Michael Mann Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Incoherent Empire: Conversation with Michael Mann, Professor of Sociology, UCLA, February 27, 2004, by Harry Kreisler

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Problems of Empire in the Twenty-First Century

Your previous analyses in your earlier works had led you to look at the dimensions of power. In your analysis in Incoherent Empire, you're applying those dimensions and your understanding of them to look now at whether the U.S. can do empire. Talk a little about that, and the dimensions of power that one has to look at to say, "Is this going to work?"

In order to exercise general power, you need some combination of these four types: economic, ideological, military, and political. You can go light, perhaps, on one of them, but it's difficult to go light more generally. In talking about how the British or the Romans did empire, I've talked about both military power and political power -- the political power getting allies and ruling through them, and then gradually increasing political control over them. But there's also the ideology.

In former times, imperialists were not confronted by nationalism, which is a modern ideology, and so there was no "if you deal with the British you're a traitor to the nation." You were actually benefiting the group whose leader you were by giving them the patronage of the Romans or the British. There wasn't an ideology strongly opposed to it, and, indeed, what they could all see, in the case of the nineteenth century empires, was that the British and the French and the Dutch and others were more modern than they were, and they had science and technology -- guns, of course -- a superior economy. They wanted this knowledge, and they often converted to Christianity assuming that this was the key to it. If you acquired this powerful god, then you could become powerful, too. So the ideological power was there, and, of course, [imperialist powers] financed it.

Shall we move to the U.S. now?

Yes, yes.

We find we have the military power to conquer in the first place, though there is a weakness. The weakness is that after you defeat the enemy's army and take the capital, you then have to disperse your forces to pacify the country. If you do this yourself, you need -- the British used to calculate -- you need two and a half times the number of troops. When you're dispersing your troops, they become more vulnerable to attack by small groups -- guerillas, we call them nowadays. And in the present day, a special problem has arisen, which is that there is a revolution in warfare of weapons of the weak. The Kalashnikov (there are supposed to be 100 million Kalashnikovs in the world), the shoulder-[mounted] grenade launcher, the Semtek, the bombs that suicide bombers can strap to their chests. These are weapons of the weak: you don't need much resources for them. These are no good for defeating American armies in the field, but they're good at taking pot-shots at highly armored Russians in Chechnya or Americans in Iraq. So that's a specific problem. If you do it yourself, which previous empires didn't do in military terms, and disperse your troops, they become vulnerable.

But politically, we went into Iraq without any allies and without any prospects of allies. Well, there's one exception to that, which is the Kurds in the north. Things are lot smoother in the Kurdish areas; we can rule through the Kurds, and we can decide whether we want to increase pressures on them or not, whether we want to stop them having a Kurdistan state or not. That's our choice now. But elsewhere in Iraq, we went in with a bunch of Iraqi exiles who hadn't been there for twenty years or more, and who didn't have these networks of patient-client relations on the ground which they could activate to support the Americans and the British if the Americans and the British support them.

I want to take apart what you've been saying. First, you're pointing out that we're trying to do empire in an entirely different international situation. But let's look at this presumption that we can do it, and that comes from what we've gotten very good at, which is the revolution in military affairs, namely that technology has empowered us to both believe and to act in such a way that we can control the battlefield. That is pivotal to understanding what the Bush administration thinks it can do.

Yes, absolutely.

What does that mean? What is the military revolution, first, the empowering side? But then we want to talk about what you just suggested, which is that there is a change on the other side.

Yes. The revolution in military affairs combines two things. Firstly, smart bombs, precision firepower. We think of it in terms of bombs, but it's also artillery shells; laser-guided is the key technology here. So that brings in the second element, which is the revolution in military communications, so that we have special-forces soldiers on the ground with a handheld GPS receiver, and they're in communication with satellite planes flying at high altitude, able to photograph what's going on in real time, and with the battlefield headquarters, which are rooms with banks and banks of computers.

Even in the United States.


I mean, it even extends to the Central Command in Tampa.

Yes, yes, quite. This means that we can rain offensive devastation on the enemy before they even get into range. Indeed, in Afghanistan this was at its most spectacular, because there were only about four hundred Americans on the ground when the Northern Alliance troops marched into Kabul and overthrew the Taliban. Two hundred of these were the special forces with the GPS receivers, telling the bombers where to bomb the Taliban, and the other two hundred were CIA agents with suitcases stuffed full of dollars to bribe warlords. That's not high-tech, but ...

