The Rehabilitation of Colonialism
by Ahmed Shawki
International Socialist Review, January / February
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
Already U.S. strategists and their media acolytes are drawing
up new target lists. As global justice campaigner Walden Bello
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 dear elements of continuity and discontinuity as events
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
U.S. troops-soon at a country near you
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. Iaunched 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
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
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...
Ahmed Shawki is the editor of the International Socialist