Prof responds to the "C-word"
To the Editors:
I'm not sure why Todd Buell ("Compassionate Colonialism", October
19) thinks that the "c-word", as he puts it, isn't to be mentioned
in polite academic discourse. A quick search on Bowdoin's spiffy new Web
site yields about 30 hits on the word, and quite a few of them involve
course descriptions. It seems that we talk about colonialism quite a bit.
It's quite true that calls for a return to Western colonialism are rather
harder to find, but there may be good reasons for that.
Jonah Goldberg has been musing about 'compassionate colonialism' for
over a year now, well before September 11. He writes with a studied vagueness
about what he actually means, but it seems to involve the forcible takeover
of particular areas, followed by temporary American rule-dig some wells,
eradicate malaria, end hunger, accept the thanks of a grateful citizenry
and then out again, with the warm glow of a job well done.
African states have led his list of possible colonies, of course; Africa
is always the playground of choice for colonial fantasies, and it's a
truism of conservative theorizing that Africans can't rule themselves.
Apparently, he's now extended the idea to Afghanistan and Iraq.
For the most part, Goldberg's ideas are a sort of Colonialism Lite for
the twenty-first century. Consent of the governed is irrelevant and there
may have to be some preventive killing of Bad Guys, but it's all to be
good clean imperialism, done for the Native's Own Good. (Pith helmets
and pukka sahibs-it will, no doubt, make a good movie when suitably cleaned
up.) The problem is that such justifications have always accompanied colonial
adventures, and they very rarely play out in practice.
Look at America's own experience with protectorates: Haiti, the Dominican
Republic, Cuba, and the Philippines today hardly look like good advertisements
for such a strategy. The British and French did not seem notably satisfied
with the endings of their Age of Empire. Goldberg's favourite strategy
for colonial development-in good conservative form, he wants to grant
condominiums to multinational corporations-left 10 million people dead
in the Congo Free State and has proven one of the worst way to assist
regions in economic development.
Historical amnesia is perhaps not the safest state for approaching nation
building in Afghanistan and Iran. The modern relationships involved are
complex as well. Turkey, a NATO ally and the provider of vital bases for
American power projection, has a distinct interest in a crippled and chaotic
Iraq. Iran, Uzbekistan and Pakistan, America's new-found and rather tremulous
allies in Central Asia, share similar fears of a unified Afghanistan.
How are these countries going to perceive American engagement in a twenty-first
century version of colonialism on their borders?
It's nice, though mildly startling, to see an American conservative like
Goldberg advocate the spending of "...billions and billions of dollars..."
in amelioration of living conditions in poor areas of the world. However,
there seems a fundamental failure of imagination at work here in the assumption
that the only two options for America are to ignore the world outside
the frontiers, or to rule it.
Perhaps some alternative suggestions are in order? One such might involve a re-engagement with the United Nations and with the hard-won knowledge about peace-keeping that a number of countries have accumulated in the course of missions coordinated by that body. Another might involve genuine commitment to assist poor countries in the rehabilitation of their economies, without the primary impulse of Great Power game-playing or protection of banking systems. I think such engagements do rather more to help people in Afghanistan, Iraq, or different parts of Africa than do dreams of a new colonial age.
Why we can't attack Afghanistan
To the Editors:
If there's one thing that the anthrax scare has proven to me over the
last few weeks, it's that the American government's attack on Afghanistan
is, to put it simply, a silly idea. The silly part of it of course isn't
the whole eye-for-eye tooth-for-tooth kind of doctrine George W. and the
American people generally have been embracing regarding who is responsible
for the September 11 tragedy (Osama bin Laden) and "bringing him
to justice" (which I suppose means eventually killing him). If this
is justice, then let justice be done.
The silly part is the idea that George W. and the American people generally
have been clinging to the idea that somehow, some way, our bombing of
a distant Muslim-controlled country will fix everything and make us safe
again. That the war on terrorism is a war that we can win in the usual
way, by blowing stuff up and killing bad guys.
If there's anything these anthrax-contaminated letters, (almost all of
them postmarked from Trenton, New Jersey) should say to us Americans,
it's the following: the problem, our enemies, the proverbial bad guys,
are not hiding in a hollowed-out volcano in Afghanistan. Killing bad guys
in Afghanistan or Iraq or Palestine or any foreign country for that matter
will not fix the problem, because the problem is not foreign.
Both the September 11 attacks and the anthrax attacks came from within
U.S. borders. Both attacks seem to have been executed by, though there
is no real way to know right now with the anthrax, a small number of people.
And most importantly, both attacks were designed to hit American society
at its weakest point: So how can we adequately protect ourselves from
biological weapons in the mail without having a police officer in a gas
mask open every envelope before it gets to its destination? How can we
adequately protect ourselves from 19 hijackers armed with box cutters?
The plain answer to both these questions is that we can't. No matter
how many people we successfully kill in Afghanistan, no matter how much
we improve security at airports and at post offices, it won't be enough.
There are quite clearly enough people like bin Laden all over the world,
including Trenton, NJ, to make it nearly impossible to kill enough of
them to make ourselves completely safe; there will always be cracks in
our internal security, as long as we still have civil liberties, that
can be exploited.
The argument then that our bombing Afghanistan is necessary so we don't look like wimps, that it's necessary because to do nothing under these circumstances would be a travesty of justice may be perfectly true. I would hardly argue that a known murderer (of 6,000, no less) should be allowed to go unpunished, if only to maintain the rule of law. So, go ahead and get bin Laden. Go ahead and bomb the Taliban. Go ahead and do what you need to do to continue to be a respectable government. Say what you will about justice, Americans; but please, I beg you, don't trick yourselves into believing that killing bin Laden and removing the Taliban makes life any safer here in the United States.
Marshall R. Escamilla '02