Noam Chomsky in his office, 1967

Liberal Imperialism, a classic definition

“Three years have passed since American intervention in a civil war in Vietnam was converted into a colonial war of the classic type. This was the decision of a liberal American administration. Like the earlier steps to enforce our will in Vietnam, it was taken with the support of leading political figures, intellectuals, and academic experts, many of whom now oppose the war because they do not believe that American repression can succeed in Vietnam and therefore urge, on pragmatic grounds, that we “take our stand” where the prospects are more hopeful. If the resistance in Vietnam were to collapse, if the situation were to revert to that of Thailand or Guatemala or Greece, where the forces of order, with our approval and assistance, are exercising a fair degree of control, then this opposition to the Vietnam war would also cease; in the words of one such spokesman, we might then ‘all be saluting the wisdom and statesmanship of the American government.’ If we are forced to liquidate this enterprise … the liberal ideologists will continue to urge that we organize and control as extensive a dominion as is feasible in what they take to be ‘our national interest’ and in the interest of the elements in other societies that we designate as fit to rule.

Noam Chomsky, Introduction to American Power and the New Mandarins, 1969.

The term liberal imperialism makes two distinctions: liberal imperialists are not radicals and are not always hawks. They accept exercising national power over other societies, whereas radical critics of war are simply against that goal, and the military mean of exercising it. Liberal imperialists make themselves against this or that war, precisely and only when the costs are too great, which boils down to when the resistance, abroad and at home, is too great. At the height of the Vietnam War, radical critic Noam Chomsky wrote a devastating moral challenge to the American public acceptance of their country’s power over others. He laments that his opposition to the war “ten or fifteen years too late” once American boots began to be on the ground in 1965, and not when the US military support began. He observes that “The war is simply an obscenity, a depraved act by weak and miserable men, including all of us, who have allowed it to go on and on with endless fury and destruction—all of us who would have remained silent had stability and order been secured.”

The war “plan” that wrecked Iraq

As someone who was watching the US government march to invade Iraq from the streets of San Francisco, and from countless antiwar events, giving more of an insider’s view has been both chilling and darkly fascinating. A big help is last summer’s PBS documentary, No End in Sight.

Strangely for me after watching the film last night, this morning’s New York Times covers one of the main hidden histories exposed by the documentary. Early on in the occupation, sometime in the month of May 2003, a few highly placed Defense Department officials decided to disband the Iraqi army, without so much as asking Secretary of State Powell, National Security Adviser Rice, or the U.S. Army.Plans to screen and reconstitute the force were pushed aside, and Iraqi officers offering help had to be ignored. The Army’s head of policy in Baghdad, John Hughes remebers:

Later, a battalion commander from the 101st Airborne came in—to see me, and he said, “Hey, sir, I’ve gotta talk to somebody, I’ve got a group of Iraqi generals and colonels that want to talk to somebody from ORHA.”

And they—over the course of the war, even before the war, had been removing computers and software —of personnel lists from the Ministry of Defense and storing them at their home, because they knew they were not going to win this war.

And they wanted to help reestablish the Iraqi military with the Americans.

Absolutely. And I took intelligence officials with me to meet with these men. And these guys were willing to—to explain or provide information on anything that they could.

They were saying to me, “Colonel Paul, Baghdad’s burning. You tell me, and I can have 10,000 military police ready for you next week.”

I took that back, nothing ever became of it.

We were also going to—take some Iraqi units and let them become the labor force for reconstructing Iraq. If you needed the rubble from a bridge cleared, they would do that. And there on the news one morning was the announcement that the Iraqi army had been disbanded and abolished by—Ambassador Bremer.

You want to talk about feeling like the ugly American, that’s what I was. You know, here I was, trying to work with these men, to help them rebuild their country, to—to bring their soldiers under some semblance of control. And instead, they’re told they’re not worth the time.

Just two months later, lines had been drawn, and another reality began to unfold:

Hussein Saber shook with fury as he lay on a dirty hospital bed last night and told the story of another day in Baghdad, a city torn apart by killings, misunderstanding and the startling failures of America’s military occupation.

Yesterday Hussein, 33, should have collected a $50 (£30) emergency payment which all Iraq’s now unemployed soldiers are due to receive. The money did not arrive and so he and hundreds of other frustrated young men poured towards the gates of the US-led authority to protest.

Within minutes he was shot in his right side by a young, nervous American soldier. Hussein survived but two other Iraqis standing next to him in the crowd were killed.

“I hoped and I wished that when the American forces came they would bring us democracy and freedom but unfortunately we have seen the opposite,” said Hussein, a non-commissioned officer in the air force for the past 18 years. “The Americans are going to get hurt if the situation remains as it is.” (Rory McCarthy, “Just another day in Baghdad,” The Guardian, June 19, 2003)

Normally, I’m cautious about getting too deep into debates among war planners. The argument usually turns into some idea that if only more competent people were in charge, everything would go smoothly. In the context of one country ruling over another country, such an outcome seems extraordinarily unlikely. However, it is people who strive to do their very best under whatever circumstances that leave behind the archive and their regrets, both of which help us understand how an enterprise like our new colonialism could ever have happened.

This news and a lot of details in the film raise a deeper question. Aside from proving that a high tech, high corporate profit, but smaller military without the bother of too many actual American citizens on the ground, did Rumsfeld and Bremer have plans of their own? Was leaving Iraq in chaos, whatever the motive, something they were consciously pushing their colleagues and superiors aside to do?