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Gail M. Presbey

Mahmood Mamdani's Analysis of Colonialism
Applied to the U.S.-led War on Iraq


The paper explores the insights of Mahmood Mamdani regarding recent U.S. military actions in Iraq and the U.S. role in setting up a new government there. The majority of the paper does not, however, rely on sources of Mamdani addressing this topic directly. Rather the author consults Mamdani's work on colonialism and imperialism to find clues as to what is at heart wrong with the colonial approach to ruling. Four key attributes of colonialism that also play a role in recent U.S. actions in Iraq are the use of indirect rule, the politicization of indigeneity, economic domination, and the »civilizing mission.« While some advocates of imperialism such as Niall Ferguson think that there can be a good imperial power, Mamdani's analysis leads to a different conclusion. In Mamdani's early works we find that colonialism always sows the seeds of its own destruction; this insight is applied to the current Iraq situation as a cautionary tale. 1


1. Introduction

1 Mahmood Mamdani's exploration of neocolonialism in the African context sheds light on current U.S. military actions. 2 The linkage between neocolonialism and U.S. international policy has been made by Mamdani himself in news commentaries and speeches. In this paper, in addition to a recent speech (Mamdani 2003) I draw on his earlier works regarding Africa and extrapolate on their application to the recent »preventive« or »pre-emptive« war against Iraq. This paper will argue that the U.S. government has in the past, and continues today, to use the same tactics of control used by European powers during colonial rule of Africa. Since a neocolonial relationship is not the ideal for both ethical and practical reasons, this course of action is wrong-headed and should be changed.
2 The paper will proceed as follows. First comes a discussion of terminology used, particularly the distinction between colonialism and imperialism. Second is a brief history of U.S. colonialism and neo-colonialism, drawing upon Mamdani, Howard Zinn, and others such as Niall Ferguson (an advocate of imperialism). Third, we will entertain the question, is colonialism a good thing? Might it be especially needed in these troubled times? We'll look at Ferguson and others who advocate a strong role for the U.S. in bringing »peace and justice« to the troubled spots of the world, and point out the flaws in this argument. Fourth, we will look at Mamdani's early works to find four key attributes of colonialism that play a role in recent U.S. actions in Iraq: the use of indirect rule, the politicization of indigeneity, economic domination, and the »civilizing mission«. Mamdani's insights into the ways in which colonialism always sows the seeds of its own destruction will be explained, and applied to the current situation as a cautionary tale.

2. Terminology

3 What is the difference between »colonialism« and »imperialism«? Even dictionaries and encyclopedias suggest that the words have an overlap in meaning. To the extent there is a perceived difference, it could be said (as, for this example, in the Academic American Encyclopedia) that colonialism is usually associated with economic activity. For example, the British, Dutch, and French East India companies set up operations overseas long before any government tried to directly conquer and rule the territory in which they operated. In contrast, descriptions of imperialism emphasize direct annexing of territory by nation-states.
4 Complicating matters are the uses of terms post-colonial, neo-colonial, and neo-imperial. The emphasis on »post« in »post-colonial« suggests that colonialism is over. This point has been disputed by Lewis Gordon who prefers the term »neo-colonial« which emphasizes that colonial power relations were only mildly, or not at all, changed when former colonies were granted political independence (Gordon 1997). Here, the emphasis is that the economic situation has not changed – thus still emphasizing colonialism rather than imperialism. One could point to statistics such as the continuing dependence on expatriates (whose salaries diverge sharply upward from local salaries) for skilled services, trade relations in which an over-dependence on the former colonizing country and lack of lateral trade within Africa makes whole economies fragile and vulnerable to the unpredictability of world market prices, and growing debt which puts whole countries at the mercy of their creditors (often in the form of IMF or World Bank sponsored sanctions). One should note, however, that those who use the term »post-colonial« are not intending to deny the lingering economic domination. They are rather focusing on the odd polyglot of a psyche that lives on the edge of two worlds – one side more locally and traditionally based in a particular culture, and the other influenced by new ideas and ideals imported by the West, often with keen awareness that those ideals (like equality and democracy) were not at first intended for themselves.
5 With the recent U.S. »preventive« war against Iraq, one wonders if we have left the realm of neo-colonialism altogether, to enter a world either of neo-imperialism or outright imperialism itself, due to the involvement of nation-states in conquering foreign governments and territory. Yet one could argue, similar to the current use of neo-colonialism, that our present age is neo-imperialist in that it comes at a time in history after what we call »the Age of Imperialism,« when it was presumed that imperialism was over, and yet is not. One »twist« in the contemporary analogy is that the U.S. government denies its imperialist motivation, insisting that it does not want to annex Iraq. President George W. Bush said in his 2004 State of the Union Address, »We have no desire to dominate, no ambition of empire« (Bush 2004). That Bush had to specifically deny aspirations to empire was probably due to the widespread perception that the U.S. was being imperialist in its actions. The U.S. government says that it is going to rule Iraq only temporarily, rather than directly and permanently (after which time, we suspect, it will clearly again practice neo-colonialism, that is, continued economic domination while exercising indirect rule). The U.S. takeover of Iraq is, like many cases, a point where business and government interests become so intertwined, it becomes difficult to know which the primary cause of the action was.
6 Niall Ferguson, advocate of »Empire,« in his article »Hegemony or Empire?« defends the use of the term »Empire« to describe the U.S.'s recent actions. As he explains, the word »empire« didn't always mean »direct rule over foreign territory without any political representation of their inhabitants« (Ferguson 2003, 155). From the early days of empire, Lord Lugard emphasized the importance of indirect rule. Ferguson notes the parallels between Bush's speech to the Iraqi people in April 2003 and the 1917 speech of General F.S. Maude of the British army to the people of Mesopotamia. Both denied their desire to rule, and insisted they were only there briefly to help Iraq install their own new government. Yet the British admitted they were engaged in Empire-building, while the U.S. has always vociferously denied their empire. Ferguson rejects the recent use of the term »hegemony« to describe the U.S. role. He thinks its use is only to avoid the less comfortable word »empire« (Ferguson 2003, 156-160). I would also be comfortable in using the phrase »imperialism« or »neo-imperialism« to describe recent U.S. moves. Although it is accepted that many of the actions could as easily be described as neo-imperialist, since this paper focuses on the works of Mahmood Mamdani, who wrote extensively on colonialism, the paper will also use the term »neo-colonialist« to describe contemporary U.S. actions.

