the White Man’s Burden in Iraq
A Debate In The Anti-War Movement
by Ganesh Lal
May 1, 2003
The U.S. occupation of Iraq seems to have thrown at least some of the organized antiwar groups into disarray. Recently, a local campus antiwar group held a discussion to figure out the future of their coalition. At the meeting, a fierce debate emerged about the nature of the U.S. occupation, and whether activists in the coalition should call for an end to the occupation.
“The U.S. can’t pull out now—that would be irresponsible”
Many activists who opposed the war before it began have now taken up this argument. The assumption behind this position, of course, is that the U.S. can be relied on as a “responsible” force in the Middle East.
In one sense, this is true. The U.S. is certainly responsible for a whole lot in the Middle East, and it needs to be held accountable for its actions. The U.S. has been responsible for arming and funding the state of Israel, the only known nuclear power in the region. It has been responsible for supporting Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestinian lands. It has been responsible for the systematic trampling of human rights throughout the region through its unstinting support for dictatorial regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Turkey. It has been responsible for the genocidal sanctions on Iraq over the past decade, which, as is commonly acknowledged today, killed hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis. It has been responsible, in this war, for the slaughter of thousands of Iraqis. It has been responsible for littering the Iraqi countryside with highly toxic Depleted Uranium shells and with hundreds of cluster bombs which will continue to maim and kill innocent people.
So let’s start by holding the U.S. “responsible” for the crimes against humanity that it has committed, and seriously examine our own illusions about the benevolence of Uncle Sam.
“If we pull out now, there would be chaos in Iraq”
First, let’s be clear about one thing: the U.S. is the chief cause of the chaos. It is the U.S.-led war that produced the chaos. Entire cities like Basra and Baghdad plunged into darkness, without electricity, without water, for weeks. Schools and neighborhoods destroyed. National treasures in museums and libraries looted while U.S. troops fastidiously guarded the Ministry of Oil.
Second, there is little that distinguishes this argument from the notion of the “white man’s burden” which formed the ideological backbone of old-style colonialism. The fact that otherwise progressive-minded people buy this argument should come as no surprise either. After all, we are daily fed images of Arab men, women and children that represent them as irrational, if not hysterical. Iraqis today are either “looters” or Muslim “fanatics” (oh, look how they beat themselves into a frenzy during that weird festival of theirs). How can such people be relied on to rule themselves? Surely, we need to govern them because they are clearly incapable of governing themselves.
Peace activists who buy this argument would do well to read Thomas Friedman’s New York Times column of April 30, where he argues that Iraqis cannot be governed by an “iron finger” but only by an “iron fist.” Iraqis, he says, actually want this. If you are not horrified by the occupation itself, you should be horrified at being in the same camp as Friedman!
“But people are starving—shouldn’t the U.S. do something?”
Many of the aid organizations working in Iraq have repeatedly complained that the main obstacle to their work is precisely the occupation. In occupied Iraq, the U.S. military is insisting that aid organizations work with the troops to carry out relief work. But most aid organizations want to stay clear of the troops, and rightly so—they don’t want to be seen as working with the occupiers.
Furthermore, the fact remains that the U.S.’s record of humanitarianism is far from flattering. Take Afghanistan for instance. In his budget proposal this year, Bush didn’t ask for a single penny in funding for relief work in Afghanistan—Congress had to step in to provide a measly $300 million. The ground reality in Afghanistan is depressing, as millions continue to live in squalid refugee camps, and face the prospect of going hungry on a daily basis. The promised “rebuilding” of Afghanistan hasn’t happened (due in part, of course, to the fact that that war isn’t even finished yet).
If we are genuinely concerned about the plight of the Iraqi people, we must demand that the U.S. troops pull out now, and flood the country with food, medicine, and aid, with no strings attached. And this would not be an act of charity; rather, it would represent the war reparations that the U.S. owes the Iraqi people for the systematic destruction of their society.
“If the U.S. pulls out now, the region will be plunged into instability”
Again, the main cause of instability in the Middle East is the U.S. And the hawks in the Pentagon know this, which is why they recently agreed to a ceasefire with the Mujahedin Khalq, a group that it has till now considered a terrorist organization. This is why they are pulling out of Saudi Arabia and relocating their operations in Qatar.
Rest assured, the U.S. will certainly try to achieve “stability.” But stability for Washington comes at a high price for the ordinary men and women of the Middle East. “Stability” for the U.S. means puppet regimes, military dictatorships and repressive, undemocratic monarchies.
Such stability will rule out self-determination for the people of Iraq. It will rule out popular control of the oil resources of that nation. It would rule out genuine democracy, for as the Bush administration has often reminded us, democracy is contagious. A truly liberated Iraq poses a serious challenge to the “stability” imposed on the region by U.S. imperialism, as it would set an unsavoury example to the peoples of Egypt, of Syria, of Saudi Arabia, and, of course, Palestine.
Opposition to the New American Empire is incompatible with support for the occupation of Iraq. Rather than hoping that Uncle Sam will make things better, we will have to look to the power of ordinary Americans, acting in concert and in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in the Middle East. It is this solidarity that was on display on the streets of over 600 cities around the world on February 15; let’s not squander it by taking on the white man’s burden all over again.
Ganesh Lal is an activist in Greensboro, NC, and a regular contributor to Socialist Worker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in ZNET (www.zmag.org/weluser.htm)