Review of Immerwahr, “How to Hide an Empire”


I have reviewed Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire for The New Republic. Good book, surprising controversy, even-more-surprising quantity of guano islands.

In February 2003, Al Jazeera broadcast an interview with Donald Rumsfeld, then George W. Bush’s secretary of defense. “Would it worry you,” the interviewer asked him, “if you go by force into Iraq that this might create the impression that the United States is becoming an imperial, colonial power?” Rumsfeld swatted away the question. “I’m sure that some people would say that,” he responded, “but it can’t be true because we’re not a colonial power. We’ve never been a colonial power.… That’s just not what the United States does. We never have and we never will.” In March, the United States invaded Iraq. By April, it was operating a government of occupation. By May, it had effectively placed a proconsul in charge of the country.

In the early years of the Iraq war, the idea of the United States as an imperial power was, for a moment, a subject of serious debate. Longstanding left-wing critics of empire like Noam Chomsky were now joined by conservative hawks such as Niall Ferguson in agreeing that the United States was an empire, though they differed deeply on whether this was a good thing. But both Rumsfeld and the journalist questioning him exhibited a kind of historical amnesia. Rumsfeld denies the possibility that the United States could ever be an empire; the journalist asks if it is in the process of becoming one. But what if it had been all along?

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