So that combination is empowering with regard to the notion that you can do empire: you can concentrate forces, you can take Iraq militarily with only 100,000 troops. But once you move to implementing empire, which is to control politically the situation on the ground, or to control the aftermath of the military victory, then you raise all the problems that you just discussed, which is that the weak also have been [militarily] empowered.

Right. The offense: when you go into battle, into the capital, Baghdad, you concentrate your forces. And given our offensive firepower superiority, we didn't need all that many. We needed considerably less than 100,000 troops to do this. But once you've done that and you try to pacify the country, you have to disperse them, and that needs many more.

Now, it's also important for the revolution in military affairs that we can conquer the enemy without taking much losses ourselves. That's very important, because the American military is not happy with losses. But we now have a way of avoiding them, so it was thought.

Now, the motivations for going into Iraq are extremely complicated, and there are a number of them, some of them are quite good motives and others not so good. But underlying them all is this great confidence: "We don't have to bother too much about our motives, because we can do it. We can do it without suffering much losses." But it's once you disperse the troops that they become vulnerable to this second revolution in military affairs, the weapons of the weak. We can't control a global arms trail, which disperses Kalashnikovs and the like across the world. And the collapse of the Soviet Union produced a lot of surplus weaponry, and for sale. So there's a real military problem at the end of the process.

This military problem at the end of the process when you move to empire links up with what you were referring to earlier, which is the changed international environment in terms of what people think about what they want, and whether they want an outsider coming in to rule. You get an explosive situation when the weapons [of the weak] come together with a belief that "We should be running our own country and not the Americans."

That's right. Yes, this is the shift in political and ideological [ideals], which comes down to the very general assertion I made that this is not the age of empire, this is the age of nation state. The notion that Iraq is for Iraqis as Somalia is for Somalis, as France is for the French, this is dominant across the world. This is the main ideology of our times, national self-determination. That makes it really difficult. The British and the Romans were never confronted by this belief. Sorry, I correct myself. In the twentieth century [the British] were, partly as a result of the spread of liberalism or socialism to India and places like that. Indians for the first time began to think of themselves as "Indians"; previously, it had been our term for them. And so the British were confronted by Indian nationalism. Once that happened, the writing was on the wall for the European empires ... the self-destruction of World War II to add to it. But the Indian nationalist movement was too strong even before World War II for the British to last very much longer. And this rolled around the world disposing of the other empire. In the case of Vietnam, of course, it was Vietnamese nationalism which defeated us.

So though Iraqis, if we can return to Iraq, are grateful to us for liberating them from Saddam -- they really hate Saddam and his memory, or almost all of them do -- they don't want to be occupied by America. So they have a deeply ambivalent view of us. Though they're disputing among themselves -- Kurds, Shiite, Sunni -- they dislike Americans even more if Americans are occupying and seeming to rule over them.

So it's this political and ideological shift in the world which makes it ... it wasn't just a mistake that we invaded Iraq without political allies; we'd have had very great difficulty in getting them. We could have made overtures to the Shia, but of course in doing that we'd be setting in motion political forces that we don't quite like, the possibility of a pro-Iranian theocratic movement. But this is what the more pragmatic empires in the nineteenth century would have done. They would have assumed that at a later stage they could suppress that, but used them as their allies. We, of course, used Islamists in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. That's how we used bin Laden at first, until the situation changed and he turned against us.

You are very convincing, and events are confirming your thoughts about the limits of the "muscular empire" notions within the [Bush] administration and the reliance on military power. But also in this book you're raising questions also about "empire lite," mainly the notion of humanitarian intervention. You're not saying not to intervene against genocide, but rather that our normative structure, our Wilsonian ideals, may not be applicable in the way we think broadly, because of ethic nationalism. Talk a little about that basic failure not only to understand the nationalism that drives the whole country, but also the ethnic nationalisms within one country.

These don't make it impossible for us to intervene, but they should make us very cautious. Humanitarian intervention could work if certain conditions were met. One, that our motives have to seem good. In Iraq, that's not easy, because of oil, of course. But this also tends to mean that we have to do it with local allies. If we're going to intervene in a country, we've got to have some credible local allies. That feeds into the fact that if we're just intervening and then leaving, we have to have a credible alternative government on the ground. Of course, this was so for the Vietnamese in Cambodia; it was so in Kosovo -- we might have had reservations about the KLO, the Kosovo Liberation Army, but they could control the territory. We had reservations about whether they were going to "ethnic-cleanse" Serbs, and they did to some extent, but nonetheless, if you decided this was the lesser of two evils, they could do it. We could have done it in Rwanda, because there was an alternative Tutsi government there invading the country at the time.