3. The Colonialist History of the U.S.

7 Many of us were told in school that colonialism was a European project, and that since the U.S. stood at the sidelines during the »scramble for Africa,« it couldn't be having a problem with neocolonialism, let alone colonialism, today. Indeed, with the war for independence from Britain, and fine documents like the Declaration of Independence to explain the philosophy behind self-governance, the U.S. would seem to be the champion of freedom from colonialism. And yet the entire country is what Mahmood Mamdani would call an example of the triumph of settler colonialism. The nation was founded, not by the indigenous people living here, but by settlers from Britain, the colonial power. The constitution did not recognize the citizenship of Native Americans or Africans brought as slaves. We are so used to the current borders of the U.S. that we can now only recognize colonialism across borders. The history of the U.S. with its incursions into other countries, such as Mexico in the 1840s, where large tracts of land were annexed to the nation, seems a clear case of aggression against another sovereign state; but in what ways was the earlier »Manifest Destiny« and push toward the Pacific Ocean not colonialism (Zinn 1980)? While the African continent, after a long struggle, with the collapse of apartheid finally triumphed against settler colonialism, the U.S. has been so shaped by its long process of colonization of the continent, and its slaughter and reduction of the Native American population, that according to Mamdani, it becomes difficult for Americans to notice the »abnormal« character of the settler colonialism in which they participate (Mamdani 2003).
8 Does the U.S. have any self-consciousness as being a neo-colonial or imperial power? While the »Monroe Doctrine« justified all sorts of incursions into Caribbean and Latin American countries, they were all supposedly brief, meant to »restore order,« and afterward troops pulled out. But often their brief incursions had a large influence on the politics of those countries. Howard Zinn points out the problematic case of the U.S. war in the Philippines. When the U.S. won the war against Spain in order to win freedom from colonialism for Cuba (U.S. business interests backed this decision), the U.S. did not later know what to do with the other Spanish colonies, including the Philippines. President McKinley thought such islands were unfit for self-rule; they couldn't defend themselves if left alone; and so the U.S. had the duty to rule them. But the U.S. did not admit to be an imperial power, even as they engaged a three year war against Filipinos who had been looking forward to their freedom from Spanish colonial rule (Zinn 1980, 305-306).
9 At the end of World War II, President Roosevelt did not want to take over former European colonies. Sumner Wells, U.S. Undersecretary stated that »the age of Imperialism is over« (quoted in Ferguson 2003, 344). He wanted instead a system of temporary trusteeships. While some thought that »trusteeships« were only a cover for what was in fact a U.S. economic empire (Ferguson 2003, 345), it is nevertheless interesting that the U.S. so vociferously denied its imperial intentions. However, as Mamdani explains, a mainstay of colonialism was the practice of indirect rule. What the U.S. did so often – either by influencing elections, or arming militants to overthrow their governments, or by maintaining an economic hold while the government was supposedly free and sovereign – was to use the same tactics of colonialism. In the past it was more disguised; the current takeover of Iraq is a more overt example of the same dynamic. And yet many Americans, and the corporate U.S. media, seem unable or unwilling to call it colonialism. A recent news article further explains that the U.S. government does not want its troops to be considered »occupying forces;« they only want to be liberators (Lumpkin/Linzer 2003).
10 In a recent article, Mamdani outlines late twentieth century U.S. foreign interventions, noticing that high U.S. casualties in the Vietnam War caused a change in U.S. neocolonial strategy in Laos to »war by proxy« and an emphasis on air war. The proxy war was carried out by 30,000 fighters who were ethnically organized and supplied by the C.I.A. (Mamdani 2003). The East Timor slaughter by Indonesia followed the pattern of indirect intervention in Laos. Documents recently released by the Ford Library to the National Security Archive show that Ford and Kissinger pledged to minimize the damage of the news if Suharto would just wait and not begin the invasion until they got back to the U.S. Kissinger then made sure that arms shipments (paid for by the U.S.) continued to flow to Indonesia (Burr/Evans 2001). The U.S. then found it helpful to indirectly fund terrorist (sometimes called »freedom fighter«) efforts across the globe. By terrorism, Mamdani meant any military action »for whom the preferred method of operation is destroying the infrastructure of civilian life« (Mamdani 2002). With this definition, we can have »state sponsored« terrorism as well as »insurgent terrorism« (to rely on Khatchadourian's terminological distinctions, Khatchadourian 1998). One will note that unlike some other definitions that stipulate the direct targeting of civilians, Mamdani makes sure that his definition includes attacks at infrastructure which supports that civilian life. According to this definition, directly targeting the water and sanitation systems of Iraq during the Gulf War of 1991 is an example of terrorism, since it knowingly produces hardships, and even casualties, among the Iraqi citizenry (Nagy 2001).
11 After East Timor, Mamdani notes, came the cooperation with South Africa in arming UNITA and RENAMO in Angola and Mozambique. With the organizing, training, and funding of the »contras« in Nicaragua in the 1980s, the U.S. became directly engaged in the development of terrorist movements and the cultivation of terror (Mamdani 2003). Mamdani's article leaves out recent examples in which U.S. troops did directly march in to other countries: Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989). During the latter, the President of the country, Manuel Noriega, was captured and brought to the U.S. for trial. The subsequent President of Panama had to receive his stamp of approval from the U.S.
12 In the forefront of people's minds nowadays is the U.S. funding of the mujahiddin, including bin Ladin, in Afghanistan to oust the Soviet supported government there. Mamdani explains that to antagonize its rival, the Soviet Union, the U.S. organized an Islamic Global Alliance, recruiting fighters from a variety of countries, motivated by a revival of the term »jihad.« Prior to the war in Afghanistan, it had been two hundred years since a »jihad« was called, against the Ottoman occupation of Saudi Arabia in the late eighteenth century. Reagan's signing of the National Security Directive 166 in 1985 supported the mujahiddin. Mamdani argues that the Afghan war, organized by the cooperation of the C.I.A. and Pakistani intelligence organizations, gave right-wing Islam its current status of organization, skills, and a coherent objective (Mamdani 2003).

