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Wednesday, April 21, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist
Putting a smiley face on an imperial act


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'We're not an imperial power," President Bush said in his press conference of April 13. He seemed sure about that, as he was about everything else.

Are we? If you mean that we intend to make Iraq another Puerto Rico, then no. But Americans do come to Iraq with definite ideas. The new Iraq will have to allow democratic elections. It will have to accept the existence of Kuwait and Israel, allow some autonomy for the Kurds, status for women and, the president says, "a bill of rights that is unprecedented in the Arab world."

On what authority does America demand these things? We invaded Iraq saying that we were defending ourselves from "weapons of mass destruction." We didn't find any such weapons. Now, when we assert the right to recapture Fallujah, shut down a newspaper or institute a bill of rights, we are asserting the authority of — what?

It is easier to see some things about ourselves from a foreign place. In the early 1990s, I worked in Hong Kong. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, my colleagues talked about it, and from sharply different perspectives. We Americans discussed what "we" should do. Colleagues from Canada, Australia and the U.K. tended to discuss what "should be done," as if their countries might have the honor of being consulted. Colleagues from India, Pakistan, Malaysia and the Philippines assumed their countries would not matter in any way. They were more cynical about American motives, and particularly about our presumption to make the world's moral judgments.

You can hear that presumption in the president's statement that "the world is better off without Saddam Hussein." It was picked up immediately by his supporters. I heard Sean Hannity say it on talk radio, and with the air of a man repeating the obvious.

It is not obvious that the war made humanity better off. For America, the war has ended the problem of "weapons of mass destruction" and begun a new problem of nation-building. That is, we have traded an imaginary problem for a real one. Few Americans have been killed, as wars go, but the arithmetic is bloody, still. At least $100 billion has been expended, all of it borrowed. So much for death and taxes. There is also a cost in mental clarity. For the six months before the war, the country was awash in propaganda.

Is Iraq better off after having been conquered? That is a question for Iraqis to answer. Some have thanked us, though at the moment others are behaving as if they would like us to leave.

We have not asked the world whether it is better off. It is a slogan only, a smiley-face sticker to put a meaning on a thing already done. It also sets a low standard for starting another war. Under the world-is-better-off standard, we could start a war with North Korea, with Cuba, with Venezuela, with Zimbabwe, and, until a month or so ago, with Libya. It would justify any of a dozen imaginable wars of aggression.

Funny, you don't hear that word "aggression" anymore. I grew up with it. America was always fighting aggression and aggressors. I can still see the black-and-white image of Lyndon Johnson and hear him slipping that word past his Texas jowls. I can't remember Bush referring to aggression, or Clinton either. Now, our government openly reserves the right to strike first, anywhere in the world, to prevent the possession of weapons that we have and our friends have.

That is the prerogative of an imperial power.

American motives are benign, as imperial powers go. We are not in Iraq to steal the oil or to force the Iraqis into Christianity. But we are there to change it. Says Bush, "My job as the president is to lead this nation into making the world a better place."

Republicans and Democrats will interpret that mandate a little differently, but all agree with it, and each, in their own way, leads us to war.

Now the realists among us say, "We can't get out now." Spain can get out. It had an election, and it is getting out, just like that. We are also having an election, but not with the same opportunities. Well, we are not Spain.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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