It doesn't happen all that often, but Charles Krauthammer performs a valuable service in his column today by distilling recent events in Iraq down to the basic question: Do we want to become an explicitly imperial power in the Middle East, against the wishes of the Iraqi people, or not?
McCain, like George Bush, envisions the United States seizing the fruits of victory from a bloody and costly war by establishing an extensive strategic relationship that would not only make the new Iraq a strong ally in the war on terror but would also provide the U.S. with the infrastructure and freedom of action to project American power regionally, as do U.S. forces in Germany, Japan and South Korea.
For example, we might want to retain an air base to deter Iran, protect regional allies and relieve our naval forces, which today carry much of the burden of protecting the Persian Gulf region, thus allowing redeployment elsewhere.
Any Iraqi leader would prefer a more pliant American negotiator because all countries--we've seen this in Germany, Japan and South Korea--want to maximize their own sovereign freedom of action while still retaining American protection.
This doesn't strike me as an argument McCain is likely to win, if it becomes one of the central debates of the presidential campaign. But, if McCain is inclined to embrace Krauthammer's imperial vision, he might want to consider the experience of his political idol, Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt is often regarded as the primary turn-of-the-century proponent of American empire, but, as my colleague John Judis recounted in his book The Folly of Empire, Roosevelt quickly became disillusioned and frustrated with the idea, concluding it could never work:
Venting his adolescent side, Roosevelt told diplomat Henry White, "Just at the moment I am so angry with that infernal little Cuban republic that I would like to wipe its people off the face of the earth." But Roosevelt was circumspect in this intervention. He wrote to one correspondent, "I loathe the thought of assuming any control over the island such as we have over Puerto Rico and the Philippines." ... By then, historian Louis Gould concludes, "Roosevelt wanted no more expansive imperialism for the United States; he wanted only the orderly management and eventual liquidation of the tutelary duties the nation has assumed a decade earlier." Roosevelt, who had championed an American imperialism at the end of the nineteenth century, would quietly abandon the cause in fact if not in name.