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"We don't seek empires. We're not imperialistic. We never have been. I can't imagine why you'd even ask the question." Donald Rumsfeld, questioned by an al-Jazeera correspondent, April 29, 2003.

"No one can now doubt the word of America," George W. Bush, State of the Union, January 20, 2004.

A Blog by Rahul Mahajan

Being an empire means never having to say you're sorry
Middle East Times, Cairo, August 1999
by Rahul Mahajan

Just over a year ago, the United States unleashed a devastating flurry of cruise missiles at Sudan and Afghanistan, inaugurating a year in which they would bomb at least 8 countries, four of them deliberately. One of their targets was the El Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, which produced 60 to 70% of the most important medicines of that desperately poor country.

The stated reason was something about chemical weapons, possibly links with current international bogeyman Osama bin Laden (like so many previous bogeymen, one created largely by US foreign policy). It was not long before newspapers around the world exposed how laughable the "evidence" for such claims was, and outside the august halls of the State Department, nobody takes them very seriously now. The real reason, remarked on even by US newspapers at the time, was revenge for the bombing attacks two weeks earlier on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed roughly 260 people, 12 of them American.

Actually, revenge isn't really the right word, since the US government had no idea who was responsible - certainly not the night watchman at the El Shifa plant. The true reason for the attacks was that an empire cannot afford to show weakness. A world empire, which is what the United States has become since the end of the Cold War, can afford it even less. Subjugation of nations that are hostile merely by the fact of being subjugated requires rule with an iron hand.

Another requirement of world domination is never to negotiate, an art that the US has perfected in the last nine years. It started with the refusal to grant even the token concession of a conference on peace in the Middle East that was all Saddam Hussein asked in return for pulling out of Kuwait. The refusal to negotiate with the Serbs, instead handing them an ultimatum at Rambouillet that essentially dictated that they surrender their national sovereignty, was the latest example. Negotiation implies lack of resolve, which implies vulnerability, which implies that other nations will start to question the terms of their subjugation.

Perhaps the least savory requirement of empire is that you must never say you're sorry. The El Shifa plant is a perfect example of that - no evidence of chemical weapons, plenty of evidence of people dying because they have been deprived of access to drugs that treat diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, drugs that most American pharmaceutical companies do not deign even to manufacture any more, let alone sell at prices affordable to the Third World. The sanctions on Iraq are another. They are universally recognized to be hurting the innocent civilians - especially the children - of Iraq, not to be hurting Saddam. In fact, they strengthen his regime against internal threats and they clearly impede the cause of disarming Iraq. A country not so entirely wedded to the notion of empire might just say, "Sorry, we screwed up. This isn't serving anyone's interests, not even ours."

Unfortunately, the requirements of civilization, of being a civilized nation, often seem to be directly at odds with the requirements of empire. Civilization requires that one not recklessly inflict massive damage on other countries, that one not use the implied threat of military aggression to impose one's will, and that one recognize one's faults. Civilization implies the attempt to deal with others as if they have the same rights that one does. In a less benighted age, one less steeped in the dogmas of free market fundamentalism, civilization might even have entailed compassion for the less fortunate.

One hundred years ago, Mark Twain said that we could not expect to maintain a democracy at home while building an empire abroad. In an age when being a multimillionaire or having several hundred friends who are seems to be a requisite for being president, when a single person can decide whether we go to war or not, while half the population feels that whether or not they vote makes no difference, it seems rather a prescient statement. The question we are faced with in this new world order is whether we can simultaneously maintain our humanity and our empire. The answer requires a single look at an Iraqi infant dying of kwashiorkor, which exists in Iraq solely due to our policies.
Rahul Mahajan is publisher of Empire Notes. His latest book, “Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond,” covers U.S. policy on Iraq, deceptions about weapons of mass destruction, the plans of the neoconservatives, and the face of the new Bush imperial policies. He can be reached at


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