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Missionaries and marines: Bush, Blair and democratisation

About the author
Anatol Lieven is a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC. A new, updated edition of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, was republished in September 2012 by Oxford University Press.
General GordonGeneral Gordon's last stand (Click for bigger image)
The real line of the Bush administration on Iraq is regime change. A compliant not democratic Iraq is its objective, the aim being to secure a compliant Middle East. Now, in its rhetoric, the administration is calling for democracy in Iraq, and Bush academics are calling for, and explaining the US strategy in terms of, a desire to bring democracy to the entire Arab world. This is a stroke of malign brilliance. It is unbelievable to those who study what is actually happening. Nonetheless, it may prove highly influential in the US because of the way in which rigid, ideological paradigms dominate the public discussion here.

In origin, the commitment to Arab democracy is no more than a cynical cross between war propaganda (stressing the undemocratic, therefore barbarous nature of the Arab enemy) and a giant diversionary tactic intended to distract attention from Israel’s crimes and US complicity in them. However, it also has the capacity to co-opt and silence what might otherwise have been a good part of liberal opposition to the war in the US.

For in the US, a belief in the universal applicability of democratic institutions, and America’s right and duty to promote or even impose them, is so widely and unquestioningly held that it is part of what Richard Hofstader and others have called the American Creed, the core beliefs which define the American nation. So deep and universal is this creed that it is extremely difficult for liberal Americans to stand up against an argument presented in these terms – even when the argument is intended to justify a war of aggression and the flagrant violation of international law. The propaganda of democratisation therefore is a way of enlisting the sickly pieties of the Clinton era in the service of the ruthless geopolitical ambitions of Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Perle, and of allying genuine sentiments of liberal universalism with vicious ethno-religious hatreds.

drawing of missionary
The media boosters of this administration line (George Will and Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post, Max Boot in the Wall Street Journal, Amity Shlaes in the Financial Times and so on) have written of this as a new Wilsonianism. Not that it did much good at Versailles in 1919 after the First World War. Such beliefs, however, are older, deeper and more powerful than the name of President Wilson would suggest. The basic psychological and cultural approach also has a great deal to do with the American missionary tradition – and given the nature of that tradition, this is something that should give us all great pause. For a classic feature of much of the missionary tradition was the combination of a genuinely-felt care for the souls of non-Christian peoples with a complete indifference to their actual well being; and an ostensible commitment to the equality of all men before the Lord, with deep racist contempt for other cultures and social orders.

The British especially need to be wary of the appeal of supposedly benign neo-imperialism, bringing progress, peace and democracy at the point of a gun. For obvious, deep historical reasons, such an appeal is especially strong in Britain, where a sense of bereavement for the loss of empire seems to have found two kinds of solace, which Tony Blair’s approach brings together.

map of British Empire

The first is to place Britain within the English-speaking Empire of America. Under the Prime Minister’s imprimatur, British diplomats in Washington are drawing upon the Churchillian trope of the English-speaking peoples, and now refer to a common Anglo–Saxon culture, as if the year were 1900 and Conan Doyle were still alive. To invert Dean Acheson’s famous phrase, as far as a good many members of the British (or at least English) establishment are concerned, Britain never did lose an empire and has quite easily found a role. The British Empire has simply passed into the English-speaking American Empire, and Britain’s role is that of a minor if colourful confederate and provider of useful and plucky auxiliary soldiers – something like Nepal in Britain’s Indian Raj.

The second solace for the loss of empire is to retain a British capacity for expeditionary, neo-imperial warfare, and to cast this capacity as an agent of world peace and progress. This line has found one of its most eloquent spokesmen in Robert Cooper, formerly of the Cabinet Office; and it has completely taken possession of the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

What Blair represents

It would be quite unfair to see Blair as just a tinpot leader of a former great power – Yeltsin without the alcohol – deriving some kind of personal gratification from the condescending flattery of the Big Man in the White House; or as a mere politician who exploits the deep pride of the British public in the British armed forces, and in their successful use in a just cause which conveniently renews the enduring romance of far-flung military expeditions; or even as a leader determined at all costs to try to bridge the widening gulf between the US and Europe, and thereby to save Britain from having to confront a truly wrenching geopolitical choice.

pas de deux(Click for bigger image)
Blair represents all these things, but it is impossible to understand his support for the Bush administration unless it is also recognised that he genuinely sees himself as the heir of Gladstone, a muscular imperial Christian righting the world’s wrongs, whether the world wants this or not. This self-perception gives Blair real moral courage – for however much one may disapprove of his present approach to war with Iraq, we must recognise that this extremely ambitious and history-conscious politician is risking his premiership and his historical image on a reckless throw of the dice. On the other hand, a five-year record of apparently successful (if in fact sometimes extremely ambiguous) benign military interventions in Sierra Leone, East Timor, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan doubtless gives him confidence and appears to lend strength and justice to his arm.

