If it Walks and Quacks Like an Imperialist…

by David Jenkins

In his article “American Imperialism? Please.”, well-known conservative columnist and author Jonah Goldberg argues that the U.S. withdraw from Iraq shatters the argument that the U.S. is an imperialist nation. His position implies that U.S./NATO intervention in the Arab Spring countries are results of our good democratic graces, a take on circumstances that seems confusing alongside the recent US commitment to extend the occupation of Afghanistan past 2014, as detailed in Al-Jazeera’s “Afghans Protest Against Long-Term US Pact.” The article outlines how the US pact with tribal leadership “loya jirga” seems to be inciting more anti-US sentiment, even though the pact involves training of the Afghan military. The New York Times reports the same story, but they don’t concentrate as much on the reactions against US imperialism. Instead, they focus on the diplomacy surrounding Karzai’s approval of a long-term US presence, and what kinds of restrictions on troop activity would be needed.

So, is the U.S. really a non-imperialist nation? Was the emergence of the Arab Spring good news for U.S. leaders?

I was just as giddy in January 2011 to hear what Obama officials would say as I was to know the fate of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Even after it was evident he would lose power, our leaders were reluctant to comment. After all, Mubarak had been our second most expensive Middle Eastern play-thing (next to Israel), whose dictatorship was bought with an annual $1.3 billion in U.S. aid. Next to the “Made in USA” imprints on the tear gas canisters used against crowds in Tunisia and Egypt, the U.S. reluctance to comment seemed to be a pretty clear statement in itself. Another U.S. project was being defeated by democracy.

Mubarak's tear gas was manufactured in Jamestown, PA: a symbol to Egyptian protestors of US role in Mubarak's rule since 1981.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t very surprised. U.S. foreign policy in the Middle  East has always been conveniently oblivious to democratic ideals. We propped an inept Shah in Iran during the cold war and sent billions in military aid to Saddam Hussein in the 80’s (When Rumsfeld worked for Reagan, he also didn’t care to ask Saddam why he was using chemical weapons). It was recently discovered via files from Qadhafi’s secret service that certain U.S. officials went rogue to advise Qadhafi loyalist forces. One was a former Bush official, one is a congressman (Dennis Kucinich) who wanted to legitimize his political ambitions by undermining the NATO effort.

Rumsfeld shakes Saddam's hand, a pledge of US support. 1983

On the eve of U.S. withdraw from Iraq, it is also interesting to consider U.S. references to the new Iraqi “democracy.” Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki has praised the Syrian government’s violent crackdown on protests, echoing the concerns of Qadhafi that the protests are Al-Qaeda’s fault. In response to Iraqi protests for better living conditions in February 2011, Maliki’s security forces opened fire, killing 9-12 people (Al-Jazeera quotes 12, New York Times quotes 9) and imprisoned hundreds of journalists and intellectuals. Maliki proceeded to seize controlof the headquarters of opposing political parties, telling them that his security forces needed the property for government use. Democracy in Iraq, indeed!

Violent suppression of Iraqi protests went unnoticed.

It will be interesting to see how American imperialism adapts to political changes in the MENA regions. In any case, the Arab Spring is as much of a wake-up call for the U.S. as it is for the oppressive governments we have supported. It is a good idea to start adopting foreign policies that don’t define democracies by their oil output or pro-Israel tendencies.

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About middleeastcommentary

As an Associate Professor in Electronic Media Communication at Middle Tennessee State University, I teach courses in Media in the Middle East, among other courses analyzing media. I also produce media -- a recent documentary on the Kurds of Northern Iraq "More than the Mountains: Kurdistan of Iraq" produced following two trips to Iraq in 2005 and 2008.
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One Response to If it Walks and Quacks Like an Imperialist…

  1. Crystal Collins says:

    I have a lot of problems with that Goldberg article. It’s full of about as many uses of rhetoric and illogical conclusions as any political author, left-wing or right-wing. I just feel like he’s making strenuous connections to American politics and describing the kind of system and thinking that he’s claiming to argue again. Like you said in the title, “if it walks and quacks like an imperialist.” He can call it whatever he wants, I suppose, and at it’s heart, some of the US foreign policy regarding the Middle East and North Africa HAS been imperialistic in nature. Goldberg says things like, “this nonsense overlooks the fact that America has gone to war to save Muslim lives more often than any modern Muslim country has.” If nothing else, this is incredibly paternalistic in nature and paternalism seems to be at the heart of certain imperialistic thinking, as if various peoples and cultures are incapable of helping themselves and need others to get involved on their behalf. I think there’s something to be said for helping people that need it, but I think there’s a difference between giving aid to people and stepping in to do things on their behalf because you perceive that they cannot do it themselves. Call it something else, but that represents the kind of social power dynamic that really sort of defines imperialism. Even indirect or unintentional imperialism is still imperialism (the definition of which is here, for the record: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/imperialism).
    I also find it interesting, as you point out, that historically, the United States has propped up and supported some of these dictators and regimes which have been overthrown. I would agree that there are definitely other economic and social issues at play worth addressing, such as oil and Israel. It will be interesting to see if the United States can ever change its foreign policy, considering how deeply entrenched paternalism and imperialism seem to be, particularly in lieu of the aforementioned socioeconomic issues.

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