Delenda Est Carthago

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Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!

5.9.06

American imperialism

With our war in Iraq dragging along and threatening to turn into a region-wide conflict, it's relevant to reflect on the United States and how she conducts her affairs with regard to the world. It bothers me that Americans, especially those in the current Administration, don't seem to recognize that the U.S. is and pretty much always has been an imperial power. I have a feeling that we would be more successful, or at least less schizophrenic as a nation, if we simply embraced it.

A couple of things brought this thought out, even though I've considered it before. One was, of course, Donald Rumsfeld's speech to the American Legion this past Tuesday in Salt Lake City. Many people on the left have ripped Rumsfeld for the speech (rightly, I think - but of course I'd think that, being a stinkin' liberal and all), but it's still an interesting piece of propaganda that ignores several salient points about history (which is not just the province of the right, I will admit). The other thing that made me consider American imperialism is this post at Sonia's blog. She links to a discussion on another blog in which Soviet imperialism is brought up, and makes a good point about American isolationism during the post-World War I years, but she also says that "if you dare to claim that US isn't really imperialistic, you will immediately be accused of being 'reactionary' or worse. But I don't care." Now, I wouldn't accuse someone who claims the U.S. isn't imperialistic of being reactionary, but I would accuse them of being naive. Of course, this is all stemming from an idea that "imperialism" is bad. When it's not. At least, not necessarily.

The problem, of course, is trying to define "imperialism." Americans tend to define it narrowly so they won't fall under the definition's umbrella. Are we imperialistic like the European Powers were in the nineteenth century, carving up Africa into colonies that wrecked a continent and whose effects are still felt fifty to one hundred years later? Well, perhaps not that aggressively or obviously. Imperialism to me means conquering other, weaker groups of people. With that broad definition, it becomes clear that any strong nation is at some point imperialistic and every nation seizes any chance they have to be imperialistic. It is the nature of nation-states that they expand at the expense of their neighbors. In our post-modern world, where borders are pretty much set, it is the nature of nation-states that they take advantage - usually economic - of other countries that are weaker than they. Just because Chad and Honduras aren't imperialistic doesn't mean they don't want to be. Look at the Sudan. They can't expand at the expense of their neighbors, so their rulers decided to kill people inside their own country.

The United States has been, since its inception, in a rather fortuitous position that allows it to be imperialistic. It was the only organized independent power on a continent, and therefore, when it was weakest (1781-1787, before the Constitution, but even prior to the Civil War), no one was in position to challenge and destroy it. Until the Spanish-American War, we were not concerned all that much with Europe, and therefore our imperialism went largely unnoticed, because it was directed against "lesser" people. Who gives a rat's ass about the Indians, right?

A quick look at American imperialism reveals that we're pretty good at it. Our first foray into world affairs was in the early nineteenth century, when Thomas Jefferson went to war with the state of the Barbary coast of North Africa. These various potentates - nominally under the control of the Ottoman sultan but in reality independent - harassed shipping lanes in the Mediterranean and demanded tribute from anyone using the waterways anywhere near them. John Adams paid the tribute to the rulers of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, but they got greedy in 1800 and increased their demands, and Jefferson decided to take action. The war, such as it was (Congress did not declare war against Algeria until 1815, after the War of 1812) is notable for giving us the line in the Marine hymn ("From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli" - we'll get to the first part of that later) and for giving the U.S. Armed Forces their first taste of action against a foreign foe. This is not really an imperialistic war, as we were defending ourselves against rapacious pirates, but it did establish that we were a relatively strong power, especially against non-European foes. The War of 1812, another action that cannot be considered "imperialistic," showed that we could at least hold our own against one of the two or three strongest countries in the world. You can find more on the Barbary War here, here, here, and here.

Even though we weren't involved in "foreign" wars, I don't know how anyone with even a passing knowledge of American history doesn't consider our wars against the Native Americans to be imperialistic in nature. Think about some groups of the past and how they are similar to us. The Turks came out of the Asian steppes into Anatolia and were organized tribally. One such tribe, the Ottomans, eventually conquered the Byzantine Empire. Why did the Ottomans do such a mean thing? They were stronger than the Byzantines, and their population explosion in the early thirteenth century meant they needed land. Their chieftains divided up the conquered land among the generals, who then distributed to their soldiers as they saw fit. The Ottomans eventually began raiding Christian settlements in the Balkans and taking children away to be raised Muslim as bodyguards of the sultan. These children formed the Janissaries, who eventually became powerful enough to topple sultans if they wanted to. The Mongols came out of the Asian steppes (the Asian steppes are apparently a horrid place to live, and everyone wants to leave) and dominated Asia and much of Europe. They famously killed everyone in a city that dared to oppose them and often piled skulls of their previous victims outside the new cities they besieged as a message. Why would they do such horrible things? They were looking for a better place to live than inner Mongolia, and they wanted wealth. Throughout history strong people have killed weaker people. Why would Americans be any different? Why would we kill all the Indians? What issue did we have with them? Well, the Proclamation line of 1763 hemmed the colonists in at a time when their population was booming. That didn't make them happy, and after independence, they naturally began to move west. The Indians had a smaller population and they were far too loosely organized to put up much of a fight. Add that to the fact that they were dying from all the weird diseases the Europeans brought with them and one wonders why it took the Americans so long to kill them off. People want space. Simple as that. If the Indians had slaughtered the settlers whenever they got off the boat, the history of this continent would have been a lot different. But the Indians in the seventeenth century had plenty of space. By the time they realized these stupid white-skins were encroaching on their land, it was too late.