British liberals and leftists often find it hard to take a strong stand against Blair. In part, to do him the credit he deserves, this is because some of the interventions in the 1990s were in fact highly moral and necessary. Moreover, it is now recognised that the West’s failure to intervene in other cases (Rwanda, Bosnia in 1992) was a disgrace. Also, they suffer from the legacy of past anti-imperialism, too often blaming all problems on the colonial powers and their local clients, investing hope in a range of progressive or revolutionary movements and regimes, many of which have proved to be a disaster. When I was growing up in the 1970s, it was impossible in respectable intellectual company to suggest that many societies around the world were unprepared for modern statehood without being automatically accused of racism or imperialism. The dreadful record of so many much-praised progressive regimes in the Third World, from Algeria to Zimbabwe, brought about a deserved backlash.

book cover
But Tony Blair has used this to revive liberal imperialist attitudes, combining them with whatever remains of a muscular Christian militarism. Just because the post-colonial record has often been awful, there is no reason to suggest that the imperial record was good – above all in the Middle East. This, however, is precisely the underlying assumption of Cooper’s sophisticated arguments (with their continual underlying suggestion that we are acting in the interests of higher world order and progress) and the open assumption of cruder neo-imperialists in the US and Israel.

The imperial powers were not responsible for many of the deep underlying features of the colonial societies. Nevertheless, they have been responsible for a great deal of the post-colonial disasters. Even in Sierra Leone, the subject of one of the most morally justified of all Western military interventions in recent years, it would have been good if British press coverage especially of the barbarous state of that country had been accompanied by acknowledgment and analysis of the way in which the rotten socio-economic system and governing class left behind by the British contributed to the later catastrophes.

Democracy and the Middle East

Particularly in the Middle East therefore, democrats need to resist attempts to justify American imperial policies in the name of democracy and progress. It would make a cat laugh to see how US commentators, often in the same article or speech, call for Arab states simultaneously both to democratise and to suppress criticism of the US and Israel by their citizens. At one official conference that I attended in Washington, a leading member of the Israeli lobby began by declaring the need for the US to bring democracy to the Arab world if there is ever to be peace between the Arabs and Israelis. He then continued by stating that there is, however, no need for the US to pay the slightest heed to the views of the Arab peoples when it comes to Israeli policies, for the US is quite powerful enough to crush any Arab opposition, whether from states or peoples. ‘Let them hate us, as long as they fear us,’ he concluded – the motto of that famous liberal democratiser and benefactor of mankind, the Emperor Caligula. One of the first promoters of the idea that genuine democracy for the Palestinians and the Arabs in general is necessary if there is to be peace was Natan Sharansky – a pathological Arab-hater whose party contains open advocates of the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. The threadbare Wilsonian clothing of such people barely hides their wolfish visages.

audience with Victoria
The way in which the terms democratic and undemocratic are used by Bush apologists has striking historical echoes. It is close to the way the European Empires of the past used civilised and uncivilised (or barbarous), with all the dreadful connotations of that use of language when it came to racism, imperial aggression, land-theft, ethnic cleansing, mass murder and the destruction of cultures and languages. This could hardly be clearer when it comes to the language US and Israeli nationalists use about the Muslim world. When US pro-Israeli propaganda harps endlessly on the fact that Israel is a democracy, in contrast to the dictatorships of the Arab world, the term is being emptied of all real democratic content, and becoming simply a cultural marker, a declaration that the Israelis are like us, while their enemies are savage and inferior.

Like the use of civilisation in Victorian times, the term is also endlessly flexible according to convenience. Even the most brutally authoritarian American allies (such as Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan) can always be described as being on the path to democracy; while given the realities of most states in the world, almost any state which opposes America can be berated for its democratic failings with at least the appearance of truth. Witness the contrasting attitude to Russia and Turkey in the 1990s – and the fascinating way in which, now that Moscow is a semi-ally in the war against terrorism, the criticism of Russia’s lack of democracy is dying away in dominant American political circles. When it comes to democracy, human rights abuses and so on, the American establishment’s conscience flickers on and off like a strobe light in a seedy disco.

The rest of the world can see this. The main danger about the use of democracy remains that it is all too seductive as far as American liberals are concerned. A naive belief in the universal, immediate applicability of US-style democracy, and America’s right and duty to promote this, is an article of national ideological faith in the US. It easily shades over into a messianism, which is, in itself, nationalist and imperialist.

The result is that even highly intelligent, knowledgeable, widely-travelled (at least to international conferences) experts often produce work on democracy in the post-Communist and developing worlds that can only be described as baby-talk. When it comes to their supposedly democratic interlocuters in these countries, they show a kind of ardent willingness to be deceived more appropriate to a country maiden in an eighteenth century comedy.

Equally importantly, all too many of the groups and individuals strongly advocating democratic nation-building share with the imperialists a profound contempt for and ignorance of the actual societies and cultures with which they are dealing – the only difference being that, while in the case of the imperialists this contempt is increasingly open, in the case of the democratisers it is unconscious or at least unacknowledged. In Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket a (fictional but acutely portrayed) US Marine General declares that ‘in every Gook there is an American waiting to get out’. The democratisers would not, of course, phrase things that way, but the approach of many of them is not fundamentally different. They do not see it as contempt of course – on the contrary, they are genuinely convinced that ordinary people and peoples all over the world are naturally good, peace-loving and democratic. This being so, there is no need to study them in any detail.

