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Wednesday, April 30, 2003
imperial sheen
Just call me out of the loop: Niall Ferguson, the Oxford Professor Maureen Dowd quotes today is, in fact, the author of the runner-up article in the NYT Magazine last weekend, entitled "The Empire Slinks Back." It's about basically the same thing that Dowd quotes him in reference to, i.e. America-as-empire. And while there it was just sort of questionable, in the Magazine it's plain old wrong.

Take this bit, where he does, in fact, codify the bit of "conventional wisdom" that I talked about:

The British Empire has had a pretty lousy press from a generation of ''postcolonial'' historians anachronistically affronted by its racism. But the reality is that the British were significantly more successful at establishing market economies, the rule of law and the transition to representative government than the majority of postcolonial governments have been. The policy ''mix'' favored by Victorian imperialists reads like something just published by the International Monetary Fund, if not the World Bank: free trade, balanced budgets, sound money, the common law, incorrupt administration and investment in infrastructure financed by international loans. These are precisely the things Iraq needs right now. If the scary-sounding ''American empire'' can deliver them, then I am all for it.

I hope everyone's bullshit detector is going off at this excerpt, but it does nicely expose the fallacy of the British Empire analogy. We've got a bit of a Heisenberg problem here: saying that a postcolonial country was better off under the colonial power neglects the fact that it was previously under the control of said colonial power, so the British have to accept at least some of the blame for the state of their colonies. And thus the analogy doesn't hold up, because as anti-imperialists would argue, Iraq would be even better off if it was neither colonial nor post-colonial (having arguable already gone through both these stages), but self-sufficient, and that option is currently open to us.

Ferguson's response, I imagine, would be that he doesn't think we should occupy and leave: we should just continue occupying. The main argument he makes for this is that it would be better for Iraq's economy. You'll note that he mentions "the rule of law" and "representative government" in passing but doesn't elaborate upon them, perhaps because there are very good arguments to be made that American occupation would, in fact, be worse for both of those things than self-sufficiency. As for the economics, he doesn't say anything about actually feeding, housing, or clothing the Iraqis, but simply says that American occupation (assuming it lived up to the standards of the British Empire) will lead to Iraq's compliance with IMF guidelines. But there have been fairly good arguments made, most recently in Harper's, that those economic policies, regardless of what institution is implementing them, can often weaken a country's economy. I'm no big fan of the "Bush is a warmonger invading for greed!" theory, but it would be hard to deny that in an "American empire" the economic policies imposed on a country would be primarily for America's benefit, not the colony's, and Ferguson seems at pains throughout the article to portray imperialist policies as good for the conquered.

That the last sentence in my selection contains both condescension and scare quotes in quick succession ('the scary-sounding ''American empire'') is telling. It's not an empire that Americans oppose, Nigel; it's imperialistic policies.

But the weakness of the British analogy really comes out in the following section:

America's British allies have been here before. Having defeated the previous Ottoman rulers in the First World War, Britain ran Iraq as a ''mandate'' between 1920 and 1932. For the sake of form, the British installed one of their Arab clients, the Hashemite prince Faisal, as king. But there was no doubt who was really running the place. Nor did the British make any bones about why they were there. When two Standard Oil geologists entered Iraq on a prospecting mission, the British civil commissioner handed them over to the chief of police of Baghdad; in 1927 the British takeover paid a handsome dividend when oil was struck at Baba Gurgur, in the northern part of Iraq. Although they formally relinquished power to the ruling dynasty in 1932, the British remained informally in control of Iraq throughout the 1930's. Indeed, they only really lost their grip on Baghdad with the assassination of their clients Faisal II and his prime minister, Nuri es-Said, in the revolution of 1958.

The crucial point is this: when the British went into Iraq, they stuck around. To be precise, there were British government representatives, military and civilian, in Baghdad uninterruptedly for almost exactly 40 years.

And that brings up a simple question: Who in today's United States would like to be based in Baghdad as long as the British were -- which would be from now until 2043?

I am, frankly, shocked he can write this with any degree of seriousness. Is he honestly using the British occupation of Iraq as a model? This is the British occupation that ended with a bloody rebellion that shortly brought Sadaam Hussein's Baath party to power (through a CIA-supported coup), the British occupation that was generally regarded (by, for instance, T.E. Lawrence) as cruel and unjust--in other words, the British occupation that is kind of the source of the troubles we're currently there to fix. This is not to blame the British entirely for the subsequent morass Iraq found itself in, but it does indicate that maybe that's not the path we want to be going down.

