The Empire’s New Clothes

The Abu Ghraib scandal, the avarice of private contractors, and the ever-increasing Iraqi resistance—the U.S. occupation of Iraq grows messier every day. It was not so long ago that the Bush Administration smugly claimed that the military occupation had ushered in a new era of freedom, democracy, and self-determination for the whole region. But “liberation” at the hands of self-described benevolent foreigners is a line Middle Easterners have heard before. Since the French occupied Algeria in 1830, Europeans spent a century gobbling up land from Morocco to Syria, claiming all the while they had the residents’ best interest at heart.

The U.S. occupation of Iraq echoes of this colonialism, warns Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi in his recently published book Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East (Beacon Press). He argues that for the United States to continue its occupation, or worse, to build bases and exploit Iraq’s oil, will render it simply the latest in a long line of foreign oppressors who use lofty rhetoric to justify domination. “I have not come to you except for the purpose of restoring your rights from the hands of the oppressors.” “Unlike many armies in the world, you came not to conquer, not to occupy, but to liberate.” Which one is Donald Rumsfeld in 2003, and which is Napoleon Bonaparte in his ill-fated attempt to colonize Egypt in 1798?

Resurrecting Empire also challenges commonly held assumptions about the Middle East: that democracy is a foreign idea, for example. On the contrary, Khalidi argues, many Middle Eastern countries had strong democratic traditions that were squelched by foreign occupiers who ignored values they enshrined at home, like self-determination, citizenship, and rights, for the purpose of profit-making abroad. By stamping out democratic movements, colonialism lay the foundation for the autocrats who dominate the region today. Now, Khalidi warns, if the United States is to maintain any credibility in the region—a necessary precondition to avoiding terrorist attacks—a drastic change of course is imperative. During a recent trip to Austin, Khalidi spoke to the Observer. Excerpts follow:

Texas Observer: Progressives have accused the United States of imperialism before. How is your argument different?

Rashid Khalidi: The United States’ record in the Middle East has not been a record of support for democracy, ever. We talked about democracy, but throughout the Cold War we aligned ourselves with or propped up or helped to create a number of regimes that were either autocratic or monarchical or dictatorial. In some cases we subverted democracies, as in the case of Iran in 1953, when the United States and Britain overthrew a constitutional, parliamentary, democratic, representative government, imposed a military regime, and reinstated the Shah.

This administration has launched an adventure in Iraq that is qualitatively different from anything we did before. In most of the world, the United States never really engaged in occupying countries. We propped up unpopular regimes in many places. We intervened in other countries, indirectly or covertly. We had bases against the will of the people—but their governments invited us in.

What we’ve done here—without international support, against a country that didn’t attack us and couldn’t attack us, and which posed no threat to anybody but its own people—is said, “We know better than anybody else and we’re going to go in and change this government, occupy the country, and impose the regime of our choosing.” So whatever your analysis of the US in the past is—good, bad, or indifferent—this is fundamentally different.

I argue in the book that this is perceived in the Middle East against a history of two centuries of resistance to similar invasions and occupations and positions by Western powers, namely the colonial powers, the British and the French. We risk being seen as stepping into the boots of enormously unpopular colonial occupations that these people struggled against in recent memory. When I was a young man going to the Middle East, people were still engaged in trying to get the British out of south Yemen, get the British out of the Gulf, and get the French out of Algeria. Whatever our intentions are—and I’m arguing in this book that the intentions probably are not very good—people in this region are going to perceive us as trying to determine their future in a way that they are going to resist and object to.

The administration would argue that they did the region a favor by getting rid of Saddam Hussein, who was not exactly a nice guy.

He was worse than not a nice guy. It was the most reprehensible regime in a region full of awful regimes. And for that, the United States actually garnered a certain amount of sympathy at the outset of the occupation. But that has changed over time because people are asking, “What are you doing for me today?” And what the United States has done for them today is to stay there for a year and create a situation of chaos and fail to establish security. To come in without the slightest idea of what to do and how to do it. To fail to develop a real strategy for a transfer of power to a representative Iraqi authority. And at the same time to make clear to the Iraqis that the Unties States intends to keep military bases there indefinitely.

