Sunday, March 30, 2008

The end of the new imperialism?

About forty years ago, two British historians named Robinson and Gallagher made an interesting argument about 19th-century British imperialism. Britain, they argued in effect, did not seek occupation and direct rule of territories in Africa for its own sake--the British were quite content to work with local elites while pursuing their economic interests. Unfortunately, European economic and financial involvement often led to conflict and chaos--for example in Egypt in the late 1880s, where the government could not longer pay its debts. Faced with the alternatives of loss of their investments, chaos, and intervention, the British (and other powers such as the United States in the Caribbean twenty years later) usually intervened. Again and again, the disproportionate impact of the west in what we now call the third world led to chaos and intervention.

Something similar has been happening in the Middle East for the last thirty years, albeit with wildly differing results. The Shah of Iran's embrace of secularism and his overt and covert alliances with the United States and Israel led to his fall in 1979 and to the first great Islamic revolution. The United States during the next decade found it expedient to strengthen Saddam Hussein, but when in 1990 he used his new wealth and stature to invade Kuwait, a long struggle began that culminated in his most unwise overthrow. Then in 2001 terrorism on a large scale emerged as one outcome of weak central authorities and abundant oil money in much of the Islamic world, and the Bush Administration suddenly decided that the whole region needed a new, democratic form of government. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan resulted. And although the word remains unmentionable among the American political and journalistic elite, a new imperialism had begun.

The history of European imperialism is far too complex (and, to be frank, I do not know enough of the details myself) to summarize it here. Yet it is fair to say that the British, in particular, usually relied to the maximum extent possible on local elites and local power structures to rule new colonies, while introducing some legal innovations of their own. For a variety of reasons, from racism to sophisticated historical understanding, they understood that their own legal and democratic institutions had taken centuries to develop, and did not believe they could be exported wholesale. Arthur Balfour argued publicly in the 1890s that the Egyptians had never governed themselves and that the British were now giving them the best government they had ever had. Americans have never been capable of that level of cynicism--and as long as they eschewed that kind of imperialism themselves, that was all to the good.

If however the United States ever collapses completely, I suspect that an excess of idealism will be to blame. Faced with an increasingly chaotic and hostile Middle East, President Bush decided that the solution was simple: American-style institutions for all. The events of the last five years in Iraq, culminating in the outbreak of civil war in the Shi'ite South, show how mindless that belief was. The American attempt to create an impartial central authority that all Iraqis would trust has been a complete failure--and, to be fair, almost surely never had a chance in the first place. A complicated network of local tribes, militias, and religious leaders competes for leadership all over the country. Such elections have been held have shown a complete division along ethnic and religious lines (as I pointed out the week of the first national elections.) Iraqi politics resemble those of New York's five families more than anything else, and there are no "pezzonovantes, the real .90 calibers," at all, except perhaps for the 150,000 American troops. During the last year they have stabilized Sunni areas without changing the fundamentals of the situation at all. They have simply brought many local Sunni networks into alliance with the U.S., mostly by paying them off on a continuing basis. That does resemble classic European strategies, but the Europeans, as John McCain would say, were willing to stay for a hundred years. Two Sundays ago the Boston Globe had a remarkable story about the American presence in the mixed town of Rashid, recounting a meeting of Shi'ite and Sunni tribal leaders. When some one had the temerity to ask them whether they could remain at peace when the Americans left, they agreed firmly that they could not, to the American commander's dismay. "You are the safety valve," one said.

The "nation-building" projects we are engaged in in Iraq and Afghanistan have much more in common with classical imperialism than with the relatively brief occupations of Germany and Japan, countries that had significant democratic and legal traditions, after 1945. (Significantly, perhaps, we are now engaged in two countries where Europeans never had a lasting presence--in fact, no European nation had the audacity to try to control Afghanistan until the Russians in 1979.) Unfortunately, we have uniformly found that in the twenty-first century, a client relationship with the United States is invariably a huge political liability. Last week also saw the appalling spectacle of a high-level American mission dispatched to Pakistan to impress upon its newly elected government the need not to deviate too severely from the policies of Perez Musharraf, the client upon whom we have been relying, and whom the Pakistani people have now repudiated. In the same way we cling to Mahmoud Abbas in Palestine, all the more so since Hamas actually won the election.

