Lousy Imperialists, the U. S., and the World

Posted on September 10, 2021

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The post-mortems on the U. S. failure in Afghanistan presided over by President Joe Biden are everywhere—in the newspapers, magazines, television, social media, and probably even places I’ve only read or heard about, like Tik Tok. Let me give it a local spin.

When the Cuban-Spanish-American War of 1898 ended (new title for that war used these days to recognize the immense role that Cuban patriots themselves played in their war for independence) the U. S. acquired its first territories beyond North America. These included, among others, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, etc., and we almost took Cuba as well. They were all remnants of the old Spanish Empire.

American soldiers, lined up for inspection, 1898

Our Senator John Tyler Morgan of Selma, one of the most prominent members of the Senate, spoke out against it. His argument was interesting, and I think instructive. He basically said that the Cuban people were unprepared to live in a free and open society by the rules we invoked to govern ourselves. These dated from the eighteenth century when we fought the American Revolution and freed ourselves from the rule of the British king and parliament. The great American experiment in democracy and liberty, expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, demanded a strong discipline and self-control and it simply wasn’t available to the Cuban people governed by the autocratic Spaniards for over four centuries. Morgan was very much a follower of the dictum attributed to Benjamin Franklin on the nature of the new republic, “a republic, if you can keep it.”

A few Sundays ago, the WSJ featured a series of articles, which included their messages in their titles. Some were “A Mission Doomed by Contradictions,’ “Too Little Nation-Building, Too Late,” “Indifference to Ethnic and True Realities,” “Bureaucratic Routine and a Lack of Political Will,” “A War That Afghans Were Never Allowed to Own,” and “A Surreal Gap Between Rhetoric and Reality.” I’m sure the books are at this very moment being composed to come out in a few weeks or months as we struggle with how to live with failure, again. Think Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs, Cuba for a couple of other modern examples.

Stephen Walt captured the essence of the failure in his contribution to the WSJ pieces: “A Mission Doomed.” The U. S. failed in Afghanistan he wrote “for many reasons, but two head the list. First, the chosen mission—turning Afghanistan in a Western-style liberal democracy—wasn’t going to succeed no matter how long we stayed. Second, the policy makers and other military commanders who ran this campaign lied to themselves and the public about the progress being made and the prospects for success…truth was the first casualty.”[1]

I really can’t add much than to that, unless I were to expand this column into a book and supply the countless details to support the generalizations. I would add that for a Christian nation—us, although less and less so these days—to remake a Muslim people into a model fashioned as an expression of Christianity, that too was doomed to failure.

Old fashioned empires created in the past two or three centuries by the English, French, Dutch, and other European nations across the African and Asian continents failed in the end to replace Islam with Christianity and collapsed when the natural enmity between these two great proselytizing faiths clashed. Look up the Crusades for some historical evidence.

In the Spanish and Portuguese cases, or the Conquest of the New World in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Iberian Christian nations did not brook with the competing faiths of the native peoples. They were by and large eliminated or sublimated into Roman Catholicism, elements of Amerindian religions sometimes surviving as syncretic expressions of Catholicism, never compromising the centrality of Jesus Christ to any version invented from Cuba (Santeria) to Brazil (Candomblé).

 There were, of course, other factors at work: the imperialism and racism of the Europeans, their modern military expertise, they all contributed to the rise of colonialism and eventually its fall.

We came on the imperial scene late and had to crush an insurrection in the Philippines very early on in our experiment with empire in the early twentieth century. And today we just ended a tragic twenty-year presence in Afghanistan.

It may certainly be that Senator Morgan was right, plus he was an old-style racist who truly believed that the mixed racial Cuban population, long subordinated to authoritarian rule from Spain, simply was unprepared for exercising republican and democratic models of self-government.

Our experiment in Afghanistan in nation-building was no better thought out than other expressions of imperialism by the Americans in the past two centuries. The spread of communism provoked our reaction in Vietnam. The communists won the war, or did they? Who do the Vietnamese look to protect their interests, their vary nationhood? Beijing or Washington? Lordy, what a choice.

There was an unlovely phrase I remember from my days in the fleet. By the way, none of us out there on a U. S. warship were labeled “heroes.” We were just doing our service. But more perhaps on words and heroes later.

The phrase I’m remembering can be applied to the Biden administration’s handling of the American surrender in Afghanistan. Why and how did they do it? “They have s*** for brains.” It’s a little gross, perhaps trite, and far too short for a great breaking news analysis. But it works.


[1] WSJ, Review, Saturday/Sunday August 19-22, 2021, p. C1

Published as Lousy Imperialists, the U. S. and the World in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Aug. 5, 2021

Image of soldiers at attention for inspection, Cuban-Spanish-American War of 1898: https://images.search.yahoo.com/search/images?p=spanish+american+war+images&fr=mcafee&type=E211US1494G0&imgurl=https%3A%2F%2Fassets.rebelmouse.io%2FeyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTIzMDE0Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMDk3ODYwMX0.QxqEKUNq514rzH41Q8ti9rr9oqoYt1Odx110HsR9Epk%2Fimg.jpg%3Fwidth%3D1798%26coordinates%3D0%252C0%252C0%252C0%26height%3D1256#id=10&iurl=https%3A%2F%2Fassets.rebelmouse.io%2FeyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTIzMDE0Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMDk3ODYwMX0.QxqEKUNq514rzH41Q8ti9rr9oqoYt1Odx110HsR9Epk%2Fimg.jpg%3Fwidth%3D1798%26coordinates%3D0%252C0%252C0%252C0%26height%3D1256&action=click

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