The New White Man's Burden

U.S. imperialism past and present

by Anthony Arnove

International Socialist Review, May/June 2006


[Excerpted from Anthony Arnove's Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal (The New Press, 2006). Reprinted with the permission of The New Press (www. thenewpress. corn.)]


Most of the arguments in support of the invasion and occupation of Iraq rest on the assumption that the United States is a benevolent power in world affairs, with unique rights and responsibilities. It is a force for democracy and civilization, motivated not by greed or power but by the greater common good. For more than a century, and with increasing confidence, the United States has reserved the right to use economic or, if necessary, military coercion to achieve what it frequently calls "stability" a euphemism for a state of affairs favorable to U.S.-based corporations, which must have a global market for their products and also a global market of labor and resources to exploit. In the words of one of its intellectual defenders, the United States is a "benevolent hegemon," intervening when or where no other power or group of powers can do so, even if, because of "anti-Americanism," many people fail to see the benefits of such actions.'

But as the historian Sidney Lens notes in his indispensable book The Forging of the American Empire, the idea of the United States as a benevolent hegemon is not new:

The United States, like other nations, has formulated a myth of morality to assuage its conscience and sustain its image. The United States, we are told, has always tried to avoid war; when it has been forced to take the military road, it has seldom done so for motives of gain or glory. On the contrary, the wars are fought only for such high principles as freedom of the seas, the right of self-determination, and to halt aggression. In thought, as in deed, the United States-so the myth goes-has been antiwar, anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist. It has not sought an inch of anyone else's territory, and the few colonies it acquired were treated with kindness and liberated as quickly as circumstances permitted...

By and large, according to the myth, the United States has religiously respected the rights of other peoples to determine their own destiny: it has always been sympathetic to revolutionaries fighting for genuine independence; it has always refrained from interfering in the internal affairs of other nations, large or small, powerful or weak. More than any other great nation it has been guided by a selfless concern for those less fortunate.

Anyone who has studied the language the Bush administration has used to justify its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or to explain the open-ended "war on terror" it launched in September 2001, will recognize the myth that Lens describes. In a graduation speech at West Point in June 2002, for example, President Bush said, 'America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish. We wish for others only what we wish for ourselves." In November 2002, he returned to this theme, asserting that the United States has "no territorial ambitions. We don't seek an empire. Our nation is committed to freedom, for ourselves and for others." As Lens argues, though,

America the benevolent... does not exist and has never existed. The United States has pilfered large territories from helpless or near helpless peoples; it has forced its will on scores of nations, against their wishes and against their interests; it has violated hundreds of treaties and understandings; it has committed war crimes as shocking as most; it has wielded a military stick and a dollar carrot to forge an imperialist empire such as man has never known before; it has intervened ruthlessly in the life of dozens of nations to prevent them from choosing the leaders they did want or overthrowing, by revolution, the ones they didn't.

Politicians in the United States, as well as the establishment media, have almost universally presented military interventions as defensive in nature:

Every act of aggrandizement in the American chronicle has been valiantly camouflaged in the rhetoric of defense... The innumerable wars against the Indians were a "defense" against their rampages and violations of treaties. The war against Mexico was a "defense" of Texas and a necessary measure, in the words of Secretary of State James Buchanan, to hold and civilize Mexico." The Spanish-American War was fought to avenge the sinking of the Maine .... In Korea and Vietnam the United States, according to Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, was "defending" helpless small powers against Communist aggression.'

"The myth of morality," Lens writes, "wears thin against the aggregate of history .... Even a cursory look suggests that American policy has been motivated not by lofty regard for the needs of other peoples but by America's own desire for land, commerce, markets, spheres of influence, investments .... The primary focus has not been moral, but imperial. "

Though the word "imperialism" has been effectively banished from the political discourse of the Left, largely because of the internalization of McCarthyism by its dominant liberal voices, the term has recently been revived-by its defenders, not its critics. For instance, the British historian Niall Ferguson argues in his book Empire that the United States must "overcome its anti-imperialism and accept the responsibilities that the end of the Cold War has thrust upon lt."

Indeed, a number of writers and theorists have argued that imperialism-and even colonialism-must be reinterpreted in a more positive light in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Edward Rothstein, writing in the New York Times on September 7, 2002, notes that the word imperialism still jangles with jingoistic echoes. And American neo-imperialism may yet turn tragic with frustrations, as [Rudyard] Kipling long ago predicted in his misunderstood paean to "the white man's burden."

Yet this idea is bound to change character. After all, instead of exploitation, imperialism is now being associated with democratic reform, sometimes to the great satisfaction of its subjects. Maybe even nineteenth-century imperialism will be reinterpreted and invoked by example since many non-Western nations developed democratic institutions solely because of imperialist influence. Imperialism's exploitation often had a virtuous flip side.'°

Rothstein distills perfectly the logic of the white man's burden in its historical and contemporary form. Never mind the millions subjugated, killed, starved, driven into forced labor, exposed to disease, abused, denied their cultural heritage, exploited, robbed- imperialism was a force for democracy and civilization. It brought "backward" people into the light of civilization.

