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Paul Buchanan: The Neo-Colonial Fallacy

The Neo-Colonial Fallacy

By Paul G. Buchanan
16th September 2004

With the US presidential election campaign now entering the home stretch, the Bush administration has placed its bets on the issue of strong leadership and staying the course in Iraq and the War on Terror. It has little else positive to go on given the fragility of the US economic recovery and its seriously strained relations with many of its major allies. There is very little in the way of positive accomplishment to show the electorate except for the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Most polls show both foreign political elites as well as their respective constituencies overwhelmingly opposed to the President’s re-election. Yet in emphasising leadership in difficult times, the President’s campaign has managed to place the Democratic ticket on the defensive. This is due to a Republican campaign strategy that questions John Kerry’s Vietnam service record and activities as an anti-War leader upon his return from Indochina, his Senate career, and his vacillations on the Iraq War, and the very fact that foreigners do not like George W. Bush and prefer John Kerry. That, for the Republicans, is a sound basis on which to campaign.

In response, and belying accounts that he killed at least twenty enemy combatants during his time in Vietnam and returned home with shrapnel that he still carries in his thigh, Kerry has reacted more like a mouse than a warrior. He has let surrogates question the President’s obvious dodge of Vietnam War service rather than make it a counter-point in the campaign. His reasoning is that he must contrast his positive message and maintain the moral high ground against the attack dog antics of the Bush-Cheney campaign. He is afraid to embrace and explain why most of the world sees him as a better leader because it would play into the hands of the nationalist-chauvinist xenophobia that is the rallying ground for Republican vote-mongerers. As for Vietnam, many believe it would do no good to dwell on the matter in any event, as it is about a by-gone era. For others, however, reliving the Vietnam War via arguments about the candidate’s service records raises a larger point, which is the spectre of “another Vietnam” in Iraq, one that some pundits claim is a quagmire built upon lies, deception, flawed assumptions, faulty premises and a lack of planning.

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The trouble with these views is that they are too parochial, in that they are limited to recent US experience. Historical amnesia certainly afflicts many of the US public and more than a few of its politicians, but it is in their lack of comparative historical referents where the ignorance of the US political class truly shows. For the parallel to be drawn with Iraq does not come from the US experience in Vietnam. It comes from abroad, in the form of the colonial experiences of Europeans in the late twentieth century, or more recently, the neo-colonial disaster that is Russia’s occupation of Chechnya.

To be sure, the end of Francophone colonialism in Indochina paved the way for US intervention and eventual defeat at the hands of those who previously had put the French to the sword. But the US presence in Vietnam was never as a colonial overlord overseeing a national government and parasitic bureaucracy profiting from economic resources located within arbitrarily demarcated territorial boundaries. Towards the end it took on an appearance of such, and it certainly treated its allies in the South Vietnamese government as preferred colonial subjects, but the truth be told, the colonial war in Indochina was already lost by the time the US got significantly involved in the early 1960s. US intervention just delayed the inevitable.

In Iraq, however, the US role more closely resembles the French experience in Indochina and, more pertinently, in Algeria (where, among other things, urban guerrilla warfare using suicide bombings and terrorist tactics was initially perfected). It also parallels the Portuguese experience in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in Angola and Mozambique (where Theresa Heinz Kerry, wife of the Democratic presidential candidate, was born of Portuguese parents). In each of these cases, the colonial power attempted to create a national government in its image, failed to do so, over-stayed its welcome in the face of demands for its withdrawal and national autonomy, held on far too long in a prolonged war of attrition with guerrilla forces that had external assistance and local sympathy, suffered enormous losses of men and material in what became a huge drain of resources on the national budget, and eventually was forced to retreat without significantly influencing the composition of the succeeding government. To the contrary, in both Lusophone Africa, Algeria and Vietnam, the regimes that emerged from the anti-colonial wars were, not surprisingly, quite hostile towards their former masters.

