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Becoming Imperialist


Consider these familiar assertions:

1. If Donald Rumsfeld had listened to the generals and invaded with more troops, Iraq would be stable today.

2. If the U.S. had provided security and basic services after the initial invasion, Iraqis would have embraced America’s presence and agenda by now.

3. If Paul Bremer had neither de-Ba’athified nor disbanded the Iraqi army after the invasion, the insurgency would have been manageable or non-existent.

If you agree with any of these claims, you are an unwitting participant in American Imperialism. You criticize the “handling of the war” but you display faith in the capacity of the US to remake the world in its image through military force and administration. Such faith reinforces the logic of imperialist misadventures like Iraq, and paves the way for future ones. This illustrates an important feature of the discourse surrounding the war: In the wake of failed imperialist projects, critics often leave military imperialism itself unquestioned and unchallenged. Indeed, they participate in its rehabilitation.

How does opposition to Bush’s policies support the logic and practices of imperialism? First and foremost, the dominance of “critical” assertions like those sketched above reflect how lessons drawn from Iraq focus exclusively on the success or failure of US military campaigns, ignoring the political will of Iraqis and the specific political stakes of war. When we recognize that Iraqis have their own political convictions, which often conflict with U.S. prescriptions, we must confront possibilities that differ radically from the ones outlined above. Consider the following examples:

1. More invading troops would have resembled the colonial campaigns that are still prominent in the collective memory of Iraqis, and would have roused even more opposition.

2. Iraqis are not fighting over a lack of public services, but over deeper political questions. Thus, providing basic services would not have alleviated conflict-inducing tensions.

3. Leaving the Sunni military intact probably would have inspired an earlier Shia insurgency, in which case US forces would now be helping the Sunnis suppress the Shias instead of the other way around. The outcome–civil war and a failed occupation–would be the same.

By ignoring the political motivations for Iraqi collective action, Democrats and Republicans alike exacerbate political antagonisms. American politicians represent Iraqis purely as instruments, cooperative or recalcitrant, of US policy, and praise or criticize them accordingly. In 2003, American officials justified the invasion by claiming that Iraqis would be grateful to President Bush for their liberation. Now politicians from both sides of the aisle blame the Iraqis for failing to get with the program.

Senator Carl Levin (D–Michigan) expressed the “opposition’s” view instructively: “America has given the Iraqi people the opportunity to build a new nation at the cost of nearly 3,000 American lives and over twenty thousand wounded. But the American people do not want our valiant troops to get caught in a crossfire between Iraqis if they insist on squandering that opportunity through civil war and sectarian strife” (11/15/2006). While “opposed” to the Bush administration’s intransigent foreign policy, this “critique” occludes consideration of the real political divisions in Iraq and the “costs” of war for Iraqis themselves, not to mention the region’s colonial history.

Most critics agree that the war was “mismanaged.” However, the dominance of technical “how-to” questions in popular debates has several disturbing effects. For instance, it allows Democrats to attack Bush while expressing confidence in the military’s ability to successfully complete imperialist projects. Moreover, it allows Republicans to justify supporting the invasion while distancing themselves from the failures of administration officials. Both sides reinforce the belief that, “next time,” we can do imperialism right, with better planning for post-war reconstruction and more manpower to help the troops fulfill their mission. Our acquiescence in this consensus transforms war from a political event, which demands public discussion, into a technocratic campaign best left to competent military professionals.

This consensus resonates partly because of widespread “faith in the troops.” Marginal voices that challenge the consensus create cognitive dissonance because they cast doubt upon the troops’ capabilities. When doubters dare suggest that the imperialist project was doomed from the start, and that the troops died in vain, their arguments are condemned and dismissed, as was Barack Obama’s “slip” earlier this year. Our aversion to the notion that American troops lives were “wasted” in Iraq dissuades politicians, supporters and critics alike, from rejecting the option of future imperialist campaigns.

Our preoccupation with technical debates misses larger questions because it ignores the Iraqis themselves. The Iraq War was waged in the name of Iraqi freedom, reflecting a misguided view of Iraqis as desirous of American intervention and influence, and ultimately of American-style democracy and capitalism. In justifying the invasion, Donald Rumsfeld and his subordinates assumed that Iraqis were merely helpless victims waiting for Saddam’s eviction. We have learned–the hard way–that Iraqis had quite different perceptions of American power, as well as diverse and conflicting interests in the “post-war” environment. Reality simply failed to match the war advocates’ elegant worldview.

If we learn one lesson from Rumsfeld’s faulty assumptions it should be this: Iraqis, divided against themselves, also viewed American power with suspicion and were likely to take up arms against it. It did not make sense, therefore, to invade Iraq in order to free the Iraqi people.

War critics who accept any of the three familiar assertions listed above are caught in a dangerous paradox. By suggesting that more troops would have helped create a stable Iraq, they betray a retrospective expectation that large numbers of Iraqis were going to resist. In effect, they call for US military power to quell this anticipated resistance. Rumsfeld did blunder, but his policy was consistent with his assumption of Iraqi cooperation. His critics have challenged this assumption, but in the end they reinforce the imperatives of his failed imperialist policy. Our participation in this process of ideological reinforcement increases the chances of catastrophic occupations in the years to come.

Arjun Chowdhury, Kevin Parsneau, and Mark Hoffman are doctoral candidates in the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota. They can be reached at:




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