Richard Perle is at ease with neo-imperial swagger. At the White House Correspondents' Association dinner on Saturday night, the Pentagon's Prince of Darkness lectured Hans Blix as if he were a colonial subject, instructing him on why an invasion of Iraq had been justified even though no weapons of mass destruction had yet been found.
Asked afterward how Blix had reacted, Perle replied merrily: "He's a Swedish disarmament lawyer. He's used to a lot of abuse."
When one partygoer told Perle that she would miss the buzzy, standing-room-only "black coffee briefings" on Iraq held by hard-liners at the American Enterprise Institute, he suggested the neo-cons might hold another round.
"We'll have green tea briefings on North Korea," he said slyly.
On Fox News, Bill Kristol spoke up for a more brazen imperial attitude. "We need to err on the side of being strong," he said. "And if people want to say we're an imperial power, fine. If three years from now, we have beaten back these threats and have a decent regime there, it'll be worth it."
But imperial flair is rare. The US is a furtive empire, afraid to raise its flag or linger too long or even call things by their real names. The US is having a hard time figuring out how to wield its colonial power, how to balance collegiality with coercion, how to savour the fruits of imperialism without acknowledging its imperialist hubris.
The Pentagon once more outgunned the State Department this week, changing the name of a new governing body of Iraqis from "interim authority" to "transitional government" to signal the US would leave quickly and give its Armani-clad puppet, Ahmad Chalabi, an advantage. It doesn't matter what euphemistic name is used, if there are too many militant Shiite clerics involved, Rummy, the real authority, will tell them to take their camels and vamoose.
"America is the empire that dare not speak its name," Niall Ferguson, the Oxford professor who wrote Empire, told a crowd at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on Monday. He believes that the US is so invested in its "creation myth", breaking away from a wicked empire, that Americans will always be self-deceiving - and even self-defeating - imperialists.