4. Is Colonialism Good?

13 While it seemed that world opinion had agreed that colonialism and imperialism were bad and should be dismantled, there are nevertheless contemporary ideologies which advocate a return to colonial practices. Either they are the Afro-pessimists, as Mamdani calls them, who assert that the job of colonizing Africa was half-finished and should be done properly by »recolonization« (Mamdani 1996, 285; see also Daniels 1999) 3 or they are the advocates of imperialism, like Niall Ferguson who in his recent book argues that we need the creation of »good empires« (like the British) because only they will have the power and ability to fight the bad empires (like, in the past, Hitler and the Axis, and currently, the Islamic terrorists). While Ferguson admits that the British Empire had its faults, he thinks that it did so well in fighting the Nazis, that in comparison, all its other sins should be forgiven. While unkind historians dwell on the Empire's excesses, they forget to give credit where it is due, and credit the British Empire for the spread of capitalism (including the encouragement of capital investment in Africa due to Empire's assurances of stability); the provision of stable, honest, efficient, and ungreedy government; humanitarianism; and the communications revolution. Ferguson actually quotes Kipling's poem »White Man's Burden« and suggests that the U.S. should take up this role (Ferguson 2003, xxiv, 360, 362). Ferguson is not the only one who holds this position on empire. He quotes others who agree with him, such as British diplomat Robert Cooper who argues that in these days:
14 … all the conditions for imperialism are there … the weak still need the strong and the strong still need an orderly world. A world in which the efficient and well-governed export stability and liberty, and which is open for investment and growth – all of this seems eminently desirable. (Quoted in Ferguson 2003, 366)
15 Needless to say, critics of colonialism, including Mamdani, will note that the above descriptions of Empire's rule are not accurate. Under colonialism, Africans appointed to political positions by Britain were allowed to abuse the locals, if only it helped to meet the quota for profit extraction (Mamdani 1996, 53-57). Empire may have created a safe haven for investment, but not for its colonial subjects.
16 One can also debate Ferguson on his claim that the British Empire, despite any of its cruelties, was on the whole a positive development because only it could stop Hitler. Hannah Arendt in her Origins of Totalitarianism explains at length that Hitler's plans to expand Germany by depopulating Poland and filling it again by breeding an Aryan race who, unlike the former occupants of the country, were »culture bearers« (Hitler 1926/1963), takes as its direct model the European colonization of Africa (Arendt 1951/1979). If it had not been for the original model, practiced by the British (and others) in Africa, perhaps Hitler would not have gotten the idea to do the same in Europe.
17 Ferguson ends his book suggesting that only the U.S. is currently in a position to take up the mantle of the former British Empire by bringing peace and order to trouble spots in today's world. While critics of Ferguson charge his book with being »devoid of measured objectivity« (Kakutani 2003), some seemingly moderate people today still request intervention from the U.S. as Ferguson suggests. For example, Somini Sengupta suggested that Liberia, founded by African Americans in 1847, is a »virtual« former colony of the U.S. And since the British are helping Sierra Leone by intervening there, and the French are helping Ivory Coast by intervening there, that the U.S. should take up its moral responsibility and intervene in its former colony to »bring a measure of peace to this ravaged place.« Sengupta thinks that it is the U.S.'s aversion to admitting its status as an »imperial power« that gets in the way of its feeling responsibility toward Liberia today (Sengupta 2002). While Sengupta does not detail just what a U.S. led »peacekeeping mission« would accomplish, it is surprising that his enthusiasm is not diminished by the models of the U.S.-led peacekeeping forces in Somalia in 1993, not to mention the recent war to liberate Iraqis, whose outcome at this early stage is still uncertain (for more on the topic of the U.S. role in Somalia in 1993, see Presbey 2002).
18 While the U.S. government may be reticent to call itself an empire, it does not always seem averse to taking upon itself the »burden« that Ferguson advocates. As Gelb and Rosenthal note, the U.S. government since 9-11 sees itself as so dedicated to humanitarian intervention that it paints itself as duty-bound to »fight the bad guys no matter what the security tradeoffs« (Gelb/Rosenthal 2003, 5). While this is an interesting development in rhetoric, it remains to be seen if the U.S. will help a country that does not have huge oil reserves. Just recently, in a response to a U.N. request to send peacekeepers to the Ituri forest in the Congo, U.S. diplomats suggested that perhaps France could do something about it (Barringer (2003a).