So provided there are local forces, you need a little bit of protection, but [if] they can operate the country, that's possible. Of course, you have to decide whether their rule is going to be any better.

Right. And the question is, is it realistic to think that you could in the short term impose Wilsonian formulas of elections and self-determination, and so on? This has to be structured over time for it to work, and then it might not, because of the ethnic nationalism that you're talking about.

Well, we have to be realistic about this. We can't go around imposing our notions of democracy. Democracy has a whole set of institutional preconditions, and indeed, our notion of democracy is not the only form of relatively tolerant liberal government. In Iraq, Saddam was a ruthless dictator, but the characteristic forms of rule lower down are [often] negotiations between clans and tribes and religious groupings and patron client relations. They're not democratic, but they're decentralized, and they are relatively stable, and there can be a basis for a better government through these institutions. But it has to be through their own institutions, their nationally defined political system. It's very nave of us to think that you can impose democracy, wipe away previous institutions, and from this tabula rasa create a democracy. That's not how our own democracies emerged; they emerged over a long period of time through different kinds of institutions.

Our past, both Britain and the U.S., had a property franchise, where only males with a certain degree of property got the vote. That was the first form of representative government, and you went through that, and you also had civil rights, and you had habeas corpus -- denied in Guantanamo Bay at present! You had the gradual buildup of the institutions of representative government, which culminate a hundred years later in full-scale democracy for women and former slaves in this country. That took a long period of time.

In addition to the failures of our military intervention and primary emphasis on military power, which we've discussed, you also point to a very important intellectual flaw in American foreign policy, which relates to the failure to distinguish international from national terrorists. Talk a little about that, and explain what that difference is and why that matters, and why it will lead to a failure of policy.

Terrorists are groups who attack civilian targets, and they generally start by trying to attack military and political targets, but they're usually very protected, so they then retreat to attacking civilians. But 95 percent or more of the world's terrorists are what I call national terrorists who are implicated in some state somewhere and who are attacking their local oppressor, and so in their point of view they are freedom fighters. The state responds with its own form of state terrorism. And so there is a symmetry in Israel/Palestine between the two sides attacking each other and killing civilians on each side.

Now, -- this comes from my ethnic cleansing book -- this is a general pattern across the world, it's going through the world. It's occurring in many places. We shouldn't get involved on one side or the other, because these are very deep-rooted struggles. If we start to take sides rather than use our best offices to try and conciliate them, and to bring what pressure we have on both sides to come to some agreement, then we're going to be in trouble, because these movements of national terrorists are too deeply rooted to be able to suppress. The Chechens have been fighting against Russians intermittently for several centuries now. These are very deeply-rooted movements.

International terrorists are those who go beyond that. They have generally been defeated in their attempts at the local enemy, and they move as migrs to Western countries and then they attack the U.S. and other Western targets. Now, obviously, they are attacking us; we have to attack them, we have to eliminate them, preferably by legal methods. But that's not too difficult, because as soon as they start letting off their bombs, characteristically they kill more of the local nationality, whatever that is, than they kill Americans. So the Indonesian government was reluctant to aid a war against international terrorism, but then came the Bali bombing, and they were compelled to enter into it. Most of the governments in the world are cooperating in this attempt to drive international terrorists out.

But when the Bush administration talks about terrorism, it characteristically produces a list -- it goes from al Qaeda, to Hamas, to Hezbollah -- the names vary according to the list. But they are putting together the national and the international terrorists. The State Department points out that Hamas and Hezbollah, who are respectively Palestinian and Lebanese movements, [have] killed Americans; but they did so in the early 1980s, when American troops were in Lebanon. They haven't killed any Americans since then.

Now, it's elementary not to attack people who are not attacking you, especially if in attacking them, you are attacking something that's much more deeply rooted than al Qaeda is. If you go and attack Muslim countries, and intern Muslims in Guantanamo Bay, and arrest Muslim immigrant men to this country, and check that their visas are in order, and deport some and incarcerate others if you've got only suspicions about them, then all of this fuels a more general Muslim discontent with us, and fuses together Muslim national terrorists with international terrorists. And I wait -- every now and then over the last few months, you see a Hamas or Hezbollah leader who makes a statement saying, "America is our enemy. We should attack America." And there's a dispute immediately within the movement; so far they've been shouted down and they haven't done it. But I await the first Hamas or Hezbollah attacks on us, and that will be a sign of our failure. Already in Iraq there are international terrorists, and there were not under Saddam, because he was their enemy. There was Ansar al-Islam, but that was in the Kurdish-controlled northern part of the country. So we're creating more terrorists by this [war on Iraq].