The belief that all the peoples of the earth are naturally democratic and peace-loving when not misled by wicked elites can take some truly bizarre forms. I vividly remember a symposium on ethnic conflict at a US university in 2000. Among other historical revelations I learned that nationalism was invented by European aristocratic regimes in the nineteenth century as a way of justifying mass conscription for their aggressive wars; that Bismarck was ‘an ethnic entrepreneur who created German nationalism in the 1850s’; that ‘Greeks and Turks lived in harmony in Cyprus for thousands of years until modern politicians divided them’; that ‘one man is responsible for all the conflicts in the Balkans’; and that Arab popular hostility to Israel is the product of ‘manipulation by Arab regimes’, with no roots in real popular sentiment, genuine grievances, or of course Israeli actions.

More frightening still, these claims went unchallenged by the other participants – a degree of intellectual conformism that an authoritarian regime would have to struggle to achieve. Like their missionary forbears, and their cold war predecessors, US liberal intellectuals in the grip of this ideology may be prepared to mow down untold thousands of Arabs and wreck their countries in the sincere belief that they are liberating them from the wicked rule of their elites.

The contempt for the reality of others is ideological and has been worsened by the radical downgrading of history, regional studies and social anthropology compared to approaches based on universal theories reflecting a bland, pseudo-scientific universalisation of American attitudes. The result is that many – perhaps most – of the essays, articles and lectures concerning democratisation published in America are written as if no serious social, historical, or cultural study had ever been written; just as most of the discussions of corruption and anti-corruption that I have attended have been conducted in ignorance of most works on political patronage or conspicuous consumption.

As I recall at the same symposium, only one of the experts present had ever actually lived outside the United States or Western Europe. From the point of view of comfort and safety, approaches based on general theory are therefore wonderfully convenient, since they require no serious or prolonged research in the more uncomfortable parts of the world.

missionary stew
Here many of the democratisers and the geopolitical realists may be said to come together. For the realists, too, absolutely disdain the study of particular societies in favour of rigid and universal models of state behaviour, in which states are seen as pieces performing pre-ordained patterns on an eternal chessboard.

Most missionaries were sincere and well meaning. Many did real good, especially when it came to suppressing the slave trade in Africa. To do this, they lived, and often died there. Unlike most of their contemporary equivalents, they ran appalling risks, and endured terrible hardship, and sometimes torture and death. Even so, they acted as ideological cover for imperial projects, which were by no means directed to the well being of the peoples concerned. In extreme cases – most notably King Leopold’s conquest of the Congo – the language of Christianity and progress was used to cover the most appalling crimes.

Wilful amnesia and total war

Finally, and most dangerously, the missionary ideological approach also fits into a US tradition of total war. As Walter Russell Mead and others have pointed out, there exists in the US a strong belief that, if wars are to be fought, they should be fought with the aim of the absolute and unconditional defeat of the enemy. Bred by annihilatory victories over the Native Americans, and comprehensive ones over the Mexicans and Spanish, and Sherman’s destruction of the South in the Civil War, this attitude was both reflected and strengthened by the Second World War, when the Americans (alone, as most of them see it) utterly defeated Germany and Japan, occupied them, completely reshaped their political systems and culture, and reduced them to geopolitical subservience to the US.

bound man(Click for bigger image)
A war to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s regime is all too likely to spread, with disastrous consequences. But it could be contained. An approach to the whole Arab world, which combines compulsory regime change in the name of democratisation with acknowledged subservience to the US and Israel (as in the now notorious briefing paper to the Defense Policy Board advocating an ultimatum to Saudi Arabia), suggests a true clash of civilizations and a struggle without borders and without end between the US and the Arabs. This is precisely what some members of the Israeli lobby would like – but most American, indeed European and world citizens would recoil in horror. Not least because it would mean that the war against terrorism would most likely be lost.

Through history, many countries have created empires. Some worse, some better. As a whole, the British Empire was not too bad as empires go, and left some real benefits behind. Nor were the societies conquered in Africa, Asia and elsewhere some kind of earthly paradise before the West arrived to spoil things. But what must also never be forgotten is how many crimes were committed by empires, even when they were claiming to act in accordance with Christianity and civilisation; just how rotten, fraudulent and unstable were the democratic states which even the British Empire left behind in most of its colonies; and above all, why most of the rest of humanity has no desire ever again to accord Europe or the US the right to intervene in their affairs in the name of our supposed ideals and actual interests.

This applies with particular force to the historical record of the British, the French, the Americans and the other Western powers in the Middle East. Given the entire history of Western imperialism and of Western involvement in that region, the idea that we will bring peace, progress and democracy is a fantastically bad joke, which the Arabs are right to treat with contempt. On a personal note, as someone educated and trained in the British system, I find it deeply depressing that British subjects, who should know better because they should know their history, are now among those telling America how to do it.

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