Al-Maliki's attempt to subdue the Mahdi Army in the South, Juan Cole speculates on his blog, was proposed by Vice President Cheney during his recent visit as a means to try to make sure that the pro-Maliki parties won the coming provincial elections. Certainly I do not believe that Maliki would have undertaken such drastic steps without American blessing, and I recall that General Petraeus, in his testimony last September, said bluntly in response to a question that he did not regard developments in southern Iraq as part of his business. The London Times is repeatedly reporting (as American papers are not) that large parts of the Iraqi security forces in the South have simply gone over to al-Sadr. Today he has called for his followers to cease fire, but that may be from a position of strength, not weakness. The on-scene reporting does not suggest that the Iraqi government is going to emerge stronger from this measure. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration's response to the failure of its policies, from tax cuts to invading Islamic nations, is almost invariably to push further ahead. There does not seem to be much chance that they will be restrained by the oncoming election. We desperately need a new President who will be willing to scale back our new imperialist project and began trying to live with the Islamic world as it is.

Meanwhile, on the political front here at home, Frank Rich has an interesting column about Hillary Clinton's astonishing failure to stop claiming to have landed under fire in Bosnia, long after it had been exposed. He wonders how the professionals around her could have allowed this to happen, and I can think of only one answer. Like the Nixon and George W. Bush entourages, her advisers have created their own world, in which their candidate can do no wrong and reality is whatever they say it is. That must in turn reflect something important, and frightening, about the candidate's own personality. It is another reason to hope, in my opinion, that leading Democrats continue to call for her withdrawal and that, as Howard Dean has proposed, the nomination be settled by June 1. My birthday is six days later, and it would be nice present indeed.

6 comments:

Nur-al-Cubicle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nur-al-Cubicle said...

Wow. So many questions...

With respect to idealism, were not Wolfowitz, Perle and Feith supreme cynics who did not for a moment seriously entertain "democracy" but rather "occupation and control"? Did they then manipulate the mindless beliefs of Bush to potentially further the practical interests of Israel (taking out an Arab state)? Why did the Administration then cheer-lead the invasion of Lebanon? And was not the President's GME Initiative merely an end-run around dealing seriously with the Palestinian problem? It seemed to pop up out of nowhere in early spring 2004 when the hint of things going totally downhill in Iraq became evident--almost as if the policy were a Hail Mary pass.

Moreover, I have trouble imaging Cheney as idealistic in any positive sense.

In other words, who are the mindless idealists and who are the cynical operators?

I _loved_ the reference to the pezzonovantes!

Anonymous said...

'Arthur Balfour argued publicly in the 1890s that the Egyptians had never governed themselves and that the British were now giving them the best government they had ever had. Americans have never been capable of that level of cynicism...'

I'm not so sure about that. Neocon cynicism is limitless and I can well imagine your Perles and Kristols chuntering on in similar fashion. Hell, even your Sean Hannitys and Tucker Carlsons could manage it, though I guess it's a moot point whether it would be cynicism or sheer patriotic cluelessness in their case.

'If however the United States ever collapses completely, I suspect that an excess of idealism will be to blame.'

Whoa! I could list a host of other more deserving candidates but perhaps by idealism you really mean 'hubristic naivete' and I could swallow that, provided you could make room for a few other things, like an almost religious (and certainly state sanctioned) corporate greed and general rapacity that has precluded a sensible, shared national approach to any important issue (Katrina for one) for the last 20 or 30 years. This has curdled and mutated so badly that even the concept of community (and the word ‘liberal’) has been warped into a potential danger to be resisted at all costs. Or you could mention the sick love of violence and militarism that permeates even the popular culture.