It seems that the American government, whoever is in power, will have learned a lesson that you can't do empire in the traditional way unless you build a coalition. One can imagine a learning process through books like yours and through the repercussions of what's happening on the ground, but what is not clear is whether the American government (whichever administration is in power) will come to understand the distinction that you've just made between international and national terrorists. I want to ask you about that, because our military power is global; it has the mobility, flexibility, and the ability to be all over the world with rapid deployment forces. But is this distinction [understood by] our policymakers? I fear that the combination of this global reach with alliances with governments that have [internal] terrorists isn't digestible.

One particular case is very difficult to digest, and that is Israel-Palestine, because the U.S. has for a long time been very closely allied to Israelthey absorb a third of our foreign aid. They're not a poor country, and the connections between the Right and this administration, and in a mysterious way, evangelical Protestantism, are strong. It's difficult for American politicians to actually go to the right policy, which is to bang both their heads together and not to show preferential treatment to Sharon; to accept that both Sharon and Arafat are the legitimate leaders of their people, and bash both their heads together to compromise. President Clinton did quite a reasonable job; he got quite close at Camp David and at Taba, and that's obviously the way forward.

The U.S. [has played a] very constructive role in Ireland, which I know quite a lot about, being a frequent visitor there. Senator Mitchell, the Chair of the Conciliation Committee in the Clinton administration and now the Bush administration, continues this policy of helping to bring both sides together, to give certain leads in certain ways, alongside the Irish and British governments, which have had enough of this. That's the way forward.

Now, I don't think it's impossible; and, in fact, the U.S. is not confusing [internal versus international conflicts] all over the world. The administration is well aware that in Kashmir it shouldn't side with either India or Kashmir, though it's tempted to side with India because of its identification of Muslin terrorists as the enemy. It does hold back a bit. But it should be possible in such a case -- Israel is a difficult one -- but elsewhere it should be possible for the U.S. to have a more aggressive conciliation policy.

It's in that role as a conciliator that we can make progress on these problems in a way that would further our other interests, economic or whatever.

That's right, because it makes places into stable territories, and we can trade with them, do business with them, and they can be our allies if we wanted allies. Of course, we also have considerable economic resources, and we not only prop up Israel, we prop up the Palestine Authority too, with much smaller sums, but nonetheless they would be in trouble without these sums. So we have bargaining leverage over groups like these.

Your book is called Incoherent Empire. Why "incoherent," and what does incoherence lead to?

It's incoherent because the different forms of power are at odds with each other. We have enormous military power over most of realm of military, although not in pacification; but we are schizophrenic about political power, about whether we have allies or not. We shift between these two. In terms of ideological power, our militarism is contradicting the values that we say we stand for.

Also, we do stand for these values. The world stands for more humane values than it did in the nineteenth century, so that we cannot do what the British did, and what the French did. I don't want to glorify previous empires. Faced with the Sunni triangle they would go rampaging in it. British forces would go in -- they'd loot and burn. They burned villages, they burned crops, they killed young men in villages that were supposed to have dealt with the enemy, and exercised an enormous amount of repression. We can't do that; the world has changed, and we don't want to do that. So we are held back, ideologically. There are contradictions between the different forms of power.

And also, there is not only weapons of the weak in the military terms, but in ideology, too, weapons of mass communication. Al Jazeera, Al-Arabia, Arab newspapers and websites communicate across the Middle East. Nineteenth century empires were not faced with local people who could communicate in this way. So they learn all about our atrocities, obviously seen through their own perspective.

So it's incoherent because these things are very uneven and they contradict each other.

Where does it lead? Well, it's leads to failure. In fact, in real terms, the administration is recognizing this. Our troops are being pulled back into a smaller number of securer bases, and leaving the Iraqi police force to take the brunt. We immediately see a reduction in our loss rate, our casualty rate, and a massive increase in theirs. We've abandoned the notions of privatizing Iraqi industry. We're accepting in various ways that we cannot do what we intended originally to do. Though we're not admitting it publicly, and the administration obviously can't admit anything publicly before the election, the administration is recognizing that this was a mistake, and it can't do it again. At least, I hope so. But, of course, if there's another 9/11, well, who knows what emotions this will stir up amongst us?

So this may be just a blip and we may return to what we used to have in the 1990s.

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