Western colonialism and imperialism from Algeria to the Arab Spring

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Frantz Fanon

When I search for Man in the technique and the style of Europe, I see only a succession of negations of man, and an avalanche of murders.

Frantz Fanon

Frantz Fanon died in 1961, but his analysis of European and Western colonialism, its brutality and the dehumanising impact on its victims, forging psychological chains of oppression and self-hatred that can only be broken via a “murderous and decisive struggle” against the coloniser, remains apposite over five decades after it first appeared in his classic work The Wretched of the Earth.[i]

Fanon wrote the book in the midst of the epic struggle for national liberation that was being waged by the Algerian people against their French colonial masters, pitting the might of a first world European power against a poorly armed but popularly supported anti-colonialist insurgency. It was a fierce and bitter conflict lasting eight long years between 1954 and 1962. Ultimately, the Algerian people’s desire for national liberation proved stronger than France’s ability to retain a North African colony it had possessed since the 1830s. By the time the war ended, marked by French President Charles De Gaulle’s pronouncement that the Algerian people had the right to determine their own future, 1.5 million people had perished, the vast majority of them Algerian.[ii]

It was the same desire for national liberation that saw the Vietnamese rise up against first Japanese, then French, and finally US imperialism in the most prolonged anticolonial struggle of the 20th century. As with the Algerian people the Vietnamese emerged victorious, dispelling the racist characterisation of them as a lesser people of a lesser culture and civilisation, along with the seeming invincibility of their putative imperialist masters whose worldview was and still us underpinned not by democracy but white supremacy.

In chaotic scenes broadcast across the world, the end came with a frenzied helicopter evacuation of US diplomatic personnel and their families, along with a select number of Vietnamese collaborators, from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon.

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Evacuation of the US Embassy in Saigon in 1975

The impact of the Vietnam War on US foreign policy in the years following proved significant. Not until the First Gulf War against Iraq in early 1991, unleashed in response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, did the US embark on another major military conflict overseas. Even then it was couched in the context of an international coalition.

For a period of sixteen years from the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 to the First Gulf War of 1991, US hard power was deployed around the world in a series of limited and small military engagements (Lebanon 1982–84, Grenada 1983, Panama 1989–90, Somalia 1992–93), or by proxy(Afghanistan 1979–89, Central America 1979–83). These were combined with limited airstrikes here and there, most famously Libya in 1986 in response to Colonel Gaddafi’s alleged involvement in the bombing of a German discotheque in which two American soldiers were killed.[iii]

Of the aforementioned series of limited military operations, Lebanon and Somalia exposed the limitations of US hard power. In the former example, a 1983 suicide bomb attack on a US military barracks in Beirut killed 241 US service personnel, including 220 Marines, while 58 French troops, part of the same multinational peacekeeping force, were killed in a separate attack.[iv]

Operation Restore Hopein Somalia, meanwhile, involved the deployment of 25,000 US soldiers and Marines to the war torn West African country as part of a UN mission to secure emergency UN food supplies to a civilian population caught between warring factions. Mission creep saw it morph into Operation Gothic Serpent between August and October 1993, undertaken with the objective of apprehending and arresting local militia leader Mohamad Farrah Aidid. It culminated in the Battle of Mogadishu, during which a task force of US elite and special forces troops clashed with pro-Aidid militia fighters in the city on 3–4 October.[v]

Two US Black Hawk helicopters were shot down during a battle that resulted in US casualties of eighteen dead and seventy-three wounded. The battle was later immortalised in one of the most overt examples of imperialist propaganda ever to appear on the silver screen in the shape of the movie Black Hawk Down.

Digressing for a moment, such movies have long paid a crucial role in shaping consensus when it comes to the myth of the American hero, rooted in white supremacy, going all the way back to the country’s origins. We are talking an ignoble Hollywood pantheon that counts among its number the movies Stagecoach, The Alamo, Iwo Jima, and The Green Berets, with Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper coming after.Each is notable for a racist essentialisation of the so-called ‘bad guys’, reduced to a one-dimensional depiction of people of an inferior culture, race and/or religion.