Although the Bush administration disavows imperialist pretensions and prefers to call its presence in Iraq liberation rather than occupation, the situation on the ground suggests otherwise. Ignoring the advice of its own experts from the National Endowment for Democracy as well as outside advisors in Middle Eastern affairs and democratic governance, the US installed in Iraq what amounts to a hand picked surrogate government with little independent local support. It controls Iraq’s economic affairs, including reconstruction efforts and petroleum production, via a host of US companies that received preferential treatment (including no-bid contracts) from the occupying authorities and officials in Washington. The US provides the bulk of security, such as it is, with a hundred thousand troops on the ground, hundreds of private contractors providing protection to economic and diplomatic interests, and training for Iraqi security personnel. The US embassy has a dominant say in Iraqi foreign relations and on public administration appointments. Through its surrogates, it attempts to control the flow of communications to and from the country. Thus, although they are pleased to see Saddam and his henchmen gone, most Iraqis are not free to move or speak at will, much less be represented by the authorities the US has chosen for them.

Instead, many are organised into guerrilla armies that increasingly control large swathes of Iraqi territory. Control of territory is the second of three phases in guerrilla warfare, indicating that the resistance forces are slowly gaining the upper hand against the forces of the (increasingly diminishing) “Coalition of the Willing.” The Sunni Triangle is essentially outside of US control, as are the Shiia strongholds of Najaf and Sadr City. Iran continues to pour its agents and supplies into the Shiia resitance, and jihadis of a variety of nationalities fight alongside former Baathists in the Sunni-controlled “no-go” zones. Arab nationalism and Islamicist hatred have combined to fuel the guerrilla war, which is spreading rather than diminishing. US killed in action number more than 1000 in the 18 months since the invasion, an average of 1.5 per day, making it the costliest US conflict, in human terms, since Vietnam.

This causality count is the bottom line in any war of attrition, because as a slow death by a thousand cuts, so long as things continue apace the outcome is weighed in the resistance’s favour. Regardless of how many Iraqi’s die (which we can assume will be vastly more than US casualties), a threshold of toleration will be reached where the US public will withdraw majority support for the occupation because the costs are seen to outweigh any benefits to be achieved. So far, the issue of benefits appears to be more wishful thinking by a few Pentagon hawks rather than something achievable in the foreseeable future.

Yet the President and his advisors claim that his leadership is vital to winning the War on Terror, and that staying the course in Iraq is the only option less chaos ensue. After all, as Texans say, you don’t go switching horses in the middle of a rodeo. Without the Texas twist, such was exactly the type of rationale used by the French and Portuguese to justify hanging on to their colonial possessions. The issue became more about saving face than saving lives, of appearing tough rather than appearing diplomatic, of not giving in to external pressure once a course of action was set, of not admitting, and then compounding mistakes. And ultimately, about losing and how to exit with grace. Neither the French nor Portuguese exited their insurgent colonies gracefully.

Instead, the French and Portuguese governments that pursued these respective colonial end games fell from power (in the Portuguese instance, by force). Although regime change in the US will not occur as a result of the Iraq fiasco, and even immediate government change may be staved off by demagogic appeals to patriotism and nationalist ideals, the historical record clearly shows that the neo-colonial gambit is a very risky one for the US even if it is a source of campaign support for Republicans. For the Bush administration, the issue is about trying to maintain office so as to get four more years to rectify the situation by finding an exit strategy or leaving the problem to its successor while attending to the domestic agenda. Democratisation of the Middle East and promoting freedom, the often-heralded goals of the Iraq invasion, are now out of the question. Not making things worse is the new bottom line, and even that objective appears to be in trouble. And yet John Kerry appears powerless to identify and challenge the flaws in the administration’s logic, much less offer a viable alternative. He too suffers from the neo-colonialist mentality, although at least his recognises the need for international cooperation on global security issues.

Regardless of the relative merits of their Vietnam service records, with regards to the US presidential candidates, the issue may be summarised in two question: are we safer today than we were on the day George W. Bush took office? Will having four more years of him improve on the situation we live in today? Recent European colonial history suggests not, and for that reason alone, the lesser evil approach to the US presidential election may be the only viable alternative.


Paul G. Buchanan is a Visiting fellow at the Portuguese Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Lisbon. He teaches at the University of Auckland.

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