George W. Kipling

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If you're nostalgic for gin slings, parasols and fly whisks, the White House Rose Garden was the place to be last week. The speech that President Bush gave on the Middle East could have been delivered by a colonial governor. As if the Palestinians were hapless natives, Bush set out the conditions they had to meet before winning approval from the Great White Father.

Imperialism is back in vogue. With global stability threatened by failed states (or near states) like Afghanistan and Palestine, the literature on international affairs is suddenly ripe with articles whose authors seem to be channeling Rudyard Kipling. "A new imperial moment has arrived," Sebastian Mallaby, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote in Foreign Affairs this year, "and by virtue of its power, America is bound to play the leading role." In a much-talked-about new book, The Savage Wars of Peace — the very title is a line from Kipling — Max Boot, the Wall Street Journal's editorial-features editor, argues that the U.S. should not fear engaging in small wars to improve the lot of those in lands less happy than ours. "Yes, there is a danger of imperial overstretch and hubris," writes Boot, "but there is an equal, if not greater, danger of undercommitment and lack of confidence." And now comes Bush, setting out, in the way that colonial powers once did, the steps the Palestinians must take before the U.S. will recognize a Palestinian state: find new leaders, write a constitution, establish a market economy and more. All the President needs is a solar toupee and a cut-glass English accent.

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This is all mighty odd. Republicans spent eight years criticizing the Clinton Administration for neocolonial nation building in such places as Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti. This, we were told, was a diversion from America's core missions: national defense and the establishment of a global security system based on relations with other great powers. Last week, however, a senior White House official blithely said, "We're for nation building," as long as American troops aren't used to do it. (Which begs the question: Who will be used?)

Palestinians could be forgiven for thinking that their shortcomings have been singled out for harsh treatment. Palestine, said Bush, needs a "new constitution" and reform based on "market economics." That's hard to argue with, given the shambolic state of the Palestinian Authority, but Israel doesn't have a written constitution and for decades had one of the most socialized economies outside the Soviet bloc. Yet one struggles to remember an American President making aid to Israel incumbent on reform of the labor laws.

There's more than a narrow point of equity here. The U.S., as Boot points out, has a good record as a colonial power. Puerto Rico, the largest remaining American colony (its status masquerades under the politically correct term commonwealth, but don't be fooled), is well governed and prosperous. But wise states do not impose on others conditions that will long be resented. The U.S. is right to demand that any Palestinian state renounce terrorism, for terrorism is a curse that spills over national borders. Similarly, Washington is entitled to say — as Bush did during last week's G-8 summit in Canada — Palestine won't get American financial aid if it does not crack down on corruption. For that matter, there is no harm in pointing out that market economics will make Palestine more prosperous. But if the Palestinians decide, in their foolishness, to nationalize the ownership of every olive grove in the West Bank, why should anyone else care? Why should that be a ground for withholding recognition of a Palestinian state?

More significant is Bush's call for a new Palestinian leadership. Let's stipulate that Yasser Arafat has been disastrous for the Palestinians. Why should anyone think Bush's speech makes it more likely they will now dump him? Since the time of Caesar Augustus, imperial powers have tried to find local chiefs they can do business with. It never works; just because you sign a treaty with Red Cloud, it doesn't mean Sitting Bull stays on the reservation. National-liberation movements (and Palestinians believe they are engaged in one) are quite happy, thank you very much, to choose their own leaders. Margaret Thatcher wanted Bishop Abel Muzorewa, a moderate nationalist, to lead independent Zimbabwe. Most Zimbabweans wanted Robert Mugabe and in 1980 duly elected him. Muzorewa might well have been better for Zimbabwe than Mugabe (he could hardly have been worse), but Thatcher's endorsement surely didn't help.

There's nothing wrong with a little colonialism — sorry, nation building — but it's not easy to get right. Americans should remember that the old imperial powers got out of the business in part because they never got any thanks for it. Instead, their reward was "the blame of those ye better, the hate of those ye guard." That's Kipling again. This year, he's the man.