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December 29, 2005

Anti-Imperialists Beware – Bush Is Reading Again

by Jim Lobe

The Reader-in-Chief is at it again, and anti-imperialists around the world have reason to be concerned.

According to the White House, U.S. President George W. Bush has taken two books with him to Texas for his holiday reading, which he will presumably indulge between his favorite ranch pursuits – clearing brush and biking.

The first is about his most admired role model, Theodore Roosevelt, the other on the wonders being achieved by U.S. soldiers around the world.

The choices are not unimportant. Indeed, Bush is known to read so little – both for official business and for diversion – and to be so impressed by the few books he does read that it is imperative for people who are paid to know what's happening in Washington to find out what's on the president's nightstand when he turns out the light.

As the U.S. was gearing up for war in Iraq in the summer of 2002, for example, reporters noticed that Bush had tucked under his arm a rather scholarly – and hence unlikely – book, Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime, a book by Eliot Cohen, a neoconservative military historian and friend of then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

The book argued that great civilian leaders, including Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Georges Clemenceau, made far better commanders than the generals who demanded that they be given a free hand in conducting the war. It was perfectly timed for persuading Bush to stand up to the recommendations of the top brass that he deploy far more troops to invade and occupy Iraq than what Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and prominent neoconservatives were calling for.

Similarly, Bush was given a copy of right-wing Israeli politician and former Soviet political prisoner Natan Sharansky's The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror immediately after its publication in late 2004, and was so impressed by its argument for an aggressive pro-democracy policy in the Arab world that the White House asked the author to interrupt a book tour for a personal visit. "I'm already halfway through your book," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reportedly told Sharansky when he showed up the next day. "Do you know why I'm reading it? I'm reading it because the president is reading it, and it's my job to know what the president is thinking." Passages in the book were subsequently incorporated into Bush's 2004 inaugural address. It is in this context that Bush's latest selections should be analyzed. The first, When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House, concerns his favorite presidential antecedent, whose famous or infamous 1904 Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine shortly after the Spanish-American War heralded Washington's claim to great-power status and its right to intervene unilaterally anywhere in the Americas against "chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society."

The choice may suggest that Bush, who clearly subscribes to the "great man" theory of history that was the rage in Roosevelt's time, is contemplating a very active retirement. If it doesn't take him on safari in Africa or on scientific expeditions to the Amazon (unlikely pastimes for a man who by all accounts is an unenthusiastic and incurious traveler), it could make him a permanent force in the Republican Party and for the kind of aggressive nationalism that Roosevelt espoused through much of his career.

The second book on Bush's reading list, Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground by Robert Kaplan, is far more worrisome in its implications, at least for the remaining three years of his presidency.

Kaplan, who began his career as a self-described "travel writer" in the 1980s, has evolved into a political thinker whose outlook is explicitly imperialist – a term that he has used and reused in recent years with unabashed approval – and, in the words of one conservative reviewer and retired Army colonel, Andrew Bacevich, "reactionary."

In his view (and one that would be shockingly familiar to Roosevelt in his "Rough Riding" days in Cuba more than 100 years ago), the "war on terror" and associated conflicts is simply a repeat of the U.S. Army's Indian Wars, but on a nearly planetary scale.

Instead of the Great Plains and western reaches of the 19th century U.S., however, today's "Injun Country," as Kaplan calls it, consists of the entire Islamic world, from the southern Philippines to Mauritania, as well as other ungoverned or misgoverned areas in desperate need of order and civilization.

And who best to civilize these places and their inhabitants than the U.S. military, specifically the "imperial grunts" with whom Kaplan embedded himself – no doubt with the enthusiastic support of the Pentagon and probably Rumsfeld himself – for weeks at a time in various parts of the world on three continents, and who, not incidentally, bear a striking resemblance to Bush's own self-image?

In contrast to the "elites" and "global cosmopolitans" who dominate the media, the State Department, Washington think tanks and academia, and the Democratic Party, these soldiers are "people who hunted, drove pickups, employed profanities as a matter of dialect, and yet had a literal, demonstrable belief in the Almighty," according to Kaplan.

He offers remarkable praise for the war-fighting traditions of "the gleaming officers corps of the Confederacy" – that is, the military arm of the slave-owning southern states, including Bush's Texas, during the Civil War – and for the present-day "martial evangelicalism of the South."

In a "Hobbesian world" where U.S. military commands and deployments span every continent, U.S. imperialism is not a choice, but rather a necessity, just as it was for the British in the late 19th century, according to Kaplan, who argues that Washington's "righteous responsibility [is] to advance the boundaries of free society and good government into zones of sheer chaos."

In one telling piece of analysis, he describes the presumed thoughts of a Filipino in Zamboanga, presumably a descendant of Moro who resisted, at the cost of tens of thousands of their lives, U.S. imperialism 100 years ago: "His smiling, naïve eyes cried out for what we in the West call colonialism."

With a message like that, it's not difficult to imagine Bush, who has met with Kaplan at least once before in the White House, requesting a return visit, in which case it may be useful to review the kinds of policy recommendations he is likely to make.

A U.S. withdrawal from Iraq now, Kaplan has predicted, would result in a "real bloodbath" and a reversal of liberalization in the Arab world, including the reconstitution of Lebanon by the Syrians "in their own totalitarian image."

He has also cautioned against China's growing political and economic clout in the world. "Unless we begin military cooperation with Indonesia, for instance, at some point the Indonesian military will be captured by the Chinese in some form."

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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