Or you could add the fact that many, perhaps most people in other nations now hate the US for what it has done to them or their co-religionists over the years and would be far happier stymying than enabling US desires. Or the fact that the military/intel apparatus has since the fifties chewed up more money (without producing anything of value) each year than the annual value of the entire US stock market, even while manufacturing was dying and sending American jobs overseas. Or you could blame the quite awesome ignorance of many Americans about other people, other nations, other views, etc, which helps lead to the sort of intellectual bubble and it’s attendant myopia which even good sensible people find it hard to break free from, permitting them to opine that the US may end up being too idealistic for it’s own good.

Even fellow lefty friends in the US who are happy to critique a range of US actions will come out occasionally with some autopilot remark about the US justice system or health care arrangements being the best in the world, more thru being exposed since childhood to a steady diet of such puffery than to any weight in their claims.

And all that's just the tip of the iceberg. Idealism may end up being a factor, but I would submit it’s down the list somewhat.

'Faced with an increasingly chaotic and hostile Middle East, President Bush decided that the solution was simple: American-style institutions for all.'

Hmm.. more like 'faced with the prospect of challenges to US hegemony in the best case scenario and to it's very economic survival in the worst, Bush decided to risk all on a reckless gamble - stealing the sovereign resources (oil reserves rumoured to be worth up to 30 trillion dollars) of Iraq and after that, Iran. This, as per usual (see Smedley Butler) was to be done in the guise of 'spreading democracy'.

If nobodies like me could surmise such things in 2002 (and I was a long way from being the Lone Ranger) I’m sure the big brains surrounding Bush could too, and more comprehensively. Cheney’s Energy Task Force deliberations are secret for a reason; if released the Straussian noble lie cover story (‘we in our goodness hereby give you some of our precious democracy’) would be blown and the grubby calculations intended to keep China and India and Russia at bay would be exposed.

They would have considered particularly the security of future energy supplies, given Peak Oil calculations, petro-nations' moves to other denominations and bourses, and the possibility (admittedly more remote back then) that the US might, without military control of supply lines, have to do without essential energy supplies because it could no longer pay for them. If push really comes to shove, having ‘enduring’ bases full of the latest people destroying technology surrounding the spigots will come in very handy indeed.

Happily, their approach chimed almost perfectly with the neocon/Likudnik/Lobby project to break up, isolate and weaken hostile states surrounding Israel, an acknowledged goal of the IDF since the Yinon plan in the early 1980s, and confirmed at various times by charming people like the Wurmsers. The clout this group carried (and carries) in Congress, the bureaucracy and especially the media, was crucial.

‘The events of the last five years in Iraq, culminating in the outbreak of civil war in the Shi'ite South, show how mindless that belief was.’

Some of the actors may sincerely have held that belief (in blameless US idealism) but I take leave to doubt it of many others. The presence of a few fools doesn’t imply an absence of knaves.

‘The American attempt to create an impartial central authority that all Iraqis would trust has been a complete failure--and, to be fair, almost surely never had a chance in the first place.’

And may not have been intended to succeed in the first place, at least in the minds of some of the aforementioned actors. A 3 trillion dollar war sounds cheap against 30 trillion of reserves, and a dominant military in impregnable bases is prudent if there is a chance you won’t be able to pay up some time soon.

Glenn Condell

Anonymous said...

I could have said 'I agree with the admirably concise nur-al-cubicle' and saved us all some time...

Glenn

George Buddy said...

RE: We desperately need a new President who will be willing to scale back our new imperialist project and began trying to live with the Islamic world as it is.

You are so right . . . We can't take another four or eight years of this nonsense. The military in particular is not being neutral politically and -- after years of bashing liberals -- they've got what they wanted so badly -- endless G.I. Joe he-man nonpreventive war. To think that not one service chief complained or resigned as a result of Bush's West Point speech. A disgrace.

Anonymous said...

"No European nation had the audacity to try to control Afghanistan until the Russians in 1979."

Twice the British went to war with Afghanistan.

The wars were won easily, the occupations were a disaster.

Simon.