Meghan Clyne describes the United States as an “empire of idealism” with a history of doing good (“Face the facts, we’re an empire: But is that such a bad thing?” 2/19). She slightly qualifies her assertion of American goodness by slipping in a sentence admitting that “no country is perfect” and that the United States has made “some foreign policy mistakes.”

I happen to agree that overall the United States is a positive force in the world. But there are good reasons for discerning people to be skeptical of this claim, or even to vehemently disagree with it. The scales are not so clearly weighted on the side of “United States: Benevolent Empire.”

In South America, where I am originally from, the United States helped overthrow Chile’s democratically elected government in 1973 and throughout the 1970s and ’80s supported military dictatorships who routinely tortured and murdered their own citizens. In Central America during this time, the United States supported military dictatorships that organized death squads to murder and terrorize entire communities. At the infamous U.S. Army School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga., U.S. personnel instructed Latin American military officers in the art of torture and assassination and such instruction resulted in terrible human rights abuses. Only ignorance and arrogance could glibly dismiss all this as “foreign policy mistakes.”

Every region of the world has a similar story, one in which the positive influence of the United States is counterbalanced by a darker side. For many years the Middle East has been a gas pump to the West. To keep the oil pumping, the United States has supported extremely questionable Middle Eastern regimes, for example the shah of Iran in the past and Saudi Arabia today. These regimes repress their people and generally lack the democratic values Ms. Clyne believes America habitually spreads throughout the world.

The truth is that the United States’ opportunism mirrors those of past empires. Saddam Hussein himself, in the 1980s, was an American beneficiary in his war against Iran. He was as immoral then as he is now. During the war with Iran he used chemical weapons, gassing Iranian soldiers and Kurds alike. The United States now cites these terrible acts as reason to disarm him, but back then it was OK. Why? Because Iran was no longer ruled by the shah but by Muslim fundamentalists who disliked America. Only when Saddam attacked friendly Kuwait — a nondemocratic government that keeps the pumps working — did he suddenly become dangerous.

So is it any wonder that the world is skeptical about Bush’s black-and-white moral vision that implores war on Iraq? Is it not possible that war with Iraq is a cynical distraction from our sputtering economy and the failure to capture Osama Bin Laden? To be really far-fetched, is it just not possible that Bush wants to continue an old pattern of control over a vitally important part of the world? Ms. Clyne points to France’s and Germany’s own arrogant hypocrisy with respect to Iraq and its oil, as if to prove that Bush’s heart is pure. Yet this only shows that there are many players in on the oil game.

People interested in human rights, myself included, agree that Saddam’s regime brutalizes its own people. But we feel queasy hearing Bush co-opt the language of human rights to justify war when his administration completely ignores human rights elsewhere in the world and knowingly condones the use of torture by our allies in the war against terror. Moreover, to “save” the Iraqi people many thousands of them will die; this cannot be an easy moral calculus even if one shares Mr. Bush’s and Ms. Clyne’s astounding moral clarity.

As many commentators point out, defeating Iraq will be easy, but putting Iraq back together will entail incredibly hard work over many years. Helping to rebuild nations, especially after wars, is a proud American tradition as Ms. Clyne rightly points out. Yet I remember listening to candidate Bush during the 2000 presidential debates repeat over and over: “No More Nation Building!” Can you blame me if I am skeptical about this man’s ability to really help the Iraqi people rebuild their nation and thus spread the goodness of the American empire? I know, I know, I must be suffering from moral relativism!

Claudio Salas is a second-year student at the Law School.