Empires past and present

May 12, 2011

Aerial bombings, torture and attacks on civilians are the hallmarks of empire--something that its apologists conveniently ignore, explains Mike Marqusee.

A HIGH court in London is hearing a suit brought against the British government by four elderly Kenyans who were tortured, sexually abused and, in one case, castrated while held in detention during the British repression of the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s.

As a result of the trial, the Foreign Office has been forced to make public a vast cache of documents that confirm in grisly detail both the systematic nature of the abuse and the complicity of British officials at the highest levels. Torture, mutilation, starvation and forced labor were routine. People were clubbed to death or burned alive. More than 1,000 were hanged, many on the basis of confessions extracted by torture.

The current British government does not deny the facts of the case, but does dispute its "residual liability" and is refusing to apologize or pay compensation.

The case ought to be a sharp reminder of one of the in-built flaws of empire. The rulers are not accountable to, or in many cases even familiar with, the ruled. These atrocities happened because the people who policed the Kenyans were accountable only to their masters in London, whose primary concern was always the protection of British interests, which at that time meant perpetuation of white colonial rule.

Kenyan men rounded up and detained on charges of being involved in the Mau Mau anticolonial movement
Kenyan men rounded up and detained on charges of being involved in the Mau Mau anticolonial movement

Even today, the perpetrators--the institutions of the British state--refuse to be held to account by the victims. The court may rectify that, but it will take more than a court decision to force people in the West to confront the realities, past and present, of the imperial mode of rule from afar.

Meanwhile, the BBC has been screening the latest TV opus by historian Niall Ferguson, who has made a career out of championing empire. This one is called "Civilization: The West and the Rest"; it equates "the West" with science, the work ethic, the market, individualism, etc., while the undifferentiated "rest" are defined by the alleged absence of these things.

For Ferguson, Western empires have been and are progressive and benign. He deals with the copious evidence to the contrary by the simple expedient of ignoring it. And he gets away with that because he can safely assume that neither BBC commissioning editors nor the viewing public have the knowledge, skills or motivation to see that in this case the emperor's apologist has no clothes.

IT HAS been 90 years since the first British aerial bombardment of Africa, and in light of the current attack on Libya, it's a pity few commentators are aware of that episode.

An independent Somali "Dervish State" had resisted British, Italian and Ethiopian invasions for a quarter of a century until the British unleashed the newly formed RAF [Royal Air Force] on its cities and fortresses, quickly bringing the territory under British rule. The strategy of terror from above was cheap, nearly risk free and effective, and it was immediately adopted in Iraq, where rebel Kurdish towns were pulverized from the air.

Libya is the third non-Western country to suffer aerial assault at the hands of the U.S., Britain and allies in less than a decade. As in Afghanistan and Iraq, we're told that the motivations are altruistic, that the West is acting as the world's indispensable policeman.

Defenders of this third intervention insist that it will not end up like the first two, which have manifestly done far more harm than good, killing hundreds of thousands and massively disrupting both societies at every level. For reasons that remain unclear, they believe that this time around Western involvement will be short and decisively on the side of the angels.

Already, that dream is unraveling. Having launched an average of 70 aerial attacks a day for several weeks now, the West has taken its own toll of civilian life and infrastructure, and stalemate and partition seem at the moment the most likely outcomes. But whatever happens, the Western military action has ensured that the U.S., Britain and France will play a decisive role in choosing whatever government eventually replaces Qaddafi's.

It's been widely noted that the U.S. and its allies, so eager to defend democracy in Libya, are at the same time staunch sponsors of regimes in Bahrain and Yemen that are slaughtering pro-democracy protesters. That they were at best indifferent to the millions of civilians who perished in the Congo as a result of wars sponsored by mineral-hungry Western corporations. That they never proposed a no-fly zone over Gaza when Israel killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians, in 2008-09. That their puppet regime in Iraq is at this very moment detaining and torturing citizens for the crime of demanding basic democratic rights. That they continue their oil-lubricated love-in with the most repressive regime in the region, Saudi Arabia.

The inconsistencies and double standards are only surface deep. Underneath, U.S. and British policy is quite consistent. The Western powers do whatever they deem necessary to protect their own interests, which they see as coterminous with the interests of Western corporations. In some places this means supporting tyrants, in some places opposing them, and in some places simply not caring one way or another.

In the case of Libya, the West has thrown caution aside and jumped into the fray with even less preparation than Iraq. Here was an opportunity too tempting to pass up: the chance to renew Western presence in the region after a series of setbacks, to redeem the discredited doctrine of liberal interventionism, to insert a friendly government in an oil-producing nation and, not least, to divert the Arab popular movements from a course that was inimical to the West's entire geopolitical strategy.

THE U.S. does not keep military bases in more than 130 countries around the world as some kind of global public service. These are the garrisons of an empire. Indirect rule is preferred these days, but as students of empires know, there is nothing new in that. It's long been the U.S. mode of dominance in Latin America, and of course, the British used it in India and elsewhere.

One of the Kenyans detained by the British in the 1950s was Barack Obama's grandfather, who served the British in the Second World War, only to find himself locked up by them when he returned home. Whatever influence this family history has had on the president, it hasn't shifted him from a commitment to the U.S.'s global mission, and in particular, its right to strike militarily wherever it wants.

Even as he warned that the U.S. would never tolerate attacks on civilians, he was ordering unmanned drones out on their weekly death-dealing missions to northern Pakistan, where thousands of civilian fatalities are destabilizing the country's less-than-robust democracy.

David Cameron's energetic championing of the Libyan intervention seems curious at first glance. The policy is not popular among voters, nor does it serve as an effective distraction from the government's headlong destruction of public services. Unlike Thatcher or Blair, Cameron doesn't seem driven by the vainglory of war.

Instead, he and his cabinet colleagues and their top civil servants are simply doing what they think chaps in their position should do. Determining the fates of non-Western peoples, especially in what they regard as British zones of influence, comes with the job. Programs like Ferguson's confirm their self-image. It's to be hoped that the evidence presented by the Kenyans in the High Court will at least gouge a chink out of that.

First published at The Hindu.

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