There was a while when it might have been possible—even though this was a misbegotten adventure since it didn’t have the support of most people in the region and the world—there was maybe a brief window there where, had the United States done whatever it was going to do and quickly gotten out, some of the negative consequences I’m afraid we’re going to face might have been avoided. That’s not possible now.

TO: What negative consequences do you fear?

RK: We can see them all around us. We went from a circumstance where the overwhelming majority of Shi’ites, who are the majority of Iraqis, were at least willing to give the United States the benefit of the doubt. Now a large number of them are completely alienated from the United States. In the beginning, it is clear that the people who were opposing the occupation were a minority. I would guess that now whoever’s actually shooting is supported by a majority. And I don’t think that it’s going to be possible to turn that situation around. I think that we’re now in a no-win situation where the options are bad, worse, and worst.

TO: In the book you suggest an international mandate of a specified, limited duration.

RK: Everybody has come into the Middle East in the last two centuries proclaiming that they’re there for freedom and liberty, and in every case it’s turned out not to be true. They’ve heard it before. So in the book, I suggested that the U.S. has to very quickly move towards an international mandate that can help Iraq transit towards independence, sovereignty, and a democratic system. I’m not sure that it’s maybe not too late for that now, given what’s happened in the last few weeks.

A U.N. role is still the last best chance for a handover from the US occupation to Iraqi sovereignty, in a situation where the U.N. takes charge briefly and arranges a rapid transition to full unfettered Iraqi sovereignty in a situation where U.S. troops are on the way out. This is not a handover from the United States to a U.S.-picked-transition under U.N. auspices with U.S. troops remaining for a while, which I think is what the Bush administration still envisages—insofar as it has any clear vision any longer of what it is doing in Iraq.

In any case, it is essential the U.S. make clear to the Iraqis we do not intend to control the country. That we do not intend to have bases in the country forever. And that whatever the Iraqis do, it’s their country. If they choose a bad government thereafter, as long as it’s no danger to the world or to its neighbors, it’s none of our business.

TO: You argue that one reason the administration was able to convince Americans to support the invasion was widespread misunderstandings and ignorance of Middle Eastern history. What misconceptions are those?

RK: One is that there are no democratic traditions in the Middle East. There are strong democratic traditions. Most of the elites in most Middle Eastern countries have labored mightily to limit the authority of the state, to install constitutional governments, and to create democratic and representative regimes. For most of the 20th century, the British and the French were the ones who undermined and sabotaged those efforts in countries like Egypt and Iraq.

The second thing is this idea that Islam is in some way incompatible with democracy. Some of the largest democracies in the world are Islamic countries. Bangladesh. Indonesia. Malaysia. There’s nothing in Islam that’s inherently incompatible with democracy. There are all kinds of politicians who are anti-democratic and who are Muslims. There are all kinds of politicians who have all kinds of ideas that are inimical to democracy who are Christians. There are unscrupulous, populist politicians who will use Islamist or Christian ideas, or Jewish or Buddhist or Hindu ideas, to subvert democracy. It has nothing to do with Islam.

And I would say the same thing about terrorism. The bin Ladens of the world—this is not Islamic terrorism. These are people who are a creation of the late Cold War. That’s what brought them together. That’s what taught them to kill. That’s what deprived them of a conscience, fighting that war in Afghanistan.

Everybody in the world understands that. It’s only the American people who have a sense that these people came out of nowhere. They didn’t come out of nowhere; they came out of a war we waged in Afghanistan using these people as a tool. We have to recognize that. The fact that they use Islam is really a red herring that is being used by them and it’s being used by, unfortunately, our government. So we need to look in the mirror and understand what we ourselves have done, and that we should never do this again, and understand that that gives them the key to how to deal with the future. That’s the key to the so-called Islamic terrorism we face today.

Rachel Proctor May received master’s degrees in Middle Eastern Studies and Radio-Television-Film from the University of Texas at Austin last month.

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Published at 12:00 am CST