Empire, it seems, has been given a bad rap. Max Boot, the former editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, says the world today needs the United States to provide the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets ."12 Ferguson, who describes himself as "a fully paid-up member of the neoimperialist gang," meanwhile complains that "the British Empire has had a pretty lousy press."

Another influential exponent of the neo-imperialist school of thought is Michael Ignatieff, the head of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, who gives a liberal veneer to the rather crude arguments of Boot and Ferguson. "Imperialism used to be the white man's burden," Ignatieff wrote in the New York Times Magazine, where he was a contributing writer, on July 28, 2002. "This gave it a bad reputation. But imperialism doesn't stop being necessary just because it becomes politically incorrect. Nations sometimes fail, and when they do, only outside help-imperial power-can get them back on their feet." With Ignatieff's light touch, the brutal history of imperialism is reduced to "political correctness," not worth a moment's thought.

In another defense of empire in the New York Times Magazine, Ignatieff explained to readers that

being an imperial power, however, is more than being the most powerful nation or just the most hated one. It means enforcing such order as there is in the world and doing so in the American interest. It means laying down the rules America wants (on everything from markets to weapons of mass destruction) while exempting itself from other rules (the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and the International Criminal Court) that go against its interest. It also means carrying out imperial functions in places America has inherited from the failed empires of the twentieth century-Ottoman, British and Soviet. In the twenty-first century, America rules alone, struggling to manage the insurgent zones-Palestine and the northwest frontier of Pakistan, to name but two-that have proved to be the nemeses of empires past.

America's empire is not like empires of times past, built on colonies, conquest and the white man's burden. We are no longer in the era of the United Fruit Company, when American corporations needed the Marines to secure their investments overseas. The twenty-first century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science, an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known."

Ignatieff's chosen métier is not poetry, but his tribute to the U.S. empire is as obsequious and as divorced from reality as was Rudyard Kipling's of 1899.

It is worth examining the parallels between Kipling's moment and our own. The rhetoric used to justify the war against the Filipino people has numerous parallels to the arguments for "pacifying" Iraq today. Indeed President Bush himself explicitly made the connection between the two occupations in a speech to the Philippines Congress, on October 18, 2003.

"Together our soldiers liberated the Philippines from colonial rule," Bush informed the assembly.

Democracy always has skeptics. Some say the culture of the Middle East will not sustain the institutions of democracy. The same doubts were once expressed about the culture of Asia. These doubts were proven wrong nearly six decades ago, when the Republic of the Philippines became the first democratic nation in Asia. Since then, liberty has reached nearly every shore of the Western Pacific."

Bush's version of history was so fantastical, though, that even the New York Times had to gently remind readers of some inconvenient historical facts, noting that the "analogy to the American administration of the Philippines" was somewhat problematic "given that the Philippine government did not gain full autonomy for five decades" after the U.S. withdrew its forces."

Indeed, the Times noted, the parallel raised other uncomfortable topics, given that many of Bush's "critics have argued that the justification for invading Iraq bore a resemblance to the rationale the United States used to begin that war in 1898, citing evidence, discounted as flimsy, that the battleship Maine had been deliberately blown up in Cuba by Spanish forces," especially now that "Bush faces similar accusations from critics questioning whether Saddam Hussein possessed weapons that posed an urgent threat."

The analogy is not exact, of course. The Maine did, at least, sink, even if accidentally. So the scale of the lie is not the same. But in both cases a patriotic press served as a willing mouthpiece for the administration's views. Like Bush after him, President McKinley also described his reasons for mounting an invasion in messianic terms. In an interview in 1899, he recounted:

I went down on my knees and prayed [to] Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night... it came to me this way-I don't know how it was, but it came... that we could not leave [the Filipinos] to themselves-they were unfit for self-government-and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain's was; and.. . that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God's grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly."

McKinley's real motives were far more base: the United States was a rapidly expanding power, seeking to exercise greater sway over maritime commerce, foreign markets, and particularly the politics of the Western hemisphere ("our little region over here," as Secretary of War Henry Stimson had called it).20 This brought the United States into conflict with Spain, the colonial power in Cuba, Guam, and Puerto Rico, as well as the Philippines. The year 1898 marked not just a confrontation with Spain that would see the United States claim all three territories as its own, using the rhetoric of liberating people from Spanish domination, but also the annexation of Hawaii, which would eventually be integrated into the United States.

