Apologetic imperialism

This war shows a West so lacking in self-conviction that it struggles even to justify defending itself.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

If you want to understand the world as it really is not, it’s often a good idea to read some of the columnists in the UK press. This week, the Award for the Most Unreal Analysis goes to the Guardian’s Madeleine Bunting.

Bunting used her slot on Monday 8 October to launch a bitter attack on ‘intolerant liberalism’. The West’s war on terror, she argued, is best seen as a culture war – presented as ‘a battle between good and evil’, in which the West is trying, above all, to assert its superiority (1). What is lurking here, she writes, is ‘the outline of a form of Western fundamentalism’, which ‘believes in historical progress and regards the West as its most advanced manifestation’ and insists that other countries ‘adopt its political, economic and cultural values’.

As an historical critique of the politics of British Empire, Bunting’s analysis makes some sense. But it is the inversion of the reality we are faced with today. If there is a culture war being played out now, it is a war on the values traditionally associated with the West – belief in its own superiority, and in the virtues of progress and universalism. Rather than giving testimony to Western arrogance, the war on terror has already exposed the profound lack of confidence that the West has in itself – and in particular, its mission in Afghanistan.

‘At its worst’, writes Bunting, ‘Western fundamentalism echoes the characteristics it finds so repulsive in its enemy, bin Laden’. What characteristics are these? ‘A sense of unquestioned superiority.’ This hardly explains why President Bush took such pains to build and maintain a coalition of support for his war, even among his former foes, or why Blair seems to spend every minute of the day flitting from country to country, in order to maintain the international consensus.

Bunting also attacks as Laden-esque the West’s ‘assertion of the universal applicability of its values’, and its ‘lack of will to understand what is profoundly different from itself’. But it was not universalism that drove Bush to reiterate, time and again, that terror, not Islam, is the enemy, and that he is not at war with the Afghan people (even if he happens to be bombing them). Tony Blair wasted no time in letting the world know that he read the Koran on holiday, as part of his multicultural mission to understand the Islamic faith. Among Western leaders today, the will to understand difference often seems stronger than the will to do anything else.

Time and again, the reaction of Western leaders to the terrorist attacks of 11 September reveals the depths of their uncertainty about the values and rules of the past. What we are witnessing is not ‘Western fundamentalism’ but an apologetic imperialism, in which those who continue to rule the world find it increasingly hard to justify what they are doing, and why they are doing it.

When President Bush decided upon a simultaneous bombs-and-food drop on 7 October, he was really saying ‘We’re sorry – have a cookie’. When Tony Blair insisted on showing his ‘evidence’ against Osama bin Laden to the British public, he was really saying ‘You can’t take my word for it – I’m sorry’. When UK foreign secretary Jack Straw takes every opportunity to bleat about how the UK has been pulled ‘reluctantly’ into this war by the actions of terrorists, he is saying that the bombs raining down on Afghanistan have been dropped more in sorrow than in anger. When Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi even dared to suggest that West was best, he was forced to apologise.

This is the face of apologetic imperialism – a world dominated by a West so lacking in self-conviction that it struggles even to justify defending itself. It is just as dangerous as the traditional ‘arrogant’ imperialism – after all, Afghanistan has still been bombed, and the destabilising consequences of this war for the surrounding region are already becoming clear.

And we should be clear that the apologetic character of this war is not motivated by some bleeding-heart concern for the Afghan people, or for the finer feelings of Muslims worldwide. Rather, it expresses the insecurity of Western elites, who are increasingly finding it hard to see what is good about the societies they run.

One of the clearest illustrations of this lack of self-conviction is that, even during a war, it can no longer be taken for granted that people might fight for their country. Ever since 11 September, when the possibility of a major war was first mooted, an anguished debate has been going on within the US press about the ambivalence of its young people even to the notion that they might fight in a war. It is not that the younger generation of Americans are all conscientious objectors; nor are they cowards. But why would you feel compelled to fight for a society that is filled with such self-doubt – let alone die for it?

When the online publication Salon asked 18-year-old student Adam Meranda for his views on joining up, Meranda said: ‘I tell you, I wouldn’t be too excited about it, but you can’t go to war and not be too excited about it or you’re going to die. So you have to find a way to be excited about it, I guess.’ Jonathan Sakti, 21, of San Francisco State, pondered the question ‘would it be worth dying for?’, and replied: ‘I don’t know if it would be now, but if they get into biological warfare and people are dying all around me, and I’m going to be dying anyway one way or another, I guess so.’ (2) Whatever way you look at it, American supremacy was hardly built on the spirit of ‘I guess so’.

The Brits are equally ambivalent – even our apparently war-hungry prime minister. Hanging out with troops in the Gulf of Oman on 10 October, Blair told a squaddie that one of his sons was considering a career in the Armed Forces. When the press reported the remark, Tony Blair was apparently furious, invoking his family’s privacy rights – and inadvertently giving off the impression that a career in the Armed Forces was hardly something a proud daddy would boast about (3). (Even if, as one supposes, the Armed Forces was only one possible career option to be considered by the son of a wartime prime minister – presumably alongside a gap year in Ghana, or a job in a law firm.)

I would never dream of romanticising an era in which young people joined up to fight for King and Country without a question in their minds. But there is something rather unhealthy about a society that cannot even get young people to commit to its cause; where the most enthusiasm that can be mustered says, ‘I guess I might kill for my country, but I wouldn’t want to die for it’. There is something really quite frightening about a world in which wars can be fought without justification, and apologised for before they have even begun. And there is something despicable about a culture that treats with suspicion firm belief in anything – whatever that thing might be.

There is an element of truth to Bunting’s argument – to the extent that, ultimately, liberalism is intolerant. But what the aftermath of 11 September has shown is that the only thing liberalism cannot tolerate is what Bunting calls ‘fundamentalism’ – a commitment to any strong idea or belief. Liberals find it fairly easy to be intolerant of bin Laden – but almost as easy to be intolerant of Berlusconi, for showing his commitment to Western values and religion above all others.

When UK home secretary David Blunkett talks about outlawing religious hate, he is specifically not wanting to target Islam – he wants to target all forms of religious extremism, including a strong belief in Christian Protestantism. One wonders how long it will be before soldiers are charged with hate crimes – not for killing their enemy, but for hating them.

In the West today, it seems that we can only be sure of one thing – that we distrust anybody who is only sure of one thing. Fundamentally, that’s pathetic.

Read on:

Now it is war – but for what?, by Mick Hume

Blair’s gospel of despair, by Michael Fitzpatrick

The anti-American dream, by Jennie Bristow

spiked-issues: Attack on USA

(1) Intolerant liberalism, Guardian, 8 October 2001

(2) Hell no, they won’t go – yet, Salon, 19 September 2001

(3) Despite heat and curry, Blair plays it cool in Oman, Guardian, 11 October 2001

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Topics Politics


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