5. Four Aspects of Colonialism in Africa

19 Mamdani's familiarity with the African colonial enterprise gives him insights into the dynamics of action and reaction between colonizer and colonized. By looking at four key aspects of colonialism, we can accomplish two things. First, we can recognize the recent U.S. war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as the recent U.S. war against Iraq, as fitting in the colonial model. Second, Mamdani shows how each of these aspects of colonialism is self-defeating, and should be rejected.

5.1 Indirect Rule

20 The first aspect of colonialism is its use of indirect rule. Colonizers wanted to harness local custom to a larger colonizing project, so they used local kings and chiefs, making them subservient to colonial rule through threat and bribe (Mamdani 1996, 52-54). The British presented themselves as kind and enlightened by their recognition of »native culture,« but in actuality they re-shaped that culture to suit their own needs and then hid behind it so that it could absorb the »shocks« offered by peasant resistance (Mamdani 1996, 25, 60, 79). By acting indirectly through local rulers, they could pass off the use of force as customary, and therefore legitimate. The attempts of colonial powers to disguise themselves in this way leads to a crisis of authenticity, and a division in the community, as people accuse each other of being »inauthentic« or assert that they are indeed »authentic.« Mamdani explains: »Peasant insurrectionists organized around what they claimed was an untainted, uncompromised, and genuine custom, against a state-enforced and corrupted version of the customary.« (Mamdani 1996, 24)
21 Mamdani asserts that resistance against colonialism takes the shape it does because it is itself shaped by colonialism. Likewise it can be argued that the crisis of authenticity surrounding the U.S. appointed Iraqi Governing Council today is the continuing result of colonial practice. Iraqi exiles favored by the U.S., eager to claim political power in Iraq, have had their authenticity questioned because of the length of their years in exile and connections to the occupying countries. A leading example is Ahmed Chalabi, a banker who used his own fortune to found the Iraqi National Congress, based in London. Chalabi has been a favorite of the Pentagon. The U.S. Military flew Chalabi and 700 of his fighters to Nasiriyah on April 5, 2003. Both the Pentagon and Vice President Cheney's office had described Chalabi as »a potential leader of post-Hussein Iraq« (Slavin/Moniz 2003). However, there's a debate between the Pentagon and neoconservatives on one side (who argue that only the exiles are capable of ruling Iraq) and the State Department, which says it is concerned that »there is something inauthentic about Iraqi exiles« (Packer 2003).
22 More generally, there are those who are reluctant or unwilling to accept the U.S. appointed Iraqi Governing Council as legitimate, saying the members aren't true »representative(s) of the people,« and they do not want to cooperate with an occupying power (LaFranchi 2003). When the U.S. tries to place certain leaders in powerful positions, these questions of authenticity will continue to arise. This could explain why a recent news story noted that »»insurgents are increasingly targeting Iraqis who work with the U.S.-led coalition« (quote from Hendawi 2003; see also Al-Issawi 2003). In this way colonialism begins an internal struggle in any country which it attempts to rule indirectly. Direct rule, in contrast, could be identified more easily, and people could feel more easily unified in opposing it.
23 Based on this analysis, I speculate that the longer the U.S. troops administer Iraq, the greater the chance that people will unite in their fight against them. If (or when) the U.S. has their troops withdraw, possibly to rule Iraq indirectly through loyal politicians, people will fight among themselves. That infighting is bound to be characterized by foreign press as evidence that Iraqis just can't get along or don't know how to rule themselves. But at the center of the debate will be questions of authenticity.
24 Perhaps obliviousness to the character of its own settler colonialism accounts for an inability among U.S. citizens to recognize colonialism in the abstract, and particularly to be able to see current U.S. actions as along the colonial model. Today many U.S. citizens accept the idea that U.S. troops in Iraq will be there only temporarily, to insure the installation of »Islamic democracy« and the »rule of law.« As retired General Jay Garner of the U.S. (first head of U.S. reconstruction efforts for Iraq) said, »We're only going to stay here long enough to start a democratic government for them« (Gordon/Kifner 2003). But how do you create and install a democratic government for recipients? Isn't democracy something the sovereign people create together as peers? Can one just »plug into« an existing model of democracy imposed upon people? And how does one create »Islamic democracy?« Certainly creative Islamic intellectuals could come up with some kind of Islamic democracy, which in league with a people's movement could emerge, but how could a retired U.S. general and his U.S. support staff successfully create let alone impose this rare hybrid of a democracy from the outside? 4
25 Fatima Mernissi in the introduction to her book, Islam and Democracy, explains the difficult situation of Arab intellectuals who have been advocating Western-style democracy in their countries, after the first Gulf War. Arab women who had looked up to the West as overcoming its violent past by advocating ideals like democracy and human rights, now saw the West engage in a war against them. The ideals began to lose their credibility. Also, the need for reforms and women's increased rights within Arab countries gets put on the back burner when there is a need to resist an outside aggressor. »How can an Arab woman, I ask, insist on raising with her own group her problem, which is the hijab? How can she demand the negotiation of new boundaries for the sexes if her group feels naked and vulnerable in a world where bombs in a fury of passion can single out Baghdad?« (Mernissi 1992, 6)
26 Hannah Arendt, in her book On Revolution, noted that there was an »enormous difference in power and authority between a constitution imposed by a government upon a people and the constitution by which a people constitutes it own government« (Arendt 1965, 145). Arendt refers to the constitution created for Germany after World War I. The constitution was modeled on the U.S. Constitution, and although Arendt in general approves of the ideas in that document, she notes that imposing it on other countries did not work due to the »mistrust« of those who had to live under it. Germans nicknamed the government under that constitution »the system« and did not consider it legitimate (Arendt 1965, 146). For Arendt, a new government gains its legitimacy and authority from the integrity of its founding moment (Arendt 1965, 147-148, 198-199, 204). Here the crucial point is that the people, who make up the citizenry or subjects of that government, accept the new government. 5 If the »founding moment« is crucial to ensuring governmental authority, then any future Iraq government seen to be created and/or imposed by the U.S. is bound to be shaky from the start.