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Still image from Black Hawk Down, produced in 2001

The prospect of a large scale US military deployment was unthinkable in the years following the nation’s ignominious defeat in Vietnam and the social convulsions which scarred American society by the time it ended. The deep antipathy of growing numbers of people to the war in Indochina, and towards a political and military establishment deemed to have blood on its hands, produced to a near revolt of the troops in the field- a disproportionate number of whom wereblackand Hispanic from low incomeurban communities, along with poor whites from the Midwest and Deep South.

Vietnam was indeed a classic example of the ‘rich man’s war poor man’s fight’ mantra of the US Civil War, and its ramifications made it impossible for any administration to embark on anything like it again for years to come. In fact, so deeply entrenched was this reluctance to embark on large-scale military operations after Vietnam — fearful of incurring the wrath of a public that remained distrustful of Washington– commentators and political analysts began referring to it as the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’.[vii]

Gerald Ford, who after assuming the presidency in the wake of Nixon’s resignation over the Watergate scandal in 1974 pulled all remaining US troops and military personnel out of Vietnam in 1975, addressed the deep cynicism and polarising effects of the war on the American people during his address to a joint session of Congress on 10 April of the same year. To wit:

Ford, it should be noted, did not deign in his address to touch upon the wounds that had been inflicted on the Vietnamese people, who’d been deemed untermenschen existing beyond the circle of human worth.

Following the Ford administration, the Carter administration presided over one of the most pronounced US foreign policy successes since the Second World with the 1978 Camp David Accords, forging peace between Israel, led at the time led by the notorious Menachim Begin, and Egypt, led by Gamel Abdul Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat. The Accords brought the curtain down on decades of enmity between both countries, along with the blanket Arab diplomatic and economic boycott of Israel, a state that more than any other has been a destabilising factor in the region and continues to be a source of polarisation.[ix]

Flush with this foreign policy triumph, Jimmy Carter — dismissed by his detractors as a Georgian peanut farmer — proceeded to blunder into one of the worst US foreign policy disasters of the postwar era when, the following year, Washington’s placeman in Tehran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, better known as the Shah, was toppled by a popular revolution. Inspired by a hitherto obscure Shiite cleric living in exile, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the fact that the Islamic Revolution took both Washington and its puppet Pahlavi regime by surprise was evidence of the extent to which both had become detached from reality.

The Shah’s notorious secret police and intelligence service, Savak, had earned a reputation for brutality that was unmatched in a region peppered with brutal secret police and intelligence services, crushing any and all dissent with an iron fist. Untold thousands disappeared into the Shah’s torture chambers never to re-emerge, while the Shah himself, propped up by US largesse, spared no opportunity to wallow in the kind of ostentation, grandeur and vulgarity associated with potentates of antiquity.[x]

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Mohammad Reza Pahvlavi, the Shah of Iran, prior to being deposed during the Iranian Revolution in 1979

Iranians never forgot or forgave the Shah and his American backers for the coup that toppled the country’s nationalist prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, in 1953, when he moved to end decades of British control over Iran’s oil by nationalising it. Fearing the country could fall under the influence of the Soviets, the Eisenhower administration, acting in conjunction with Churchill’s conservative government, authorised the CIA to embark on a mission to overthrow Mossadegh in concert its British MI6 counterpart. In this they were successful, able to exploit the growing economic pressure of a British worldwide boycott of Iranian oil to foment unrest with the support of royalist military officers and hardline clerics, fearful of Mossadegh’s left wing views as they succumbed to US inspired anti-communist propaganda.

The resulting coup was carried out under the name Operation Ajax.[xi]

The aforementioned Vietnam Syndrome, then, neutered Washington’s ability to project hard power via large-scale military actions in the wake of the country’s ignominious military defeat in Vietnam. And so deeply entrenched was this ‘syndrome’ it was not, as we have seen, laid to rest until the First Gulf War of 1991, which was unleashed in response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.

Prior to mounting the invasion ofhis Kuwaiti neighbour, Saddam had led Iraq into a brutal and bloody conflict with the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran in 1980, at a cost of two million dead over eight years, with millions more injured and maimed and Iraq’s economy decimated. The Iraqi leader had gone to war with the blessing of Washington, hopeful of using Saddam to, if not crush, at least cripple the anti-Israel and anti-Saudi Shia behemoth in its nascent stages after coming to power.

