Putting a human mask on imperialism

December 3, 2008

Politicians and historians may argue that the U.S. is a force for good around the world, but the facts show the opposite.

MAINSTREAM AND liberal opposition to the Iraq war is based on accepting the aims of the war, but criticizing its lack of success, its "excesses" or its tactical or strategic mistakes.

The argument of people who hold this view is that the Iraq invasion was a mistake, not because it denied the sovereignty of the Iraqi people, or that it has led to the deaths of tens of thousands, the displacement of millions and the destruction of Iraq's infrastructure. It was a mistake because it failed to achieve U.S. objectives.

Barack Obama, for example, criticizes the Iraq war because it has weakened U.S. power--it has emboldened its enemies, such as Iran and North Korea--and created a crisis of U.S. credibility abroad. Instead, he argues, the U.S. should shift troops to Afghanistan, organize a phased withdrawal from Iraq (but leave a "residual force") and maintain an "over the horizon" military presence to intervene when necessary.

Obama is fully committed to the idea that the U.S. should continue to be the world's unchallenged global military power; he merely believes that there are better ways to achieve that goal.

AHMED RASHID, in his new book on Afghanistan, Descent into Chaos, offers a tortured variation of this argument.

He says he supported the invasion of Afghanistan as a "just war and not an imperialist intervention, because only external intervention could save the Afghan people from the Taliban and al-Qaeda and prevent the spread of al-Qaeda."

Rashid himself admits, however, that none of these aims have been achieved:

Instead, the U.S.-led war on terrorism has left in its wake a far more unstable world than existed on that momentous day in 2001...Afghanistan is once again staring down the abyss of state collapse, despite billions of dollars in aid, 45,000 Western troops and the deaths of thousands of people. The Taliban have made a dramatic comeback, enlisting the help of al-Qaeda and Islamic extremists in Pakistan, and getting a boost from the explosion of heroin production that has helped fund their movement.

Rashid's logic boils down to this: because I supported the stated aims of the invasion, it cannot be imperialist.

This is a bad method. Better to look at the facts of the case: The biggest military power in the world invaded a country halfway around the world that had never threatened the U.S. It proceeded to occupy the country, remove the existing government from power and install a government to its own liking, which it maintains through a military occupation. Pardon me for concluding that this is imperialism.

What galls Rashid is not that a great power violated Afghanistan's sovereignty, but that it wasn't done with sufficient tact. "Above all, arrogance and ignorance were on display," he complains, when the Bush administration "invaded two countries in the Muslim world without any attempt to understand the history, culture, society or traditions of those countries."

In other words, it's not arrogant to invade and conquer another country; it's arrogant to not learn more about it first.

The Bush administration wanted to "declare victory" after removing the Taliban, "get out, and move on to Iraq," when it should have had a longer-term commitment, according to Rashid. By his own account, Afghanistan was primarily a stepping-stone to the war in Iraq, and both wars were part of a long-term plan to reshape the Middle East and the wider region under the rubric of an open-ended "war on terror."

Part of the Bush and Rumsfeld Doctrine was the idea that regimes could be changed on the cheap by swift, decisive invasions, after which things could quickly be wrapped up, and messy, long wars of occupation could be avoided. That is why security in Afghanistan was handed over to "warlords and drug barons."

What the U.S. should have done, he explains, is commit itself to "nation-building" in Afghanistan--a decades-long plan involving "massive aid, internal economic reforms, democratization and literacy."

To believe in this paternalistic fantasy, one must ignore America's long history of genocide and conquest in North America; its brutal occupations, annexations and colonizations in the Caribbean and Pacific; its destruction of Korea and Vietnam; its sanctions against Iraq that killed a million people; and finally, one must ignore what Rashid admits to be true--that the U.S. has wrecked both Iraq and Afghanistan over the past several years.

Rashid is either naïve or is trying to deliberately put a human mask over the ugly face of U.S. imperialism.

RASHID IS a kind of utopian imperialist, who looks at what is and can only counterpose to it a kinder, gentler version. To counter this neocon fantasy, Rashid offers a fantasy of his own: the revival of British-style colonialism. I must quote him at length here to give the reader the full flavor of his argument:

The neocons seemed to have no knowledge of what history had taught us about empires. The great empire builders quickly learned that when it came to ruling newly conquered lands, they had to put back in almost as much as they took out. If the conqueror was to extract raw materials, taxes, manpower he needed from the colony, he had to establish a system of security and law and order over the conquered and help his subjects maintain their economic livelihoods.

Most significantly, empire builders from Alexander the Great to Queen Victoria had to learn about their subjects if they want to rule over them with any authority. At the very least, they had to be curious about them. In the 19th century, the British epitomized a colonialism that exploited with responsibility, used force judiciously and yet learned about its subject peoples.

History might beg to differ. At its height, the British Empire covered a quarter of the world's land surface and ruled over 400 million people. It ruled first by conquest, then by dividing up the populations and pitting them against one other. It "learned" about its subjects in order to better dominate them.

When it could not cow its subjects into believing in their own innate inferiority, it resorted to unstinting force. The history of British colonialism begins with the brutal conquest and partition of Ireland, moves through the enslavement of Black Africans to work the great plantations of the Caribbean, on to the conquest of India and China, and ends with the carving up, with the other great powers, of Africa in order to get at its diamonds, gold and other precious resources. The bones of those who resisted the British are strewn across several continents.

Britain drained India of its wealth. Under the first 120 years of British rule, there were 31 famines in India in which at least 15 million people died, all during which Britain drained tribute from India and exported grain from its ports.

Historian Irfan Habib calculates the average annual drain at about 9 percent of India's GNP. At the time just before the British conquest, 1750, India accounted for about one quarter of the world's manufacturing output. By 1900, India accounted for only 1.7 percent.

Clearly, the British did not "put back in almost as much as they took out," either in India or in Africa, which to this day remains, despite being resource-rich, the poorest continent on the planet.

"History does not record a single instance," remarked the Indian nationalist Romesh Dutt, "of one people ruling another in the interests of the subject nation." When politicians and apologists for U.S. intervention talk about "saving" another country by invading it, we should remember Dutt's words.

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Today's Stories

From the archives