The term empire is redundant. But American economic and political power extends well beyond its own borders. In many parts of the world, what the US wants it gets. In many respects, America’s powers are imperial.

From this week, Iraqis are formally in government but the presence of about 140,000 US troops and the promise of billions of dollars of US government aid means that control will remain in Washington’s hands. America has the power. What is it going to do with it?

There are two answers. One is that America must bring freedom, democracy and free markets initially to the people of Iraq and then to the entire region. This is not a uniquely Republic Party mission. Most Democrats would agree with it and so would many non-Americans. The second answer is that the priority is defending US national interests by using the position in the Middle East to promote America’s economy and national security. This, too, is not uniquely a Republican position, though few non-Americans would subscribe to it.

The present US administration argues that the two answers can be reconciled. They say that American interests are enhanced by bringing freedom to the region, by force if need be.

This policy, however, is inherently contradictory, as can already been seen in the Iraqi part of America’s new imperium. The argument for democracy suggests early elections and the devolution of power to the Iraqi people. The national interest argument, however, says that American control should be maintained until Iraq has been comprehensively remade. The hurried handover of authority on 28 June suggests that the US has resolved the tension with a fudge. The eventual result could be a country that is neither a democracy nor a friend of American regional objectives.

Only those who believe that what is good for America is good for everyone else will fail to conclude that the Iraq strategy is flawed. And yet, there is no evidence that Bush re-elected or Democratic presidential contender John Kerry have an alternative.

This means that the incoherent policies applied in Iraq since the fall of Saddam last April will continue, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office. That is why the handover is, in many respects, irrelevant. The key decisions affecting Iraq’s long-term future have already been taken. America will remain the ultimate master but it will often give the impression of being embarrassed that it is.

A compelling illustration of what will happen next is provided by the British Empire. After the Indian rebellion of 1857, London decided that more neededto be done than simply enriching British officials, traders and manufacturers. The empire almost immediately began to fall apart.

A similar fate seems inevitable for America’s informal Middle East empire, but not yet and not soon. Lack of money forced Britain back within its own borders. America is under no serious financial pressure and there is no prospect it will be for at least a generation.

The implications for everyone are profound. The US is locked into a costly commitment in the Middle East that will fail to achieve either of its key objectives. Yet, opponents in the region have no better ideas and do not have the resources to make a difference even if they did.

Realists, which include every Arab government, will continue to fall into line with Washington’s wishes. Dissidents and dreamers will rage at a status quo entrenched by American money and protection.

This is an uncomfo