5.2 Politicization of Indigeneity

27 The second aspect of colonialism concerns the importance of indigeneity. It was the colonizers who first introduced the distinction between indigenous and non-indigenous: first to say that the non-indigenous is better, because they bring »civilization.« At a later stage, the indigenous say that they are authentic, and so they expel the foreigner (Mamdani 2001, 27-30). It could be argued that bin Laden's emphasis on removing U.S. bases from Saudi Arabia is a case of the latter (bin Laden 2002). 6 Mamdani's recent book on the Rwandan genocide, When Victims Become Killers, traces the politicization of indigeneity there. First the British, suggesting that the Tutsis did not come from sub-Saharan Africa, intended to give them an exalted status, and favored them, calling them natural rulers over the indigenous Hutus (and ruling the Hutu indirectly through the Tutsis in colonial fashion). At a later stage, the Hutus use the same claim of the non-indigeneity of the Tutsis to argue that they should be banished, or killed – hence, the genocide (Mamdani 2001, 33-35).
28 The solution to stopping this vicious cycle, Mamdani states, is to call into question the colonial legacy of the politicization of indigeneity, and erode the benefits (sometimes petty »perks«) of non-indigeneity, so that injustice can be banished without needing to commit genocide and eradicate the privileged groups.
29 Drawing upon insights of both Frantz Fanon and Hannah Arendt, Mamdani explored the concept and practice of genocide in When Victims Become Killers. He argues that colonialism sets in motion two kinds of genocide: the first, the settlers kill the natives; and second, as a reaction to the first, the natives kill the settler. He suggests that there is a moral difference between the two different kinds of genocide:
30 Whereas the former was obviously despicable, the latter was not. The very political character of native violence made it difficult to think of it as an impulse to genocide. Because it was derivative of settler violence, the natives' violence appeared less of an outright aggression and more a self-defense in the face of continuing aggression. Faced with the violent denial of his humanity by the settler, the native's violence began as a counter to violence. It even seemed more like the affirmation of the native's humanity than the brutal extinction of life that it came to be. When the native killed the settler, it was violence by yesterday's victims. More of a culmination of anticolonial resistance than a direct assault on life and freedom, this violence of victims-turned-perpetrators always provoked a greater moral ambiguity than did the settlers' violence. (Mamdani 2001, 10)
31 Mamdani is suggesting that in the Rwandan context, the Hutu uprising against Tutsis was seen by Hutus as a liberation movement from those who had colonized them. Yesterday's victims became the perpetrators of today's genocide. That it was conceived as a liberation movement explains the widespread grassroots popularity of the genocide (which of course was not called a genocide by the perpetrators). Mamdani's point is not that the Rwandan genocide was not a bad thing, or that it was morally justified. Genocide, violence on that scale, is always a horror. Indeed, people of Asian descent in Uganda (like Mamdani himself) suffered post-independence violence (and expulsion) perpetrated by former victims in 1972, as did Arabs in Zanzibar in 1963 (Mamdani 2001, 10). 7 Mamdani's attempt to understand the atrocities perpetrated by »yesterday's victims« is an act of soul-searching on his own part: he wants to understand even those who used violence against himself and his own community. Mamdani insists that to understand, it's important to look at the larger context. In the earlier stage, the genocide of settlers against the natives, the stage is set for later retaliation. Through killing, humiliation, forced labor, and political disempowerment of the natives, the seeds of hatred and resentment are being planted. When those seeds reach their fruition it can be ghastly; but we must remember who had sowed the seeds. The result is not exoneration of evil deeds but a more widespread sense of responsibility for what has happened.
32 One could only wonder how the world could be different today if the U.S., as did Mamdani, stopped to try to understand the violence of those who attacked their community, rather than lashing out and presuming that the entire responsibility of the attack rested upon the »perpetrators.«
33 This idea (as in colonial Rwanda) of arriving at a place to rule a people, and to take sides and favor one ethnic group over another, or to single out a group or local ruler for special scorn, reinforces and aggravates the inequalities that have existed beforehand. And yet U.S. occupying forces have more than once seemed to engage in such favoritism. Journalist Scott Peterson in his book covering the U.S.-led U.N. peacekeeping action in Somalia noted that the situation in Somalia in 1993 was very tense and fragile. Many were relieved that the U.N. was stepping in, and hoped that it would guarantee peace by brokering negotiations with all parties. But when it became clear that the U.S. was not interested in fairness to all parties but instead had favorites and enemies (particularly by singling out General Aidid as the evil one who should have no part in the negotiations for a future Somali government), Peterson and others lost hope that the U.S. could actually bring peace to the country (Peterson 2001, 58-61). Signs of partisanship were evident from the beginning of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. For example, Shi'ites complained that they were being asked to disarm while Kurds in the North could continue to hold their weapons (Tyler 2003). The U.S. has tried to dispel the early allegations of partisanship by carefully to including representatives from all ethnic groups on Iraq's interim governing council.
34 The U.S. seems to have learned just now about how playing favorites just fans the flames of ethnic strife. During one of Paul Wolfowitz's visits to Iraq, where he met with various leaders of ethnic groups, he wanted to put forward his message that »all Iraqis were equally victims of Hussein's government« as a basis for a newfound ethnic harmony (Shanker 2004). While it is good to emphasize harmony now, to imagine that it can happen suddenly, when, for example, the U.S. supported Hussein during the many years when Hussein had his ethnic favorites, is to wish away deep seated problems. In fact a recent C.I.A. report voiced concern that Iraq could be on the verge of a civil war, with one intelligence officer noting that both the Shi'ites and the Kurds were distrustful of the U.S. occupation because they feel that »they've been betrayed by the U.S. before« (Strobel / Jonathan S. Landay (2004).

