The Case For A Committed American Imperialism

by Gilles d'Aymery

July 29, 2002


What kind of a title is this? you'll wonder. Have I gone yellow, am I a turncoat?

Actually, I did not create this title. It comes from the cover page of the current New York Times Magazine (July 28, 2002) to introduce a feature story by the inimitable Michael Ignatieff in which he advocates increased resources and involvement in Afghanistan in order "to keep Afghanistan from falling apart" (also on the cover page of the magazine) and gently chastises the Bushies for doing it "on the cheap." "Nation-Building Lite," is the actual byline for the article.

Here is a bizarre demonstration of arrogance gone awry, of people having lost all their senses, who are encouraging, even promoting a greater engagement in Afghanistan -- and by extension in all of Central Asia -- and all the while showing that it is essentially prone to fail the same way it has failed in the Balkans -- this coming from an author who has unremittingly hailed our destruction, oops... our involvement in Bosnia and Kosovo. Simply amazing!
[Our] Special Forces aren't social workers. They are an imperial detachment, advancing American power and interests in Central Asia. Call it peacekeeping or nation-building, call it what you like -- imperial policing is what is going on... In fact, America's entire war on terror is an exercise in imperialism. This may come as a shock to Americans...
Not really. What's shocking is that one of the most influential newspapers in America feels confident enough to publish what many of us have been saying for years. There seems to be a sense of urgency to accomplish the real goals of the war on terror. So, why not be open about it, right?
Imperialism used to be the white man's burden. This gave it a bad reputation. But imperialism doesn't stop being necessary just because it becomes politically incorrect. ... Nation-building is the kind of imperialism you get in a humanitarian rights era, a time when great powers believe simultaneously in the right of small nations to govern themselves and in their own right to rule the world.
The right to rule the world... Is this clear enough? How do you achieve this?
The British imperialists understood the power of awe. ... In Afghanistan, awe is maintained not by the size of the American presence but by the timeliness and destructiveness of American power.
Effective imperial power also requires controlling the subject people's sense of time, convincing them that they will be ruled forever.
Fear and destruction from the peace-loving people... Still, there is a conundrum:
[N]ation-building will fail [in Afghanistan] unless the force of 4,500 foreign peacekeepers ... is expanded. ... but the Europeans aren't likely to back fine talk with actual soldiers, the Pentagon does not want to put peacekeepers on the ground and the Bush administration needs all the legions at its disposal for a potential operation against Iraq.
The legions...

To understand the needs, Ignatieff brings the comparison of Bosnia with its 18,000 peacekeepers, a country that is 13 times smaller than Afghanistan. And how have we been faring in Bosnia? Well, the "nation-building caravan" has moved on from Sarajevo, "where it was supposed to create multiethnic democracy." Nation-building in Bosnia, we are told,
has been slow because the political institutions left behind by Tito's Yugoslavia were weak. None of the ethnic groups has any experience in making democracy work.
Of course, the fact that "the country didn't exist until 1992" (thank you, Mr. Ignatieff, to finally acknowledge it) may not have helped. But how are we faring in Bosnia after $6 billion spending since 1996 (Dayton) and the moving on of the caravan? Hmmm,
Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor led the internationals to believe that most of the aid that deluges these countries gets siphoned into corrupt pockets. In Bosnia, the entire criminal and civil justice system was staffed with corrupt leftovers from the Communist era. The internationals ignored this and insisted on early elections, believing that democracy would throw out the crooks. Six years on, Bosnia has had four elections, it still has the same leadership...
Bosnia now has the roads and schools it needs, yet its ethnic groups remain as divided as ever.
Ah, those Commies; always there when we need them! But, let's feel good:
The problem of Bosnia is corruption, and that is a better problem to have than war.
And what about Kosovo? Well, the nation-building caravan has also moved on to greener pastures, from
Pristina, where it was supposed to stop the victorious Kosovars from killing all the remaining Serbs.
Indeed, we've done a great job there! So, let's see. First we instigate conflicts (the Soviet Union's "Vietnam" in Afghanistan, the Yugoslav conflagration), then we go in and level the places, and finally we send in the "nation-building caravan;" and we talk about "local governance," "legal foundations," "criminal and civil code," "free press," "empower local people," "build capacity," "transition to a market economy," etc., etc. etc. Georges Soros would applaud. According to Ignatieff,
The British called it "indirect rule." Local agents ran the day-to-day administration; local potentates exercised some power, while real decisions were made back in imperial capitals. Indirect rule is the pattern in Afghanistan: the illusion of self-government joined to the reality of imperial tutelage.
And it's big business all right. The projected cost of nation-building in Afghanistan is "between $14 and $18 billion over the next decade."
In Tokyo in January, promises were made for reconstruction this year. The Afghans hear the promises. Now they're waiting for the money. In anticipation, Kabul landlords have jacked their rents sky-high -- a decent four-bedroom villa that rented for $1,000 a month only a year ago now commands as much as $10,000.
The theory is that Brahimi's people [Lakhdar Brahimi heads the U.N staff in Kabul] will force the "U.N. family" and what is laughingly called "the international community" to work in harmony. The reality, as in all nation-building cities, is ferocious competition among donors, United Nations agencies and nongovernmental organizations for a market share in the money and misery.
American foreign assistance concentrates on food aid in part because it sops up U.S. farm surpluses. The unpleasant underside of nation-building is that the internationals' first priority is building their own capacity -- increasing their budgets and giving themselves good jobs. The last priority is financing the Afghan government.
At the Afghan Assistance Coordination Authority, ... the officials believe that as much as $700 million has so far gone to U.N. agencies, while only $100 million or so has gone to the Afghan administration itself.
How is Afghanistan to build its own civil service if the government can pay senior officials only $150 a month and any international N.G.O. or newspaper can pay its drivers $1,000?
The invisible hand of neo-liberal capitalism at work, I suppose. But then, "Empire means big government," says Ignatieff, which will surely ingratiate the Libertarian crowds! But look, little girls are going back to school. From five percent the attendance has climbed to 35 percent (though as he points out, "the numbers are not likely to climb above 35 percent, because donors have given Unicef only 60 percent of what it has asked for in its Afghan appeal").

So what is Ignatieff left with to advocate further involvement, more troops, more money? In his conclusion he talks with misty-eyes about a brick maker.
It would be too much to say that the brick maker wants us infidels here, exactly, but I would venture that he knows he needs us. With us here he is able to gamble. But without the Americans in floppy hats nobody is going to feel safe enough to start building a house with his bricks.
Are you convinced? Elisabeth Kvitashvili, the head of programs in Afghanistan for the U.S. Agency for International Development, is not. "We are not here because of the drought and the famine and the conditions of women... We are here because of Osama bin Laden."

Well, at least, she has the first part correct!

Guess what, the nation-building caravan will move on. Next stop, Baghdad!

The White Man's Burden, an old, sickening and bloody story indeed. Let's thank Mr. Ignatieff for clarifying what this is all about and for finally calling a spade a spade. I guess he was one of those newspaper men who could pay his driver $1,000 a month before returning safely home to the comfort of his certitudes.

· · · · · ·


"Nation-Building Lite," Michael Ignatieff, The New York Times Magazine, July 28, 2002, p. 26

The Brown Man's Burden - by Henry Labouchère

Armies of Compassion: The Missionary, the Businessman and the Military - 08/7/00

The American "Dream" - 04/22/02 (Stevan Konstantinovic)

SCENES OF WAR, A Glimpse Behind The Curtain Of Silence - 04/22/02 (Gregory Elich)


Gilles d'Aymery is Swans' publisher and co-editor.

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Published July 29, 2002
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