From Birmingham to Baghdad, Imperialism’s Freedom Ride
"But we should not," insisted the World’s Most Powerful Woman, as though she were dealing with an actual problem, in a speech to the National Association of Black Journalists in Dallas August 7, "let our voice waver in speaking out on the side of people who are seeking freedom. And we must never, ever indulge in the condescending voices who allege that some people in Africa or in the Middle East are just not interested in freedom, they’re culturally just not ready for freedom or they just aren’t ready for freedom’s responsibilities.
We’ve heard that argument before, and we, more than any, as a people, should be ready to reject it. The view was wrong in 1963 in Birmingham, and it is wrong in 2003 in Baghdad and in the rest of the Middle East."
But National Security Adviser and former Chevron Oil board member Condoleeza Rice did not identify those who disparage Third World "freedom" and alleged U.S. efforts to impose it. She’s obviously not targeting L. Paul Bremer III, civil administrator in Iraq, who told the Washington Post June 28, "Elections held too early can be destructive," adding that while there’s "no blanket rule" against democracy in Iraq, and he’s "not personally opposed to it," it must take place "in a way that takes care of our concerns" and "done very carefully." (Is it just me, or is he saying the Iraqis "are culturally just not ready for freedom, and just aren’t ready for freedom’s responsibilities"—at least until they learn how to say "Yes, Boss!" with genuine feeling?)
Rice is not targeting Henry Kissinger, who as U.S. Secretary of State, following the (democratic) election of Salvador Allende in 1970, declared, "Chile shouldn’t be allowed to go Marxist just because its people are irresponsible," and proceeded to help organize a bloody fascist coup, producing a regime more suitable to those Latinos down there.
She’s not trying to chasten Vice President Dick Cheney, who as a Wyoming representative in Congress in 1986 voted against a resolution urging the apartheid government of South Africa (which then-President Reagan pronounced America’s "closest friend" in Africa) to release Nelson Mandela—freedom fighter, democrat—from prison.
No, no, no. Condi’s saying: Those criticizing the U.S. occupation of Iraq are the moral equivalents of the KKK. The implicit allegation is bizarre. It is also both wise and stupid. Politically wise, because the American people, due to many decades of struggle, have come to see the Civil Rights Movement, the moral authority of which she seeks to appropriate in pursuit of Bushite global ambitions, as a good thing. So she can, maybe, for awhile, exploit the widespread, decent sentiment in support of racial equality to generate sympathy for what is in fact an inherently racist crusade.
The administration tries to draw on that moral authority in other connections, too. A senior lawyer in the administration of (well-known former big-time substance abuser) George Bush claimed recently that California’s flouting of federal drug laws (by allowing sick and dying patients to use marijuana) is equivalent to the southern states’ past defiance of civil rights laws. Those drug laws have resulted in the selective incarceration of more college-age Black males than go to college in this country. Does the analogy make sense?
No, it’s stupid. And so is Condi’s tortured analogy, because freedom is something grasped from oppressors, not conferred by them. If we really want to make apt comparisons, we should link the occupation regime with the segregationists, and the Iraqi resistance with the civil rights activists (who ironically made the careers of Rice and other African-Americans in the administration possible).
Condi’s also saying, unmistakably: The U.S. will actively promote political change ("freedom") in Africa and the Middle East. That has to mean strong-arming, if not overthrowing, long-standing allied governments in Cairo and Riyadh, as well as non-compliant governments in Damascus and Tehran. She wants the American people to see an unending series of U.S.-sponsored regime-changes as somehow a continuation of Project C in Birmingham in 1963.
Very stupid. But (especially if prominent Blacks leave the "diverse" rogues’ gallery that is the Bush Administration), we might find it more and more cynically deploying the righteous anti-racist struggles in our own past (to which its key figures contributed nothing), and donning the mantle of Martin Luther King, to prettify its struggle for geopolitical mastery. It’s that administration, rather than unnamed "condescending voices" that, lacking justifications for imperial expansion acceptable to the American masses, must make use of racism, religious intolerance, and the fear such feelings can generate. The premise for the invasion of Iraq was: "The Arabs (Muslims, ragheads, those people, bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, whatever) attacked us. We must counter-attack them." Condi and her neocon and oil-baron colleagues are deliberately, shamelessly using racism and ignorance to foment even more.
Contrast Dr. King, once viewed by the power structure as a dangerous pariah. New York City, April 4, 1967: "[The Vietnamese] must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1945 after a combined French and Japanese occupation, and before the Communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony. Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not "ready" for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long [emphasis added]. "
That’s the general historical pattern, seen from Vietnam to Iran to Nicaragua: denial of freedom and independence (unless some skewed interpretation of such concepts corresponds with U.S. corporate and geopolitical interests). Condi, who isn’t stupid, surely knows it. That makes her Dallas talk, and exploitation of the African-American liberation struggle to seek support for American imperialism, especially shameful.
GARY LEUPP is an an associate professor in the Department of History at Tufts University and coordinator of the Asian Studies Program. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org