Upon entering the White House in 1980 the Reagan administration embarked on a policy of isolating, weakening, and doing whatever it could to undermine the influence of the newly installed Islamic Republic. Itwas supported in this objective by its remaining allies in the region– Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan — who likewise feared the spread of Iranian/Shiainfluence and power. Saddam, meanwhile, was intent on establishing himself as a pan-Arab leader in the mold of Nasser, intent on using Washington’s dread-fear of the Islamic Republic across Iraq’s border to be able to do so unopposed.

The story of his demise is by now well known. Based on what he thought was a green light from then US ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, during their now infamous meeting in Baghdad on 25 July 1990, the Iraqi president embarked on the military invasionof Kuwait across Iraq’ssouthern border in response to a dispute over oil production quotas andKuwaiti demands for the immediate repayment of billions ofdollars the Gulf State had provided to Saddam by way of loans to help finance his war with Iran.

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The Highway of Death: slaughter of Iraqi forces retreating from Kuwait in 1991

The resulting First Gulf War ensued under the typically euphemistic name: Operation Desert Storm. It brought together an unprecedented international coalition, which included the armed forces of regional Arab and Muslim states, to force the ejection of Iraqi forces from theGulf state. Saddam had overplayed his hand, grievously misjudging his ability to act unilaterally, and paid a heavy price. At a time when the Soviet Union had embarked on the steep decline that would culminate in its demise in 1991, the projection of hard power in the Middle East was a right bestowed by Washington and Washington alone, with Israel treated as a special case for historic and geostrategic reasons well known.

Even so, the grand coalition brought together to eject the Iraqi dictator from Kuwait would not have remained intact if the military objectives had included regime change in Baghdad. In this regard, Iraq’s Kurd and Shia populations made the mistake of trusting a US pledge to support an uprising against the Baath Party once Iraqi forces had been driven out of Kuwait. Allowed to retain the use of military helicopters and tanks under the terms of surrender signed at the end of Desert Storm, the Iraqi government proceeded to crush the short-livedShiiterebellion in the south of the country by and mounted an assault against the Kurds in the north, precipitating a refugee crisis.

It would not be for another decade, after the infamous events of 9/11, that Saddam would face his final reckoning for daring to challenge Washington’s writ. Unlike his father’s administration in 1991, in 2003 George W Bush and his administration were quick out of the blocks with moves to effect regime change in Baghdad in the wake of the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, using 9/11 as a pretext.[xii]

It was confirmation that national sovereignty for countries such as Iraq post 9/11 exist as a gift of Washington to bestow rather than the inviolable right of all peoples and nation states, per the UN Charter of 1945.[xiii]

The disaster that befell the Iraqi people as a result of the war unleashed on the country by the US and its loyal British junior partner in March 2003 is now a matter of record. According to credible sources, up to a million people perished with millions more maimed and/or forced from their homes.[xiv]

Iraq’s infrastructure was decimated, its civil society destroyed, and the country was rent along sectarian lines with terrorist attacks occurring on a regular basis thereafter and right up to time of writing, fourteen years later. At time of writing these wordsover a decade on, it remains a society mired in chaos and sectarian strife.

It is important to point out that in the thirteen years between the First and Second Gulf Wars the Iraqi people were subjected to the most rigid and punitive economic sanctions ever imposed. The pristine indifference to the human suffering they resulted in was most infamously revealed by US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright in 1996. During an interview with Lesley Stahl on the US current affairs show 60 Minutes, Stahl asked Albright about the impact of the sanctions on the Iraqi people, specifically children.

Stahl: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

Albright:I think this is a very hard choice, but the price…we think the price is worth it.[xv]

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Madeleine Albright: US Secretary of State 1997–2001

A semblance of honour and humanity was preserved in Washington by a bipartisan group of congressman and legislators who publicly condemned the sanctions, calling for them to be lifted due to the inordinate suffering they were inflicting on ordinary Iraqis. The group’s spokesman, Michigan Democrat David Bonior, spoke for right thinking humanity when he described the US-led UN sanctions as “infanticide masquerading as policy.”[xvi]

As if to compound a policy driven by the desire to effect the wholesale destruction of an entire country — one that called to mind Rome’s annihilation of Carthage in 146 BC — no-fly zones were introduced covering northern and southern Iraq. They were implemented without the imprimatur or inconvenience of a UN Security Council Resolution, and were enforced by the Americans and the British in a stark reminder of what the ‘end of history’ would entail for recalcitrant governments and nations that dare defy the writ of Washington (the new Rome) in light of the demise of the Soviet Union.[xvii]