Indeed, as the historian Clifford Kuhn notes, "Far from being a model for nation building and democracy, as Bush has explicitly stated, the Philippines epitomizes an American foreign policy based on dubious premises and false promises." In the Philippines, he writes,

American troops committed atrocities, attacked civilians, and destroyed their crops and villages.

By the time the war ended in 1902 (although intermittent fighting lasted for decades), more than four thousand Americans, twenty thousand rebels and perhaps two hundred thousand civilians lay dead. And the relationship of the United States to the rest of the world had permanently changed.

It was only in 1946 that the Philippines were granted independence, though the State Department's own briefing papers, distributed just this week [October 2003] to the Bush entourage, still state that "U.S. administration of the Philippines was always declared to be temporary."

In the intervening years, the U.S. government has continued to support a succession of antidemocratic, repressive regimes in the Philippines."

Among the critics of the U.S. occupation of the Philippines was the novelist and essayist Mark Twain, who returned from an extended period of living in Europe to become the vice president of the newly formed Anti-Imperialist League. Twain spoke out in opposition to the war against the Filipinos and penned savage essays on the conduct of the war, including the massacre of hundreds of Moros by U.S. troops in 1906. Black soldiers serving in segregated military units wrote back to their local newspapers, describing the horrors they witnessed and the racism of officers toward the Filipinos as well as to the Black troops. An official of the Red Cross reported that "American soldiers are determined to kill every Filipino in sight," describing the "horribly mutilated Filipino bodies" he witnessed.

Then, as now, intellectuals and politicians cloaked the real motivations for war in noble and idealistic rhetoric but showed contempt for the people they were allegedly freeing. The United States refused to allow the Filipinos who had defeated the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines to take power. Using the language of self-determination, they explicitly denied it to the people of both countries, just as they are doing today in Iraq.

A common refrain of the defenders of U.S. empire has been, as Bush asserted, that the United States has "no territorial ambitions." The claim is demonstrably false. The U.S. conquered not only the lands of the Native Americans, who were ethnically cleansed as the colonies expanded westward, but also land from Mexico and Cuba (where Guantánamo Bay Naval Base remains a colonial vestige of the 1898 war), as well as annexing several island possessions. In any event, the argument is beside the point. A state does not need to take over the physical territory of other nations to be an imperialist power. Unlike the earlier colonial powers it has displaced, the United States has for the most part needed only temporary occupations to achieve its aims, preferring to rule via local proxies rather than directly having to staff the governments of countries in which it has intervened to topple political leaders or crush resistance movements.

Today, the U.S. government has no interest in making Iraq the fifty-first state. But it has every interest in installing a government there that is subordinate to U.S. interests; that will ensure oil is extracted, refined, exported, and sold on terms favorable to the United States; that will provide long-term basing rights to the U.S. military in a vital region of the world; that will offer favorable terms for investment and repatriation of profits for U.S. corporations; and that can contain and, if necessary, forcibly repress nationalist or democratic movements in Iraq and in nearby states that could destabilize the Middle East.

It is rare, however, for a government to say that it is sending soldiers to kill and be killed to protect profits or the control of oil. While internal planning documents, when they are eventually declassified or are leaked, often reveal a glimpse into the real motives of elite planning, governments publicly describe their actions as defense against hostile enemies, protection of cherished values, and the spread of civilization. Such claims of civilizing foreign peoples are not merely deceptive, however. They are racist.

In discussions of Arabs and Muslims in Iraq today, for example, it is taken for granted that there is such a thing as "the Arab mind," which we must somehow learn to influence, though its workings are generally said to be all but impossible to fathom. This 'Arab mind," commentators sagely observe, is particularly susceptible to "antiAmericanism," presumably because it cannot grasp all that "we" are doing to support Arab and Muslim people or because we have not found the right way to communicate our benevolence to them. This is because, we are told, Muslims reject modernity and have no conception of democracy, preferring strong men to lead them or caring only about the needs of their own "tribe."

Such ideas would be comical if they did not have such appalling consequences when applied in the real world. In describing the development of the torture policy at Abu Ghraib, Seymour Hersh writes,

One book that was frequently cited was The Arab Mind, a study of Arab culture and psychology, first published in 1973, by Raphael Patai .... The Patai book, an academic told me, was "the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior." In their discussions, he said, two themes emerged-"one, that Arabs only understand force and, two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation."

This racist logic has informed not only the torture and humiliation of Iraqis, but also the idea that Iraqis are incapable of ruling themselves and therefore need an external power to impose order, to establish institutions of governance, and to guide them: the new white man's burden.



Anthony Arnove is the editor, with Howard Zinn, of Voices of a People's History of the United States. He is also is the editor of Iraq Under Siege: The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War. An activist based in Brooklyn, he is a member of the International Socialist Organization and the National Writers Union. Arnove is on the editorial board of the International Socialist Review and of Haymarket Books.

U.S. Imperialism/Neocolonialism

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