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Ahmed Shawki

The rehabilitation of colonialism

(January 2002)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 21, January–February 2002.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Ahmed Shawki is the editor of the International Socialist Review

THE WAR in Afghanistan has produced an orgy of self-congratulation within U.S. ruling circles. Leave aside the estimated 4,000 dead civilians, the return of a motley crew of gangsters who helped to pave the way for the Taliban’s rule the last time they were in power between 1992 to 1996, or the millions of refugees who are on the brink of starvation. This is apparently a small price to pay to show the world the power of the United States to impose its will.

Already U.S. strategists and their media acolytes are drawing up new target lists. As global justice campaigner Walden Bello put it:

What was first tried out in the Kosovo conflict in 1999 has now been affirmed in Afghanistan. This war was the last nail in the coffin of the “Vietnam Syndrome.”

With this renewed confidence in what military historian Russell Weigley called “the American Way of War”–massive firepower, high technology, total victory–Washington is now seriously considering the same sort of intervention in other states that allegedly provide aid and comfort to the terrorists, with Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and Iraq being the prime candidates.

As the U.S. decides where to take its war on terrorism next, it’s important to take stock of the current shape of the world. It is commonplace to talk about the way in which the September 11 attacks have changed “everything” in the world. But there are clear elements of continuity and discontinuity as events unfold.

The most obvious effect has been to strengthen the forces of reaction in the United States and internationally. On September 10, the Bush administration seemed set for a rough ride. Bush’s popularity sank to around 50 percent in most polls. His domestic agenda seemed to have run aground. Leading Democrats even called for cutting back on the missile defense boondoggle. His handlers had been reduced to portraying his decision on human embryonic stem cell research as a major policy initiative.

Internationally, our side seemed to be in the ascendance. More than 300,000 strong demonstrated against the corporate globalizers in Genoa, Italy, in July. The Washington, D.C., police expected 100,000 for late September protests against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The Bush administration took international political heat for walking out of the UN-sponsored conference on racism in Durban, South Africa.

September 11 erased all of this in popular consciousness. Seeing the opportunity of a generation, the right moved aggressively to push through its agenda of repression, militarism, intolerance, and racism. In an orgy of nationalism and calls for retribution, Bush proclaimed the right of the U.S. to intervene anywhere in the world to fight its new “war on terrorism.”

With popular support behind them, Bush, Rumsfeld, and the rest want to bury the Vietnam syndrome–the unwillingness of Americans to dispatch ground troops around the world–for good. Of course, the Vietnam syndrome had already been eroded before the fall of the Soviet Union with U.S. invasions in Panama and Grenada. And the 1990s gave U.S. intervention a new rationale: “humanitarian intervention.” But this new war on terror is an attempt to reshape the world even more profoundly. With a new antiterrorism rationale, the U.S. is looking to rehabilitate old-fashioned imperialism for the 21st century.

Whatever the U.S. has been unable to gain through its economic arm-twisting it now expects to get through brute force. There is a now a naked call for the return of the politics of imperial domination–of naked imperialism–not seen in years. Leading media such as the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times make little effort to hide it anymore. It is an attempt to return to imperialism in fact as well as in ideology. Oxford professor Niall Ferguson wrote on October 31 in the British Guardian newspaper:

We have to understand what the alternative to failure is. We have to call it by its real name. Political globalization is a fancy word for imperialism, imposing your values and institutions on others. However you may dress it up, whatever rhetoric you may use, it is not very different in practice to what Great Britain did in the 18th and 19th centuries. We already have precedents: the new imperialism is already in operation in Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor. Essentially it is the imperialism that evolved in the 1920s when League of Nations mandates were the polite word for what were the post-Versailles treaty colonies. ...

The future of Afghanistan must, if the war is successfully prosecuted, be very similar indeed to those states currently under this kind of international colonial rule. Nothing else will do. Contrary to popular arguments made in the 1980s, imperialism is affordable for the richest economy in the world.