The small Caribbean nation of Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, also experienced the full weight of the new unipolar reality in this period. In 2004 the country’s elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, was forcibly removed from power by French troops with US support. He was airlifted out of Haiti and dumped in the Central African Republic, joining a long line of black leaders regarded and treated with contempt by the white colonial powers over centuries.[xviii]

Haiti is a country that has never been forgiven for their temerity in freeing themselves from slavery, instead of waiting for ‘whitey’ to do it for them under its terms in the accustomed style. The conventional wisdom is that William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln ended slavery, when in truth it was Toussaint Louverture and his Black Jacobins who sounded the death knell of this vile trade in African flesh.[xix]

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left NATO bereft of purpose as the defender of Western Europe from the ‘Evil Empire’, a suitably Reaganite formulation with its cartoonish B-movie connotations. Washington’s concern now was to ensure the continued isolation of Russia from the rest of Europe in service to the needs of US capital accumulation, what with the prospect of a unified Germany gaining from the opening up of new markets in Eastern Europe. NATO’s relevancy and continued purpose was affirmed with its role in the break-up of Yugoslavia, again without the inconvenience of UN authorisation, the last socialist state and economy left in the heart of Europe, which for obvious reasons could not conceivably be allowed to survive.

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Collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. End of an empire? Or end of the counterweight to the Empire?

This multiethnic state had succeeded under Tito’s leadership in navigating the perilous waters of the rival superpower blocs in the postwar decades, playing a key role in the formation of Non-Aligned movement of nations in 1961 — along with Indonesia under Sukarno, Nasser’s Egypt, Nehru of India, and Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah.

Tito’s death in 1980 was not the primary reason for Yugoslavia’s lapse into ethnocentric strife and civil conflict, as those with a penchant for reducing seismic social, economic, and geopolitical events and crises to the fortunes of individual leaders, rather than understanding the role of said events responsible for shaping the fortunes of those leaders, would have us believe. On the contrary, the collapse of Yugoslavia, its descent into the ugly swamp of ethnic conflict, came as a result of economic dislocation connected to the sharp fluctuations of a global economic system established on free market principles, leading to a political crisis that was exploited by Washington and Bonn in the interests of the expansion of free market capitalism, with its non-negotiable reliance on securing new markets and sources of raw materials.[xx]

Writing on the issue of Washington’s fear of an independent Europe emerging in the wake of the demise of the Soviet bloc, in the context of NATO’s air war against the Serbs in 1999, Peter Gowan insightfully observes that

Author Diana Johnstone reminds us of the centrality of oil in Washington’s strategic calculations and actions. In the case of the former Yugoslavia it was the oil located in the Caspian Sea that was the prize. She also reminds us of a US desire to

Perhaps even more important than economic motives when it came to Washington’s intervention in the Balkans in 1999 was the motive of asserting a continuing role for NATO in post-Soviet and Warsaw Pact Europe.

As Tariq Ali writes,

Before we leave events in the former Yugoslavia behind, it bears emphasising that the much maligned Serb leader, Slobodan Milosevic, was ultimately exonerated of the charge of genocide brought against him at the International Criminal Trial for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in March 2016, a full decade after he died of a heart attack while in custody during his trial in The Hague.[xxiv]

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Aftermath of NATO airstrike in Serbia in 1999

Milosevic’s exoneration was included as part of the court’s judgment in the case of Radovan Karadžić.

Thus the calumny levelled against Milosevic, roundly described as a new Hitler, tyrant, butcher, etc., belongs to the tradition of leaders of countries that refuse to bend the knee to Washington’s writ and who are traduced and demonised in consequence.

When it came to the Middle East after 9/11, the idea that Western liberal democracy could be forced on the region regardless of its history, state of economic development, and cultural specificities,was exposed as a product of gross mendacity and ignorance. Despite the declared and official motives proclaimed by George W Bush and Tony Blair, the military power unleashed against Iraq was not with the primary objective of liberating people living under the iron heel of dictatorship. If so, why not also liberate the people of Saudi Arabia from the most repressive and barbaric regime not just in the Middle East but arguably the world?[xxv] Moreover, such liberal valuesof freedom and human rightshad materially supported Israel’s decades-long occupation, expropriation, and brutal repression of the Palestinians.