In the eighteenth century, obviously, economic factors came into play. The United States was an organized governing body, and it needed revenues. The vast untapped wilderness of North America just sat there, with a bunch of "uncivilized" people wandering around using every little part of the buffalo. Of course the U.S. expanded westward! That's what nation-states do! In the 1840s, this became even more evident by two incidents: the Mexican-American War and the discovery of gold in California. The war, "Mr. Polk's War," was a blatant imperialistic land grab against a far weaker opponent. Mexicans fired the first shot, which allows us to claim it wasn't a war of aggression, but this was the United States flexing its muscle against an actual nation-state rather than disorganized Indians. True, it was a horribly corrupt, poorly run nation-state, but a "real" country nevertheless. Gold in California made the conquest of the territory in between even more inevitable. Again, economics come into play. Just as earlier chieftains (Osman, Genghis Khan and his successors, Tamerlane, Alexander the Great, Charlemagne) awarded land to their cadres, so to did the U.S. government award conquered land to their supporters. Every treaty the U.S. government signed with the Indians was broken, because other considerations - namely population growth and desire/need for land to support that growth - took precedence. In the 1930s, the Nazis went into foreign land and rounded up Jews and killed them. There is very little difference between what the Nazis did and what the United States did in the latter half of the nineteenth century. We took them away from their homes, transported them hundreds of miles to strange locations, and denied them the practice of their religion and the use of their language. There are a few differences, which is the saving grace of the U.S. I'll get to that, trust me. I'm certainly not saying the United States is as bad as the Nazi regime.

By the time of the Spanish-American War, the U.S. was strong enough to challenge a "traditional" European power, although the one they chose hadn't been relevant for centuries. This is another example of naked imperialism - despite claims to the contrary, Americans were jealous of the colonization of Africa and Asia by the British, French, and Germans and wanted their piece of the pie. Even back then Americans denied that they were imperialists, but actions speak louder than words. In the 1890s the U.S. annexed Hawaii in addition to the territories they seized from the Spanish. These additions to our expanding empire were done without the will of the people, whom we were supposedly going to "civilize," and led to insurrections in Hawaii and the Philippines that needed to be suppressed. If we were there to bring democracy, like we are in Iraq, why did we need to suppress the expression of the people's will? Quite the puzzler, I would say.

The twentieth century was interesting in that naked aggression fell out of favor as nation-states decided to become more "civilized" themselves and solve their disputes by yelling at each other and ruining each other economically rather than slaughtering each other. One of the interesting things that never comes up in discussing World War II is how anachronistic Hitler and his gang were. They were living in the past, trying to conquer lands when the age of conquest was coming to an end. Countries took a while to recognize this, but it's interesting to consider how Hitler could have succeeded if he had been able to adjust his thinking to a new paradigm. He wasn't the only one, of course - even today, some nation-states think they can go out and violate borders and conquer land, even though it's a poor way of doing business. But the twentieth century saw a new and more insidious form of imperialism, and this is where defenders of the U.S. get grumpy, because this form of imperialism is far more difficult to define and categorize. It is, of course, economic and even cultural imperialism. We can see this in the nineteenth century, but it was coupled with the more recognizable form of imperialism - one day there are no Americans on land, and the next day there are. But in the twentieth century, it became more of the norm.

Americans had already begun this practice in China in the late nineteenth century, and they intervened in Latin American politics several times early in the century, following the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. (A list of American intervention in Latin America can be found here.) As economic imperialism became the norm, Americans not only attempted to dominate Latin America, but Asia as well, especially the mess in Iran, which this book is partly about. When Bush talks about Islamic fundamentalists, he should consider what the United States did fifty years ago to promote it. Imperialism always has unintended consequences, and this intervention - mainly because of oil interests, the new lure for economic imperialism - may cost the U.S. far more than we gained from it. I don't want to excuse Muslim fundamentalists, but it is true that we forced a ruler on them who oppressed them and gave the ayatollahs leverage with the common people. It's frustrating, because our current Administration (as many others have done - I don't mean to single them out) doesn't consider consequences. They didn't when we went into Iraq, and they still aren't now that Iraq has become a mess.

