Global Policy Forum

True Reactionaries


By Jim Lobe

Inter Press Service
March 12, 2004

As U.S. troops prepared to invade Iraq one year ago, the foreign-policy elite's issue of the day was whether the United States had become so dominant that it could and should be compared to the British Empire of a century ago, and accept its responsibilities accordingly.

When Niall Ferguson, the Oxford historian and outspoken proponent of American empire, came to Washington after Baghdad's capture, he was the toast of the town, particularly for the congenitally Anglophile neo-conservatives whose influence over President George W. Bush's administration had reached its peak.

At one event, after extolling the virtues and achievements of British rule over her darker-skinned subjects and suggesting that Washington should assume a similar role for itself, a retired senior foreign service officer asked whether the world and the people who inhabit it were a lot different -- what with decolonisation, human rights, democratisation, international law, population growth, modern communications, etc -- from a century ago.

''You have said very little about the changes in the world, and perhaps the increased resistance to being colonised or dominated'', she added. Those changes ''make some of (your comparisons between the British Empire and U.S. power today) perhaps a bit iffier, and I'd like to have your comments on the changes in the world's reaction to dominance by one power''.

Ferguson went on about how grateful the people of Sierra Leone were for British military intervention several years ago, how ''Africa's poverty is a consequence of independence'', and how Washington, as the world's dominant power, should do ''something to install workable structures of good government'', just as the British had presumably done 100 years ago.

Reflecting on the exchange nearly one year later, Phyllis Oakley, the questioner and a former State Department spokesperson with broad experience in the Africa and the Middle East, told IPS she felt Ferguson and like-minded thinkers ''were spinning out theories without having had very much experience on the ground''.

''I just thought it was extremely unrealistic to think all these happy natives were going to stand up and cheer, 'yes, do bring back the colonial masters'," she said. ''They're not going to take to being subjugated again''. While Washington appears to have found that out in Iraq, it is still remarkable how 19th century imperial ideology has come to dominate U.S. foreign policy these days.

There was, of course, the favourite neo-conservative notion that U.S. troops would ''liberate'' Iraq and that the locals would welcome with gratitude a U.S. occupation that would hand off power to a western-educated and financed Iraqi banker who had not set foot in Baghdad since the age of 14. If gratitude were not forthcoming, then ''shock and awe'' would compel their cooperation.

As the 'Wall Street Journal' wrote in an updated version of its 19th century British counterpart, ''The way to win friends in the Middle East is not by appeasement ... it is by showing we have the will to wield force on behalf of our values and interests''. One year later, of course, a low-level but bloody insurgency persists, most occupation personnel live and work behind walls or razor wire isolated from the Iraqi population, and Washington is begging the United Nations to negotiate political arrangements with an Iranian-born Shia cleric who has not left his home in Najaf in decades.

But consider also how the Bush administration dealt two weeks ago with a beleaguered, but democratically elected Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Not only did it refuse to come to his assistance as required by the U.S.-backed Inter-American Charter on Democracy, it withdrew his security detail and bundled him and his wife, a U.S. citizen, off to the airport to be flown to exile in Central African Republic (CAR) aboard a U.S. jet.

The reactionary nature of the action was underlined not only by the fact that France, the colonial master of both Haiti and CAR, was deeply involved in the caper, but also that Paris' complicity was based in part on its eagerness to be rid of a pesky leader who had the audacity to demand that it compensate Haiti for the money it was forced to pay in exchange for French recognition of its independence almost 200 years ago.

The fact that Toussaint L'Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian fight for independence, was also captured by France and exiled to the Jura Mountains near the Swiss border, just as Aristide was taken to the remotest part of Africa, only added to the imperial nostalgia surrounding the episode.

But, as Oakley pointed out, time has passed, and the world has changed. Unlike L'Ouverture, Aristide had modern means of telecommunications, permitting him to tell his supporters that he had been kidnapped by two of the world's most powerful governments.

The result is that former African and Caribbean colonies are now demanding an investigation of the U.S. and French roles in Aristide's departure, pro-Aristide forces in Port-au-Prince are demonstrating for his return, and ''the transition'' to be policed by U.S. Marines and other foreign troops could become a lot more problematic than Washington -- which predictably arranged the appointment of a Haitian expatriate who has lived most of his adult life in the United States as the new prime minister -- had thought.

''Most people around the world believe that Aristide's departure was at best facilitated; at worst, coerced by the U.S. and France'', said Gayle Smith, an Africa specialist who served under former President Bill Clinton (1993-2001). ''The developing world is now challenging the U.S. and France for not being democratic'', she added. ''That is of great long-term significance''.

While some might interpret their reaction as a victory for U.S. democratic values, hardliners in Washington see it as an annoyance, much as they do when other nations, including their European allies, point out that by exempting itself from international law -- be it the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war, prohibitions on preventive war or the new Inter-American Charter to protect democracies in the Americas -- the United States destroys its own credibility as a force for the rule of law.

''I will teach the Latin Americans to elect good men'', U.S. President Woodrow Wilson once said in the kind of righteous condescension that was typical of U.S. -- and European -- imperialism of a century ago. Bush has brought that attitude back.

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