Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The White Man's Burden?

"Take up the White Man's burden--
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain
To seek another's profit,
And work another's gain." - Rudyard Kipling

The Iraq war, just like other wars waged by Western powers, was commonly criticised for the loss of life on the side of the aggressors. The implication of this is that the only reason this war is "wrong" is because "our boys" are being killed by the "enemy". The war is fine, but the deaths of soldiers fighting on our side are not. Not only is this approach completely immoral in itself, it reinforces the ideological assumptions of Western "superiority" which presupposed the invasion of Iraq. Turning the West into a benevolent civilised power in the world and the rest of the world into a realm of savages that need to be contained and guided for their own good - the "White Man's Burden". Thus, George Bush's famous question "Why do they hate us when we're so good?" Of course, there are legitimate grievances behind terrorism that go back decades in the Middle East. But that's another matter unrelated to the invasion of Iraq.

From 1979 to 2003 Iraq was governed by Saddam Hussein and the Ba'ath Party, with the full support of the United States government right up until the mid 1990s. It was the neoconservatives, political allies of the oil industry and self-proclaimed "democratic revolutionaries", who had wanted to march on Baghdad since oil prices increased from $13 to $40 a barrel during the First Gulf War. It is these hawks who wanted the fall of the statue of Saddam Hussein, a great moment of optimism for many Iraqis, to become the indelible symbol of the invasion and the "moral basis" on which it was fought - bringing democracy and freedom to Iraq. But that is unlikely given the massive opposition to the war and occupation based on moral principles and an understanding of the historical context of the war.

Saddam Hussein seized power in 1979 by usurping the position of his cousin Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr and purging the Ba'ath party of all opposition - accusing his rivals of being involved in a plot with the Syrian regime to annex the Iraqi Republic. This was a time of great political upheaval in the Middle East, which had emerged from the Six Day War and the failures of Arab nationalism - the rise of a corrupt authoritarianism in Egypt for instance. From these social conditions sprouted Islamism, which was exemplified by the toppling of the Iranian dictatorship through revolution and the establishment of an Islamic Republic. Hussein had the full support of the US government as he presented himself as a counter-agent to the new regime in Tehran. It's likely that Hussein feared, as did the US, that the revolution could spread to Iraq and possibly other major oil-producers.

"Take up the White Man's burden--
The savage wars of peace--
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought." - Rudyard Kipling

Naturally, the military support provided by the US came at a massive human cost. The war between Iraq and Iran raged for a decade and left almost 1 million people dead on both sides. But the US government also turned a blind-eye to Saddam's domestic crimes - which they would later use to "justify" the invasion. In 1982 Saddam Hussein survived an assassination attempt as he visited the Shi'ite town Dujail. Around 400 people were detained following the attempt in Dujail, an unknown number of them were tortured and around 148 were later executed. The homes, buildings, orchards and farmland belonging to the convicted mere razed. The families of the convicted were exiled. The Hussein regime later launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Kurds, which began in 1986 and ended in 1989, while American politicians sat back and pretended to be oblivious.

In 1988 alone, in the poison gas attack on Halabja, 5,000 Kurds were killed and 11,000 were injured. That same year, around 182,000 Kurds were slaughtered in Northern Iraq. This was combined with a policy of "Arabization" in which Kurdish communities were torn apart by the state and poor Arabs were brought into Northern Iraq with the promise of cheap housing. Contrary to popular belief the US support for Saddam went on after the First Gulf War, which may mean their support of him had little to do with containment of Iran. There were several uprisings across Iraq, including one engineered by al-Qaeda, which were suppressed through the use of air-strikes that were authorised by the US in spite of a no-fly zone officially imposed over Iraq. The Clinton administration implemented further economic sanctions against Iraq which killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis through starvation whilst empowering the hold of Saddam Hussein over the population.
But it is not enough to simply condemn the crimes of Saddam Hussein and the Western powers that enabled his regime. If we just condemn and do not act, we reassert the notion that the West is "superior" in our all-powerful status in the world. Instead of Kipling's imperial "White Man's Burden" - that as superior beings we are obligated to "civilise" the uncivilised - we reassert this "superiority" by insisting on our guilt without acting to redeem ourselves and correct past injustices. So we apologise for our complicity in past crimes and then go on to turn a blind-eye to them once more. Take Jimmy Carter, regarded by some as a "heroic liberal" and is attacked as an anti-Semite, for his critique of Israeli foreign policy but throughout his term he did nothing to help oppressed peoples and actually supported genocide in East Timor. Thus, we must put a stop to imperialist wars or we are no better than the hawks who engineered them with such gusto.

Related Links:
Christopher Hitchens on the "Axis of Evil"
On War, Empire and Resistance - Tariq Ali
Bush in Babylon - Tariq Ali

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