This form of imperialism is difficult to quantify, and also difficult to document as simply "evil." I would argue that imperialism by itself has taken on negative connotations, but it doesn't have to, necessarily, be a bad thing. However, most people seem to think it is, which is why the U.S. denies being imperialistic. But this economic imperialism is far more difficult to point at and denounce. Is the Panama Canal a good thing or not? It brought an economy to Panama that didn't exist before, and that's probably a good thing, but it was a direct result of Roosevelt's imperialism. Are the Philippines better off now than they were under Spanish rule? I don't know. Are the Iraqis happier without Saddam and, let's face it, modern amenities (I just learned that there are no movie theaters in Iraq, which I found weird but Krys didn't, but I'm also talking about trash removal service and stuff like that)? Or do they want their dictator back because at least then they weren't in danger of getting blown up every day (disappearing into a prison, sure, but not getting blown up)? These are questions no one but historians seem to ask or answer, and especially not policy experts. But they are crucial to understanding our position in the world and how we interact with it. The Middle East has been a victim of imperialism for 500 years, ever since the Ottomans came in and swept away the Arab Caliphate. We shouldn't be surprised that the distrust of foreign powers is ingrained in them. The Second Amendment is ingrained in Americans to the extent that we defend someone's right to cruise around with assault rifles. How much more is this idea of foreign domination ingrained in the culture of the Middle East? Yet the Administration never thought about this.

I mentioned that the United States has a saving grace when it comes to imperialism, and this is the one thing that Donald Rumsfeld wants to stamp out: dissent. We slaughtered the Indians, sure, but there were plenty of people back in the day who thought what we were doing to the natives was horrific. They may have been patronizing, sure, but the point is that they stood up and wrote articles about the horrible treatment of the natives and how the U.S. had an obligation to be nicer to them. The same thing happened with slavery. There were critics of the First World War, too, to the extent that the government used sedition laws to crush dissent. Laws outlawing dissent in American history have been few and far between, however, and I would argue they are tolerated and then discarded for a few reasons. Republicans today like to invoke the repeal of habeas corpus laws by Abraham Lincoln as justification for similar laws in the war on terrorism, but the various laws the government has passed trampling all over the Constitution are different from the ones we have now. In every case prior to this, we had a discernible enemy and we had a tangible goal. In the Civil War, we were fighting the Confederate States of America and the goal of the war was to defeat them and restore the Union. And there was still dissent! Recently, we have not had a discernible enemy nor a tangible goal. Who are we fighting in Iraq? What is our purpose? To defeat "terrorism." You're kidding me. How will we know when we've won? Dissent is crucial in this and every other conflict that we fight, as it is when we're not at war. Something like the Nazi regime would be very difficult to bloom here, because in the 1930s in Germany, people would simply disappear in the night and everyone else was too scared to say anything. If Jews started disappearing from American towns, there would be such an uproar that the government would topple. Dissent keeps our government honest, at least to a degree. The American government has rarely been able to go off to war willy-nilly because everyone is always asking questions, and it forces them to justify their actions. If Rumsfeld is disappointed that there is grumpiness over the war, perhaps it's because people understand that this government has done a poor job selling the war because it's founded on quicksand.

This speech by Donald Rumsfeld disappoints me because he simply doesn't understand American history even as he admonishes us to remember it. He claimed the media has "misrepresented" his remarks. However, I'm not entirely sure what he's talking about, because we can read the speech itself. He does make some good points - if the senior editor at Newsweek did call America's armed forces a "mercenary army," then that's just dumb - but he does imply that those who think fighting the war in Iraq is wrong are as bad as those who wanted to appease Hitler. Rumsfeld ignores the many American industrialists who loved Hitler (not just Henry Ford) because they saw him as a bulwark against Stalin. He ignores the fact that most British had no problem with appeasement (most people simply focus of Neville Chamberlain). He mentions Winston Churchill, the hero of anyone who brings up appeasement. Churchill was a great leader, no doubt, but most people ignore that for forty years he was a crazed warmonger who wanted nothing more than to destroy Germany. He wanted to fight them long before World War I broke out and wanted to keep fighting them long after it ended. He wanted to fight in the Middle East once the Turks were weakened, and wanted to continue the Gallipoli campaign long after it became clear that the Allied forces were being butchered there. Churchill was an outcast for years because he loved war so much, and the British smartly got rid of him as soon as the war was won (sure, they brought him back, but he was too old to do any damage by then). So Rumsfeld can invoke Churchill all he wants, recognizing that Churchill didn't want to fight necessarily because he recognized the Nazis as being evil, but because he was a bully.

Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and George Bush need to understand that dissent is crucial to our democracy. They can be grumpy about it all they want, but they need to understand that in our society, it is absolutely essential that the government needs to justify their actions, unlike many governments in the world that rule by fear. No governing body likes dissent, because they obviously think they know best. Why would anyone have voted for them if they didn't? However, they need to realize that if they are going to do something that costs the lives of a few thousand Americans, they need to be able to have ironclad reasons for doing so. Right now, they don't. And that's their problem, not ours. Ours is to point out the holes in their reasoning. If the Bush Administration can't deal with that and can't come up with the right reasons for fighting, perhaps they should work on that rather than criticizing people exercising the rights that are enshrined in the Constitution.

[Update: Sigh. They still don't get it. Condoleezza Rice compares the war in Iraq to our Civil War. Condoleezza Rice, who bought shoes while New Orleans drowned, is playing the race card. They. Just. Don't. Get. It.]

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5 Comments:

Blogger Roger Owen Green said...

Very interesting! I agree with almost everything you wrote, except one sentence: "Until the Spanish-American War, we were not concerned all that much with Europe, and therefore our imperialism went largely unnoticed, because it was directed against "lesser" people." Sure we were concerned about Europe; that's what the Monroe Doctrine was all about, wasn't it - keeping the Americas for the Americas? But that's a quibble.
You are absolutely right about our schizophrenic nature: "Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just. And this be our motto, "In God is our Trust." So not only are we imperialistic, we are divinely DESTINED to go "from sea to shining sea".
I have to tell you, I no longer know exactly what "playing the race card" means, though, if your example is one. Generally, it's been used to explain indignities (real or perceived) of blacks or others. Your usage definitely puts a different spin on it.

5/9/06 9:51 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Roger, the Monroe Doctrine is concerned with Europe, but it says Stay Out. I meant we weren't concerned with delving into European affairs, either in Europe itself or in their colonial possessions. That's all.

As for playing the race card, I always figured it was calling attention to race for your own personal advantage. Rice ignored the plight of black people in the South in the aftermath of Katrina (and, to be fair, I'm not exactly sure what she SHOULD have done - she's the Secretary of State, after all), but when she can use black people to forward the war in Iraq, she draws parallels between slavery and the Iraqis. That's what I meant.

6/9/06 8:17 AM  
Blogger john sweet said...

Hmmmm... a mention of the Trail of Tears. I remember that from my 8th grade history book. One tiny paragraph. It's no longer mentioned as part of American history. Hell! I've met people who think we let the aboriginies of this continent come here from abroad and gave them some of our hard earned land to live on.

I have no heart for any of it any more. I hear the word "Islamofascist" dozens of times a day spoken by the same men who trample on the law books and the Constitution itself. I hear the tally of each parties war chest for the upcoming elections and yet there are still people who are being denied monies from the Katrina disaster. Large corporations cannot supply retirement benefits (or health benefits) to workers and force them to take pay cuts while CEOs and shareholders grow fatter than hogs. Christians bash Islam and like to point out how the Pope said he was sorry for all the killing, raping, torturing, cheating, and whatnot that had been done in his god's name in the past which makes them righteous.

And, then there is the problem with communication/labels/beliefs/perception. Are we imperialistic? Is this government fascist? What classes do we live in and what are the lines that mark their boundaries these days?

Just like histroy is written by the victors, the men who define what is meant by a term/word/phrase/label are the same who have the largest wallets and the power to make a good many people believe what they say is the only truth because of the seat in which they sit.

I don't know if I made much sense... government and the world makes little sense to me any more.

UncleMonster

6/9/06 10:19 AM  
Blogger Roger Owen Green said...

I was curiousd about how the term "race card" is defined (by Wikipedia): "Playing the race card is an allegation often raised against a person who the accuser feels has unnecessarily brought the issue of race or racism into a debate so as to obfuscate the truth. An allegation of playing the race card is almost always a controversial one."
Then, I think your "race card" definition is a little limited. Certainly, there are people who unnecessarily make racial victims out of some situations. Conversely, there IS institutional racism that lots of people don't understand or even acknowledge, and which does need to be brought to light. If that happens to advantage the bearer of the light, is that playing the race card?

7/9/06 6:51 AM  
Blogger Roxy said...

"...absolutely essential that the government needs to justify their actions, unlike many governments in the world that rule by fear."

Very nicely put. I feel like this is a very reasonable request. However, I also believe that this very simple request is the reason that so many people who are questioning anything are lumped into the "unpatriotic" category.

11/9/06 11:42 AM  

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