The Connections Between Racism and Imperialism

Have you noticed? The U.S. mass media has suddenly become deeply interested in U.S. history, especially Black history. This is because the resurgent Black Lives Movement has, in a period of deep political division, forced the anti-Trump forces to more clearly distinguish themselves as anti-racist proponents of real history versus racist deniers and prettifiers. Suddenly all the MSNBC and CNN news anchors embrace the concept of “systemic racism” as though they have been woke all their adult lives; they castigate Republicans for rejecting “critical race theory” and defend BLM even if it includes Marxists. It is an extraordinary change that offers new possibilities for educating and organizing.

Would that there be comparable interest in “foreign policy” history, which is to say, the history of racist imperialism. I’m not even talking about the settling of the frontier, “Indian displacement,” the Mexican War, even the Spanish-American War based-on-lies and the suppression of the “Philippines Insurrection” (1899-1902), etc. I’m talking about recent history, in which the father of the currently adulated Liz Cheney used his office as the hub of a cabal of conspirators who systematically built a case for war on Iraq.

All through 2002 they toiled to convince the people of this country that Iraq had been deeply involved in the 9/11 attack, was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, maintaining terrorist training camps, producing chemical weapons in mobile labs, importing aluminum tubes for rockets, supporting a Kurdish al-Qaeda bomb-building camp, etc. In March 2003, having convinced the overwhelming majority of the justice of the cause, but lacking support from NATO allies Germany, France, Belgium, and Turkey, the U.S. went to war. It was a disastrous, criminal war that produced enduring rage and appropriate contempt for this country in the world.

It has to be said, nothing Trump did while in office compares with the crime of the Iraq war. The current trend to depict Dubya as a decent person, or anything other than a cruel and ignorant warmonger, tells you how seriously the corporate media regards mass killings when conducted by U.S. forces.

The death toll, perhaps half a million. The destruction of the infrastructure. The refugee crisis. The civil war, al-Qaeda and ISIL. The racism. The essentialism: the assumption that all Arabs are in cahoots against white America. Even the conflation in Afghanistan of the Taliban (Pashtun xenophobic nationalists) and al-Qaeda (Arab internationalist jihadists) reflects a simplistic racist conception of the Other. But neither the (failed) war in Afghanistan nor the war in Iraq are problematized as Biden lauds the troops and the dead on Memorial Day. Son Beau was a hero for “serving” as they say, first in Kosovo, then Iraq (2008-9).

Recall that Biden (advised by Tony Blinken) was a crucial supporter of the Bush-Cheney war based on lies on Iraq. He continued to support it long after it was clear that the premises of the war were all false. Vice President Dick Cheney had responded blandly to the exposure of his lies; there had been “intelligence failures,” he acknowledged. Paul Wolfowitz as Under Secretary of Defense opined that Iraqis didn’t care about weapons of mass destruction, they were just happy to be liberated. Biden thought it great that a dictator had been overthrown.

About two years into the war Biden stated he would not have voted to authorize war had he known what we know now. This was the formula used by all Democrats seeking reelection—insincere, opportunistic, defensive. It turned out that there were consequences for waging a war based on lies against a people you know nothing about. If your leaders don’t even know the difference between Shiites and Sunnis, or how Shiism links Iraq and Iran, or how Sunnis have dominated the army and polity since the British created Iraq, how can you even successfully conquer and occupy?

But instead of getting woke to the realities of U.S. racist capitalist imperialism, the media combines an increasingly progressive understanding of the history of racial oppression in this country with ongoing jingoism. In this they take their cue from Biden and the mainstream of the Democratic Party.

While Trump stood for Make America Great Again, Biden stands for America is Back—Back to Normal! This means America will reassert the leadership it abrogated during the nefarious time of Trump. Trump insulted NATO leaders as freeloading ingrates; Biden speaks to them respectfully, even if he’s making unreasonable demands (like Germany quit the Nord Stream II gas pipeline project with Russia, nearly complete). Biden is all about maintaining “our alliances”—especially NATO.

Would that the media would apply some critical theory to NATO. NATO as an anticommunist alliance after the Soviet triumph over the Nazis and capture of Berlin. NATO as the defender of a capitalist Europe under U.S. hegemony from an imagined Soviet invasion. NATO that was never deployed militarily from its inception in 1949 until after the quiet dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1991. NATO that was first used to bomb a country in 1995 when it bombed Bosnia to create a NATO client state out of the formerly neutral but historically Russia-allied Yugoslavia. In 1999 Bill Clinton egged on by his grotesque wife bombed again, targeting the city of Belgrade. It was the first aerial bombing of a European capital since 1945, designed to force Serbia to concede the province of Kosovo to NATO. Meanwhile Clinton expanded NATO (as George W. H. Bush had vowed the U.S. would never do) to include Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

The U.S. media has never problematized the post-Cold War expansion of NATO, and recognized it for what it is (an intolerable provocation of Russia). It has never really critiqued the post-9/11 regime change efforts based on lies throughout the “Greater Middle East.” It doesn’t mention that Beau Biden’s “service” in Iraq took place in 2008-9, during the occupation when patriotic Iraqis were naturally resisting the hated invaders. Beau was not a hero, he was an invader.

The Iraq War was a huge crime. The continued presence of any U.S. troops in Iraq, over a year after the Parliament demanded their withdrawal, is an offense. So too the presence of U.S. troops in Syria. The media ignores these matters.

NATO expansion serves no point other than to provoke Russian defensive responses. The U.S. recognition of Kosovo (now a huge NATO base) as a state, in the same year (2008) as it was announced that Georgia and Ukraine would join NATO, has since resulted in Russia recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states bordering itself, recognizing Donbas as an autonomous zone in Ukraine, and re-annexing Crimea. All these territories could be immediately absorbed into Russia. Their total area is about the size of Louisiana.

The U.S. effort to expand NATO drew in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Romania and Slovenia by 2008. The nonchalant announcement that it would soon include Georgia and Ukraine finally caused the cautious Russians to respond with a quick war on Georgia. The media should realize this was less an act of aggression than a belated and moderate response to the planned expansion of a hostile military alliance to strangle itself.

The U.S. is a systemic racist country. It is also a capitalist imperialist country. The threat of a fascist coup rooted in racist groups like the Oath Keepers is conceivable, although unlikely. The threat of another imperialist war is quite likely. Biden has never repudiated the Iraq War; he continues to think or at least declare publicly it was about defending this country and democracy. He is a well-known advocate for NATO expansion. He is a scrappy old man who calls Putin a “killer” and feels under pressure, after the Trump term, to “push back” on Russia (as though Russia somewhere “pushed” “us”).

The above-mentioned area the size of Louisiana could, again, be annexed by Russia at any time. The aggressive expansion of NATO may yet provoke war, which would be explained in the U.S. as a result of Russia’s longstanding designs on its neighbors’ territory in a struggle between autocracy and democracy or something. In accordance with tradition the explanation for war will make no sense but will seem compellingly logical for brainwashed fools at least for a time.

How far can you go in digesting the lessons of the 1619 project, grasping the centrality of slavery in the formation of the U.S. and role in its economic growth, cultural evolution, institutions and unique horrors, before you realize that the racism underlying slavery underlies U.S. foreign policy and has from the beginning? How far can you go in promoting awareness of Tulsa in 1921 and go on treating veterans Iraq War (or the Korean War, Vietnam War, Afghan War) as heroes fighting for our country?

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: