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Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Notes from former colonial ventures

There's a delightful anecdote in Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians concerning 'Chinese" Gordon. Gordon was named governor of the Sudan by the Egypt's ruler, who had become so enmeshed in English debts and advice that he was slowly ceding the country to English rule. Now Gordon, like many a good Defense Department undersecretary in our own time, was a pious man. In fact, he was an eccentrically pious man, who read the Bible constantly, looking a little too aggressively for God's personal messages to him to be quite compos mentis in the opinion of his colleagues. Piety and narcissism are so often mirror images of one another. In any case, here's Strachey's account of Gordon's first intimation of the lay of the land in Sudan:

"He took over his new duties early in 1874, and it was not long
before he had a first hint of disillusionment. On his way up the
Nile, he was received in state at Khartoum by the Egyptian
Governor-- General of the Sudan, his immediate official superior.

The function ended in a prolonged banquet, followed by a mixed
ballet of soldiers and completely naked young women, who danced
in a circle, beat time with their feet, and accompanied their
gestures with a curious sound of clucking. At last the Austrian
Consul, overcome by the exhilaration of the scene, flung himself
in a frenzy among the dancers; the Governor-General, shouting
with delight, seemed about to follow suit, when Gordon abruptly
left the room, and the party broke up in confusion."

One feels, here, that there must be some distant spiritual likeness between Gordon and our own Iraqi proconsul. Poor Smilin' Jay never quite got why the Shi'ites were so� intransigent. He obviously rather liked the way Chalabi wore a suit, talked English, and could provide him with a decent drink, after he descended from his heavily guarded car, at the Hunter's Club. But the rest of those people! And the tiresome complaints about electricity, as if they were going to do anything with it when it was turned on except scheme under electric lightbulbs against all the good that America was prepared to do their godforsaken country! No wonder Smilin' Jay hated to forage out from Saddam's palace.

In the meantime, one sees the Gladstonian reflex kick in among American and British liberals. Gladstone, you will remember, was vaguely against the empire, while Disraeli was an ardent imperialist -- but somehow the Empire got much bigger under Gladstone. The opportunity to put a central bureaucracy to work governing people for their own good was simply too irresistable. Gladstone's ghost haunts the suggestion of Hugo Young, in the Guardian, that the American forces remain for the foreseeable future in control of Iraq, and the op-ed in the NYT today by a Suzanne Nossel

"The law of occupation is useful for Iraq mainly because it establishes clear lines of accountability for putting the country back on its feet. The first duty of an occupier is to establish a system of "direct administration" over the occupied population. In doing so, the United States will put itself on the line for success or failure in a way that retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner's ill-defined mandate scrupulously avoided. If Baghdad's citizenry still suffers from spotty electricity, rotten garbage on street corners and poorly equipped hospitals, there will be no doubt where fault lies.

"Rather than a muddy division of responsibilities among the United Nations, local authorities and coalition forces, an official occupation makes clear that the buck stops with the United States and Britain. The proposed division of labor, wherein the United Nations' special representative will fulfill specific roles under a British-American umbrella, protects against what happened in Somalia, where the United Nations was blamed for American misjudgments."

Ah, that muddying of responsibility. Obviously, the Iraqis, who are being represented by ESP by Pentagon undersecretaries and their various defense industry cronies, need to know that they have only one occupier -- it makes the servants so much more pliable. It is a situation parallel to the British-French governance of Egypt, which -- in order to keep the Egyptian people up to snuff about who their masters were -- phased into British governance of Egypt for about eighty years, to the advantage of the Briitsh.
The reluctant assumption of imperial power is again beckoning to the always latent liberal instinct for gaining control of people's lives in order to make them better -- in other words, to boss them around. And, of course, that reluctance leads to profit -- but only, of course, in the name of virtue. So the US is proposing, for Iraq's own good, to seize control of the oil industry and use it, as the US sees fit, to rebuild the country -- paying out the money, of course, to US contractors.

Isn't it wonderful when there's such synergy between good intentions and campaign contributers! It makes us all glow, rosily, here at LI.

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