But let's give Ferguson the benefit of the doubt--he is an Oxford professor and I'm not--and assume that the British empire really did achieve some great things and it's a model that should be followed today rather than, say, the model of the United Nations. Let's further assume that American planners have happened upon the perfect 40-year plan that will leave Iraq a healthy and self-sufficient country that we can leave without it collapsing or, worse, be kicked out of forcibly. (Ferguson talks about the British goal of "civilizing" that would end "in decades, not days" when a country could "ensure the continued rule of law and operation of free markets," but he doesn't exactly point to an example where this actually, you know, happened; presumably we should just hold on and hope for the best.) His complaint then becomes that no bright, young Americans seem interested in helping out overseas, and his solution to this is for America to admit we it is imperial, lengthen our occupation of conquered countries to "decades, not days," replace military commanders with civilian governors or advisors, and stop holding out hope for the UN or NGOs, whose abilities he has little faith in.

Let's take this one at a time. First off, why are so few Americans interested in getting involved with things overseas, as opposed to the hearty civic/colonial/orientalist spirit of the British Empire? Ferguson puts the blame primarily on, in an interesting parallel with activists, greed: "America's educational institutions excel at producing young men and women who are both academically and professionally very well trained. It's just that the young elites have no desire whatsoever to spend their lives running a screwed-up, sun-scorched sandpit like Iraq. America's brightest and best aspire not to govern Mesopotamia, but to manage MTV; not to rule Hejaz, but to run a hedge fund; not to be a C.B.E., or Commander of the British Empire, but to be a C.E.O." In contrast, he writes, "economics alone cannot explain what motivated [servants of the British empire]. The imperial impulse arose from a complex of emotions: racial superiority, yes, but also evangelical zeal; profit, perhaps, but also a sincere belief that spreading 'commerce, Christianity and civilization' was not just in Britain's interest but in the interests of her colonial subjects too."

I'm not so sure I agree. Well, first off, I think good intentions matter not a whit: one of the lessons we've all hopefully learned from the colonial period is that just because we think that civilizing people will improve their lives doesn't mean that it actually will, and it ultimately doesn't matter whether the policy that wrecks a country's economy was conceived in beneficence or greed. And we've learned that lesson: indeed, it is a key component of any course in history or politics (or, really, literature) in a major university. The way that powerful countries can fuck other countries up is a major subject of our education, and you can argue about the liberal bias of professors all you want, but it's still a quite valid one. Americans don't want to help out civilizing the natives because it's seen as basically working for the devil, not because those countries are "backwards and dirty." The only other option is working for NGOs which are, as Ferguson notes, riddled with in-fighting, self-serving policies, and inefficiency. No, this is a job for a state-based apparatus, and not since the early 60's have those institutions had enough credibility to entice the best and brightest to sign up. The idea of America's munificence towards the world took a major blow with Vietnam, and it's never really recovered. What use is there in devoting your lives to helping people when you'll actually make their lives worse? The World Bank / IMF / WTO held out some hope for renewing this commitment, but they've squandered their promise with disastrous policies.

The weird thing here is that Ferguson and I sort of agree: I, too, think that Americans should devote their energies less towards economic gain and fringe protest and more towards participation in government. He just wants to go backwards, to the imperial system, while I would rather go forwards and find a far more refined and far less disgraced system of aiding the world without conquering it. Maybe that's not possible, but it seems a far more moral and, I think, practical way of going about things than reverting to imperialism. And I think we can do that. Most graduates of elite colleges are liberal, and if we did, in fact, redirect our efforts towards government, we might be able to figure something out, or at least construct an apparatus divorced from the current neo-conservative one. We should, for instance, replace military command with civilian, but that command should be international, not American. We should provide an extended support system to ravaged countries, but we should do it in the context of an international system of checks and balances that mirrors the one that has made American government so stable. And, agreed, a lot of these international institutions have problems. But I don't think the solution is to abandon them. If we're willing to have some patience, and if we can look towards the long-term goal of remaking not only domestic government but international institutions in the liberal image--in, if you will, the Clintonian image--I think that's a far better solution for international stability.