.S. responsibility does not end with simply policing, either alone or with like-minded powers, unruled peoples. Washington also has a duty to "uplift and civilize" the natives as Roosevelt's predecessor, William McKinley, claimed he learned from praying to "Almighty God" about what to do with the Philippines after the Spanish defeat.

A bloody guerrilla war followed the ouster of the Spanish in which U.S. troops killed thousands of Filipinos who had thought they were fighting the Spanish alongside the Americans for independence. The Philippines then became an American colony until the end of World War II when colonies were seen as unfashionable.

"Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets," wrote Max Boot, a former 'Wall Street Journal' editorial writer now at the Council on Foreign Relations, last year.

Boot has become perhaps the leading exponent of a revival of the imperialist spirit since the publication last year of his 'The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power', a book that takes Roosevelt as a model and argues that, after World War II and Vietnam, Washington had forgotten its talents - acquired in the Indian Wars, the Philippines, and throughout Central America and the Caribbean -- for bringing the blessings of liberty to the less fortunate, no matter how much indigenous blood was spent in providing these blessings.

"America should not be afraid to fight 'the savage wars of peace' if necessary to enlarge 'the empire of liberty,'" he wrote. "It has been done before."

Since the ouster of the Taliban, the next benighted people to be redeemed by U.S. force of arms, in this view, are the Muslims of the Middle East, beginning with Iraq now that Afghanistan has been restored to the path of civilization. The path has not been without pitfalls. A growing insurgency there has led to numerous recent clashes between Taliban holdouts and U.S. troops, a development that the media has been reticent about.

"We need an Islamic reformation," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told a 'Washington Post' columnist. "I think there is real hope for one," he added, saying that this was a powerful intellectual rationale for ousting the Baghdad government.

Like their 19th century forebears, the neo-imperial hawks also see the Islamic Middle East as offering a particular challenge, presumably because of what they see as its inherent violence and cultural, if not racial, inferiority.

"This is a region characterized by paranoia, apocalypticism, tyranny, and violence, a region where differences are settled by the sword," according to Joshua Muravchik, an analyst at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) whose thinkers are particularly close to Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld.

"In centuries past, the wild and unruly passions of the Islamic world were kept within tight confines by firm, often ruthless imperial authority," added Boot, who praises the British and French who assumed control of the region after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.

"These distant masters did not always rule wisely or well, but they generally prevented the region from menacing the security of the outside world."

Washington should learn from them, Boot advises, arguing that U.S. efforts after 1945 "to carve out a different style of leadership, one that was meant to distinguish the virtuous Americans from the grasping, greedy imperialists who had come before," only made the country appear weak.

"The record shows precious little bullying" by Washington in the Mideast, he adds, "indeed not enough," he writes, conveniently ignoring the U.S. overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh, the elected leftish leader of Iran, in 1953 and the U.S. invasion of Lebanon in 1958, not to mention the continued support of Israel's numerous aggressions since its founding in 1948 to the present.

"The elementary truth that seems to elude the experts again and again -- Gulf War, Afghan war, next war -- is that power is its own reward," wrote Charles Krauthammer, a Post columnist close to Wolfowitz, after the Taliban's defeat. "Victory changes everything, psychology above all. The psychology in the region is now one of fear and deep respect for American power."

The way to bring the blessings of enlightenment -- and democracy -- to Muslims, according to this view, is through the use of fear-inspiring force. Indeed, if Washington does not go through with an invasion at this point, Boot argued last week, "it would earn the contempt of the Muslim world for its weakness."

As for those Europeans and millions of anti-war demonstrators who say they would support war only after all peaceful efforts to resolve the Iraq crisis have been exhausted, the hawks express their contempt by once again citing TR: "Weasel words from mollycoddles will never do when the day demands prophetic clarity from great hearts."

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Albion Monitor January 14, 2004 (

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