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Can the US escape from Empire?

By Harold Gould
May 09, 2007 18:03 IST
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America's latest post-Cold War tryst with neo-con global political evangelism in Iraq is nearing the end of the trail. Everybody except its initiators knows this now -- not only Democrats, but Republicans as well. Even the slow-moving American public has come to grips with political reality, up to a point.

The Iraq Study Group's Report elucidated an 'exit strategy' for extricating the US from the quagmire of its own making. However, the Bush administration's state of denial, as Bob Woodward phrased it, has impelled them, through their 'surge' strategy, to try one more time to stave off the inevitable.

At this point, it is tempting to look at other comparable political fiascos to see what can be learned from these misguided misadventures.

Vietnam inevitably comes to mind as the type case. The crusade to save Southeast Asia from Communism reached such disastrous proportions by 1978 that the US was finally compelled to heed Maine Senator Owen Brewster's injunction to just declare victory and leave.

Actually, the US really didn't even declare victory. They just left, with their tail between their legs. The Soviet Union experienced a similar fate in Afghanistan. They too didn't really declare victory; they just cut their losses and departed with barely a whimper.

These are cases of imperial hubris gone awry. Both the US and the Soviets were under the thrall of leaders who believed they had a mission to 'save' other people from themselves. In the Vietnam case, with the Cold War still at its height, it was to save Vietnam from 'going Communist' and prevent 'dominos' from falling all over Southeast Asia. In Afghanistan, viewed from the other side of the Cold War coin, it was a case of saving the Afghans for Communism.

From either standpoint, it was a quixotic exercise, because most people who have a scintilla of cultural pride and any sense of their own history prefer not to be 'saved' by any outsiders; this, after all, is the lesson of nationalism and anti-colonialism.

The outcome of imperial self-delusion was colourfully expressed in the title of a book published years ago (1984) by R J Moore. Referring to Great Britain's precipitous exodus from India, he entitled it, Escape from Empire. That is what the US did in Vietnam; that is what the Soviets did in Afghanistan. That is what the US is on the threshold of doing once again in Iraq.

Moore, of course, was concerned with how the Raj, after two centuries of empire-building, was in the end compelled to abandon its jewel in the crown and leave in its wake a maelstrom of social carnage.

Following the debilitating effects of World War II upon the British public and exchequer, England no longer had either the means or the stomach for continuing to bear 'the white man's burden' in South Asia; and so, in August 1947 they, too, just picked up and left, much as the US did in Vietnam and the Soviets in Afghanistan.

'So much for empire building,' as Breaker Morant put it many years ago in that wonderful Australian movie of the same name, as he was led off to be executed as a scapegoat for the tawdry events surrounding Britain's conduct of the Boer War.

Now the US is on the verge of another 'escape from empire' -- this time from Iraq. Clearly the administration learned no lessons from past examples. Its mission to transform Iraq into a 'shining city on the hill' from whence the nectar of freedom would flow and bring shopping mall democracy to all of the Middle East lies in shambles. George Bush sits alone and isolated in the White House, obsessed with one last attempt to salvage his political legacy before returning to the rustic simplicity of Crawford, Texas, from whence he came.

As in the present case, in both previous instances, 'precipitous withdrawal' from these fatally flawed imperial enterprises was depicted by some at the time as monumental catastrophes that would plunge these regions and, indeed, the entire world into political chaos. Devoid of that imperial scepter, it was predicted that South Asia would become a Balkans of warring factions and states that would ultimately succumb to Communism or some other totalitarian blight. Devoid of American suzerainty, the states of Southeast Asia, it was claimed, were fated to tumble like dominos into the lap of Red China and the Soviet Union.

Today, the impending exhaustion of the American crusade to democratise Iraq and the Middle East is being depicted in the same manner. Bush has been enjoining his countrymen to 'stay the course' for the same reasons that Winston Churchill declared when faced with the Indian freedom movement -- that he would not preside over the dissolution of the British Empire.

Yet, none of those earlier dire predictions materialised. Imperial elites throughout history have consistently overestimated the magnitude of their importance to human progress. It is common for oppressors to imagine that their oppressiveness is not oppressive; it is hard for them to understand that proud people with their own historical traditions resent being told by outsiders, alien to their indigenous ways, sitting in the political driver's seat, that foreign tutelage is really for their own good. This mentality is behind the neo-con orientation to states they have characterised as the Evil Empire.

Indians always felt that whatever 'good' the British believed they were doing for India could have been done better by themselves. That is why, with the passage of time, and while borrowing techniques of resistance from their oppressors, Indians ultimately sent the British home. The Vietnamese and the Afghans followed a similar pattern. Afghanistan may be coming into play once again in this regard. Iraqis are quickly reaching the same point, as the mounting casualty figures among US forces (and among Iraqis themselves) amply testify.

There are historical precedents for the virtues of native self-reliance. Countries like Japan and Thailand, that avoided direct colonial rule as they moved into the twentieth century, endured far less disruption of their indigenous cultural institutions than did regions like India, the Middle East and Africa where colonialism hit hardest. They underwent a transition from 'tradition' to 'modernity' far more successfully as a result.

Colonialism in whatever form turns out to be more a curse than a blessing. Let us remember that Japan was able to become a great power in its own right, rather to the dismay of the West, in World War II. China, in its own way, shed the foreign yoke by 'sinicising' Marxism to get control of their domestic political system and then tossing foreigners out of the country. It was not a question of 'who lost China' as the American McCarthyists used to put it; it was a matter of China transforming foreign imperialists into losers.

My point is not to debate the merits or lack thereof of previous imperialist adventures. It is merely to point out that in Iraq there is a singular, overarching parallel to these past imperial adventures. It is that the outcome in Iraq is destined to have the same basic outcome as in India at the time of Partition, in Vietnam and Afghanistan later on, and for essentially the same reasons.

Imperial hubris doesn't work. Like those who tried it in the past, including America itself, the United States is now poised for her second painful encounter with 'escape from empire' in the past 40 years.

Will America's inevitable departure from Iraq really lead to political holocaust in the Middle East? No doubt, in the short run, faulty strategic judgment will come at a steep political price; strategic failure sets ugly social forces in motion. But the record shows that, in the cases of the British Raj, Vietnam and Afghanistan, 'escape from empire' has historically proved, in the long run, not to be the end of the world. Southeast Asia did not 'go Communist' as was predicted.

In fact, in the long run, both Vietnam and China went capitalist behind the facade of Communist theology. No more proof of this can be had than President Bush's recent visit to Vietnam, or mainland China's role in the global economy, and her massive funding of America's public debt.

What changed is that both of these states, once they cast off the shackles of Western dominance, did things their own way, compatibly with their own inner cultural-historical logic.

So it will be with Iraq and the Middle East, I predict. The Americans' neo-con misadventure in latter-day evangelistic imperialism will run its course. The shopping-mall capitalists have indeed created a political cauldron far worse than existed there before Bush issued his clarion call to remake the world in the image of Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson and Walmart.

But as the 'escape' begins, signs are already everywhere apparent that the 'natives' and saner heads in the West are preparing to step into the breach and craft a new consensus that will eventually provide a foundation for pragmatic, commonsense approaches to the prevailing self-inflicted crisis. Just as occurred in Vietnam and the Soviet-Afghan conflict.

First published in India Abroad

Harold Gould is a visiting scholar at the Center for South Asian Studies, Washington, DC. His area of expertise is political anthropology and the South Asian civilisation.

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