There is no excuse for the relative weakness of the U.S. as a quasi-imperial power. The transition to formal empire from informal empire is an affordable one. But it does not come very naturally to the U.S.–partly because of its history and partly because of Vietnam–to act as a self-confident imperial power. The U.S. has the resources: but does it have the guts to act as a global hegemon and make the world a more stable place?

Believe it or not, Ferguson’s call for imperialism sounds downright reasonable compared to those of other pundits; National Review’s Richard Lowry called for an American Raj in Iraq. But all of these calls are attempts to justify the rights of big nations to intervene in weaker ones.

Nevertheless, imperialism is not only about the domination of the world by a handful of imperial powers. In the heyday of imperialism at the turn of the 19th century and in the early years of the 20th century, the powers of Europe and North America established their domination over the rest of the globe. Those countries that maintained their independence did so because they managed to navigate between the conflicts of their would-be rulers. This highlights a central dynamic of imperialism that remains relevant–the constant and deadly competition, both economic and military, between the big powers themselves.

The world today mirrors certain key features of the past. An increasingly integrated world economy and trading system pays homage to the onward march of globalization. But at the same time, underlying economic competition threatens to spill over into military conflict. In the case of Afghanistan, this has already taken place. Bush may have made “terrorism” his casus belli to attack Afghanistan, but the most lasting gain for the U.S. will be its foothold in oil- and gas-rich Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. Since the U.S. launched its war, regional powers India and Pakistan have gotten into the act.

You do not have to accept the claims of the right wing to understand that the decade of the 1990s saw a progressive strengthening of the ability of the U.S. to intervene militarily abroad. Since routing Iraq in 1991, and intervening in Haiti and the Balkans, the U.S. military has become accustomed to fighting long-distance war against heavily undermatched adversaries. It’s likely that the New York fire and police departments lost more personnel on September 11 than the U.S. military lost in all U.S. wars since the Berlin Wall fell. With the world’s largest and most technologically advanced arsenal, the Pentagon now sets its sights on conquering space.

But it is precisely at the height of imperial arrogance that the U.S. will hit the limits of its power. The attempt to play the role of military superpower will inevitably produce U.S. overreach. Vietnam, after all, was seen as a continuation of the policy of quick “police” interventions such as the U.S. intervention in Iran in 1953, in Guatemala in 1954, or in Lebanon in 1958. Vietnam left us with the Vietnam syndrome because U.S. intervention didn’t end as quickly or with the same outcome as the previous interventions. In fact, a desperately poor country defeated the world’s biggest superpower.

Each intervention that the U.S. attempts creates further opposition to imperialism. America’s war on terror is detested among billions of the world’s people. And even U.S. allies from Britain to the Gulf monarchies have registered their opposition to U.S. plans to overthrow the Iraqi government. This opposition may not be enough to restrain the Pentagon hawks, but if they attack Iraq, they’ll be doing it on their own.

In the “classical” period of imperialism, the price of great power domination was paid not only by the exploited and the super-exploited workers and peasants of the colonial world. It was paid by the workers in the developed capitalist countries as well. Economically, most U.S. workers barely got by while U.S. corporations developed their global reach. And hundreds of thousands of U.S. workers paid with their lives in the First and Second World Wars.

As the world economy enters recession, the victims of the system will multiply. Argentina’s default or the sudden collapse of Enron, the seventh-largest corporation in the U.S., is only a sign of things to come. At the same time, fighters against this unjust and barbarous system will multiply. The workers of Argentina who forced out two governments that dutifully carried out Washington’s economic imperialism should be an inspiration to us all.

Building opposition to imperialist intervention abroad is critical to rebuilding the left that seemed to be on the rise before September 11. But the biggest contribution we can make to building the fight against imperialism is to build a working-class movement that can take on the bosses in the belly of the beast. The politics of international socialism are as relevant as ever.

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