5.3 Control of the Economy

35 A third factor of colonialism in Africa is control of the subject people's economy. The colonizing country wants to extract resources, both material and labor; it does so by passing laws, such as collection of taxes, or a forced number of days of unpaid labor per year, or by forced growing of crops to be sold at a price fixed by the government. This factor is more widely acknowledged in the existing literature, and for many commentators, their charge that the U.S. is being »imperialist« can be reduced to this core attribute.
36 Mamdani's insight into this factor is deeper than most. Mamdani explains that while European and American capitalists fought »communism« on the ideological level, practically, the African peasantry under colonial rule was always in an economy that was only partly free, and to a great extent forced (Mamdani 1996, 149-157). In some colonial states, like the Belgian Congo, governments demanded that all persons work sixty days per year for the government in agriculture or public works projects; in other countries, people were indirectly »forced« to work in order to pay an exorbitant tax imposed by the colonial government. In some cases each family was assigned a quota of a certain crop of a certain acreage. Market boards were created which bought agricultural goods from farmers at artificially low prices (Mamdani 1996, 148, 154, 162, 165). Basil Davidson notes that many of the same colonial controls of the economy were perpetuated by the »independent« African governments that replaced colonial governments, thus continuing to underpay farmers. Forced labor and artificially low prices for agricultural goods had side effects of low motivation to work, and relative neglect of agricultural production. Price controls on produce or high taxes leads to smuggling in search of fairer markets (Davidson 1992).
37 If we look to Iraq, we see that the U.N. has now lifted sanctions against the country, and gives the U.S. and its allies, now called »occupying powers,« »sweeping assumption of authority over Iraq's political development and its billions of dollars in annual oil revenues« (Barringer 2003b). But the political and economic management is not accepted by all Iraqis. When L. Paul Bremer, the leading civilian administrator for postwar Iraq announced that soldiers who fought against U.S. forces would no longer be paid, many soldiers protested. One explained that he did not fight »for Saddam,« but only to save Iraqi families from being killed by the invading American forces. This soldier continued to clarify: »I don't want Americans to pay my salary... Our country is very rich. I want my salary to come from our riches.« (Lacey 2003) Just whose money is it, anyway? Are the Americans really paying any Iraqi salaries, if the funds come from sale of Iraqi oil?
38 Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, insisted that the U.S.'s only interest in Iraq and its region was the creation of peace and stability, not the acquisition of oil. Philip Verleger Jr. of the Council on Foreign Relations suggests that to start a war in Iraq based on the hopes of gaining Iraqi oil would be »an economic gamble of enormous proportions,« considering the decayed state of the Iraqi oil industry (Schememann 2002). Nevertheless, major oil companies jockeyed to buy Iraqi oil exports (Banerjee 2003). More immediately lucrative were the various contracts to rebuild Iraq, with contracts going to Bechtel Corporation (Becker 2003a). Henry Waxman, a Democratic congressman has asked for an inquiry into how Kellogg Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, won contracts without competition. Considering Vice President Dick Cheney was the chief executive of Halliburton from 1995-2000, Waxman and John Dingell have asked for an inquiry into whether Halliburton »received special treatment from the administration« (Becker 2003b). Democratic senators also criticized the extent of funds going to reconstruction contracts. Senator Biden argued: »For us just to get to the point where we're talking about increasing to 1 million barrels per day export, there's going to be a need for a $5 billion investment in the oil fields to get to that point.« (Schmitt 2003) Perhaps, however, that was the point: profits are to be made, not only by selling the oil, but first and primarily by rebuilding the oil fields.

5.4 Colonialism's »Civilizing Mission«

39 A fourth key aspect of colonialism is the presumption that the country being colonized is in need of help which the colonizer is magnanimously providing. The colonizers consider themselves to be bringing civilization and modernity. This aspect of colonialism is well known, so I will treat it briefly. Mamdani notes that prior to 9-11, the U.S. had singled out the Africans as a group that was most resistant to modernity, constituting a threat to themselves. They were in need of a »civilizing mission.« After 9-11, Muslims took center stage as the group most resistant to modernity, which were a threat not only to themselves, but also to others (Mamdani 2003). That such rhetoric of helping others is often a mere facade for self-serving action is quite obvious.
40 Ferguson, fan of Empire, cites with praise Tony Blair's post-September 11 speech which suggested that it should play a role in bringing justice to a rogue regime (in this case, Afghanistan) as they did earlier in the 1880/90s against the Mahdi. Ferguson said the tone of the speech echoed earlier Victorian rhetoric which emphasized exporting civilization to the world (Ferguson 2003). Journalist Walter Shapiro is concerned that an American version of »›we know best‹ hybris« can be found in the speeches of Jay Garner (first U.S.-appointed civilian ruler of occupied Iraq) and the newly released one hundred page document Moving the Iraqi Economy from Recovery to Sustained Growth. As Shapiro explains, »Some of the recommendations veer close to the comic in their be-like-us specificity« (Shapiro 2003). In an interview with journalist Graham Turner, former Speaker of the House, Tom Foley commented on Americans' perceptions of themselves:
41 We have, unfortunately, a very pervasive notion of our good intentions... It leads to an assumption that any sort of objective examination of the United States must result in approval, if not vigorous applause. Our belief is that we are not self-interested. For example, our perception is that we didn't go to war against Iraq to dominate the oil market, and we're very offended if anyone suggests such a thing.... We expect the president to be our principal preacher, to express constantly the idea that God has showered us with special blessings and that we, therefore, have a special identity, a special mission in the world . . . to encourage others to be just like us. (Turner 2003)
42 While Foley shares these comments with some self-conscious irony, his observations, insofar as they are believable characterizations of the thinking of much of the American public, trace the extent of the problem of American self-notions of superiority and goodness. One is reminded of Edward Said's claim that an attitude of righteous authoritarianism is just as significant a factor as profit in explaining the behavior of imperialists (Said 1994, 11).
43 Such presumption that the world can only progress in its closer copying of one's own country's model is a hallmark of colonialist thinking. While a case-by-case careful analysis may result in agreeing that some foreign-origin ideas are good and should be accepted, this is altogether different than their wholesale importation and imposition based on a before-the-fact presumption of their superiority.
44 As of February 26, 2004, the Bush administration is circulating a draft proposal called a »greater Middle East Initiative« which it would like to present at the summit meeting of the eight leading industrial nations in June 2004 at Sea Island, Georgia. One European diplomat reacting to the document noted that it shows no sign of any consultation with the local governments involved. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt also criticized the draft, saying that the Bush administration was acting »as if the region and its states do not exist, as if they have no people or societies, as if they have no sovereignty over their land, no ownership« (Weisman/MacFarqhar 2004). Mubarak warned that those who attempt to impose reforms and changes from outside a society are doomed to fail because people will reject what they feel is a foreign imposition.

6. Conclusion

45 In this paper I have tried to show that Mamdani has some important insights into the ways in which the U.S. fits a description of colonialism – it is itself a settler colony, and it has had colonies over the years. Often its influence or rule, political and/or economic, of other countries has been indirect; but sometimes, and most recently in the case of Iraq, it is direct. These insights of Mamdani's are important because they challenge most Americans' own characterization and understanding of their government, and force us to confront a part of our history we might otherwise deny.
46 In addition, I have looked to his earlier works on colonialism in Africa to find four key attributes of colonialism that seem to be appearing again today in the U.S. actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since each of these attributes brings tension, conflict, and often ruin to the colony, Mamdani helps to clarify just why colonialism is so harmful. With such a sobering account, we can no longer agree with Niall Ferguson and others who suggest that we need another strong empire to improve the world through its domination of other countries.
47 It would be better if we would learn the lessons of history and correct the neocolonial pattern before it is too late. Colonialism and imperialism are eras of history which have passed. As Jonathan Schell has noted:
48 All of the empires that had existed in 1776, whether dynastic or colonial, or both, and all of the empires that subsequently arose, including those built on a revolutionary foundation, were destroyed. In the former category were the Russian empires of the czars; the Austro-Hungarian empire of the Hapsburgs; the German empire of the Hohenzollerns; the Ottoman empire; and the overseas empires of Holland and England. In the latter category were the colonial empires of France, Belgium, and Italy, the Napoleonic empire, the Japanese ›Co-Prosperity sphere‹ in Asia, Hitler's ›Thousand-year Reich,‹ and the Soviet empire. (Schell 2003, 41)
49 This quote lists concrete instances of the adage, »Empires always crumble.« But for Schell, the reason they crumble is because people under empire are perennially motivated to challenge it:
50 The self-determination movement also cut across all political dividing lines. No political system, feudal or modern, proved capable of resisting it. Neither monarchies (the Romanovs, the Hapsburgs, the Hohenzollerns, the Ottomans), nor liberal democracies (England, Holland, the United States), nor military dictatorships (France under Napoleon, Spain, Portugal under Salazar and Caetano), nor Communist regimes (the Soviet Union, Vietnam in its Cambodian venture), were able, in the long run, to perpetuate imperial rule. On the other hand, almost every political creed was adequate for winning independence. Liberal democracy (United States in 1776, Eastern Europe in the 1980s and '90s), communism (China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba), racism (the Boers of South Africa), militarism (any number of South American states), theocracy (Iran and Afghanistan in the 1980s), and even monarchy (Germany in the first half of the nineteenth century) all proved adequate foundations on which to base self-determination. (Schell 2003, 41)
51 Once a group considers themselves to be fighting for self-determination against colonialism, they will continue to fight even at great risk to their own community's lives.
52 In the recently released documentary The Fog of War, Robert S. McNamara explains that during his time as Secretary of Defense, he kept wondering why the North Vietnamese would continue to fight against the U.S. despite their huge casualties. He went to North Vietnam in 1995 to attend a conference which had the earlier war as its theme. There, McNamara asked a representative of the North Vietnamese government the above question; they answered back that since they were fighting against a colonial power, they would have fought to the last person. McNamara conveys his surprise at the answer. Viewers of the documentary might be surprised at McNamara's surprise – didn't he know this? Didn't critics of the war try to tell him this back in the 60s? But from McNamara's point of view, the North Vietnamese weren't thinking with the same kinds of calculations as himself, and so he was puzzled (Morris 2003).
53 But in another part of the film interview, McNamara himself stumbles upon a solution. When describing the Cuban Missile Crisis, he describes how the world only narrowly escaped nuclear war. What saved the day? There happened to be a U.S. diplomat who had lived in the Soviet Union and knew Khrushchev well. When the U.S. government received two confusing communications from Khrushchev, it was the diplomat who insisted that he knew what Khrushchev meant and how he would respond. Those present were at first skeptical, but decided to believe this diplomat. That was how nuclear war was averted. On the other hand, McNamara mentions later in the documentary, the U.S. government did not understand the Vietnamese, did not have enough diplomats familiar with the language, who knew the leaders well and could understand their thinking. And so the war dragged on. Certainly increased intercultural understanding between countries, and sufficient funding and training for the diplomatic branches of government, could have the power to avert wars. As it stands now, U.S. diplomatic offices are drastically underfunded and their resources stretched, such that a recent bipartisan study concluded that the U.S. image abroad is at an all-time low (Marquis 2004).
54 As Todd Gitlin explained in his article, »Empire and Myopia,« the U.S. insistence on their military incursion into Iraq while ignoring the huge rich-poor gulf their economic policies have created around the world was myopic. Instead, »development combined with better intelligence and policing is likely to reduce the number of American-hating terrorists in the world and the damage they can do« (Gitlin 2002, 25). The security of the U.S. depends upon its actions: if it eschews neo-colonialism and vigorously works for a more just economic order, and cooperates multilaterally, not just with countries it bribes but with a broad spectrum of governments, chances are it will create fewer enemies. Colonialism as a model for current inter-state relationships is not viable (since it is self-defeating in the long run), and must be foresworn.
polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 5 (2004).
Online: http://them.polylog.org/5/apg-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
© 2004 Author & polylog e.V.



I would like to thank my colleagues at University of Detroit Mercy, Diane Robinson-Dunn and Greg Sumner, for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article. go back
Mahmood Mamdani, born in Uganda, is currently Professor of Government and Head of the Institute for African Studies at Columbia University. He is the author of two recent books which analyze colonialism and its legacy in Africa: Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (1996) and When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda (2001). Mamdani has recently published a new book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: Islam, the USA, and the Global War Against Terror (2004) in which he expands on the views presented in his article An African Perspective on Nine Eleven (2003).go back
An interesting twist on the topic of recolonization came from Ali Mazrui, who suggested that African countries take a role in recolonizing their disintegrating neighbors such as Somalia, Congo etc., rather than to leave the job to the Europeans (Mazrui 1995). go back
Recently Bush has been careful to dispel the notion of the U.S. imposing its model of democracy on Iraq. A recent article notes: »Mindful of widespread anger and mistrust in the Muslim world toward the United States, Bush also said that as democratic governments emerge in the Middle East, they should reflect their own cultures and ›will not and should not look like us.‹« (Hunt 2003) go back
In the case of the U.S. its founding moment was addressed only to colonists, and not to Native Americans, slaves, or women; thus it upholds racism and sexism (Zinn 1980, 72-75). go back
In the interview, bin Ladin says: »Allah ordered us in this religion to purify Muslim land of all non-believers, and especially the Arabian Peninsula where the Ke'ba is.« (125) go back
Mamdani calls the 1972 Asian expulsion from Uganda the first of three turning points in his personal life that raised questions which became the focus of his academic inquiry (Mandani 1996, ix). go back


Gail M. Presbey (*1959 in Detroit, MI, USA) is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Detroit Mercy. She holds a B.A. degree from the University of Detroit and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Fordham University, New York. During 1998-2000 she was Fulbright Senior Scholar at University of Nairobi, Kenya. Her interests are in African philosophy, cross-cultural and feminist explorations in philosophy and the philosophy of non-violence. Her interests in social and political philosophy revolve around the work of Hannah Arendt and feminist critics. She is first editor of an introductory philosophy text, The Philosophical Quest: A Cross Cultural Reader, and has authored many journal articles and book chapters.
Prof. Dr. Gail M. Presbey
Department of Philosophy
University of Detroit Mercy
4001 W. McNichols Road
P.O. Box 19900
Detroit, MI 48219-0900
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