History instructs us that dictatorship has never been a problem for Western ideologues. Instead all that matters is whether the dictatorship in question is both willing and able to uphold US/Western economic and strategic interests in a given region or country. If it is and does, it will be rewarded with trade, aid and diplomatic protection. If not it will be maligned, isolated and in the last analysis subverted from within by proxy or without via sanctions, economic embargo and, as we have seen vis-à-vis Iraq and Libya, direct military intervention.

But if the war and occupation of Iraq, following 9/11, was designed to usher in a new period of Western imposed stability in a region whose contradictions had never been far from the surface over the close to one hundred years the West had regarded it as its possession, the hubris driving this belief was about to be swept away in an uprising that would take not only the West but also the entire world unawares.

The peoples of the Arab world were about to enter the stage of history in their own right,after decades spent politically infantilised.

[i]Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, (Penguin, 2001).

[ii]See https://www.britannica.com/event/Algerian-War.

[iii]See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/1653848.stm.

[iv]See http://edition.cnn.com/2013/06/13/world/meast/beirut-marine-barracks-bombing-fast-facts/.

[v]See http://www.npr.org/2013/10/05/229561805/what-a-downed-black-hawk-in-somalia-taught-america.

[vi]I wrote a review of American Sniperwhen it came out. See http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/john-wight/american-sniper_b_6521090.html.

[vii]Renowned filmmaker Oliver Stone served in Vietnam and touches on the phenomenon of ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ in his documentary series and accompanying book, The Untold History of the United States. Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, TheUntold History of the United States, (Ebury, 2012), pp. 434–438.

[viii]Gerald R Ford, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume XXXVIII: Part 1, p. 294.

[ix]For an expansive history and account of Camp David, see Patrick Tyler, A World ofTrouble, (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2009), pp. 201–209.

[x]The celebrations organised to commemorate the Shah’s thirtieth year in power are a prime example of the vulgarity of his reign. See Robert Fisk, The Great War forCivilisation, (Fourth Estate, 2005), pp. 122–123.

[xi]Ibid., pp. 112–169.

[xii]Tariq Ali has written an excellent historical analysis placing the 2003 war and occupation of Iraq into its proper geopolitical and strategic context. See Tarqi Ali, The Clash of Fundamentalisms, (Verso, 2002). For a deeper insight into the ideological underpinnings of neoconservatism relative to Iraq, see Michael MacDonald, Overreach: Delusions of Regime Change in Iraq, (Harvard, 2014).

[xiii]Charter of the United Nations, http://www.un.org/en/charter-united-nations/index.html, Chapter 1: Purposes and Principles, Article 2.

[xiv]Differing estimates of the death toll in Iraq as a result of the initial war and the insurgency which followed have come from a variety of sources. For the Lancet’s work on the subject, see http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(06)69491-9/abstract. For some useful background on the different sources and estimates of body count, see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/mar/19/iraq.

[xv]See http://fair.org/extra/we-think-the-price-is-worth-it/.

[xvi]See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/646783.stm.

[xvii]Robert Fisk artfully reveals the real motives and illegality of the no-fly zones overIraq, along with the weapons inspections, in his magisterial The Great War for Civilisation, (Fourth Estate, 2005), pp. 881–920.

[xviii]See http://www.lrb.co.uk/v26/n08/paul-farmer/who-removed-aristide.

[xix]The classic account of the Hatian slave revolt by CLR James has never been equaled. See CLR James, The Black Jacobins, (Penguin, 2001).

[xx]I have previously written about the underlying reasons behind the break-up of Yugoslavia and the economic reasons it happened, along with the West and NATO’s role in creating the crisis. See http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/john-wight/the-breakup-of-yugoslavia_b_5025801.html.

[xxi]Peter Gowan, Masters of the Universe? NATO’s Balkan Crusade, edited by Tariq Ali, (Verso, 2000), p. 29.

[xxii]Ibid., p. 160.

[xxiii]Ibid., p. 351.

[xxiv]See http://www.icty.org/x/cases/karadzic/tjug/en/160324_judgement.pdf.

[xxv]https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/middle-east-and-north-africa/saudi-arabia/.

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