Prof Mamdani's book is a chilling indictment of the foreign policy of Imperial America with some reference to the negative impact of that policy on American democracy at home. His major thesis is that during the waning years of the Cold War, American democracy became perverted, internally colonized by imperialistic institutions and mindsets. Successive administrations, Democratic or Neoconservative Republican, have actively suppressed nationalist and autonomist movements in the Third World.
Whatever their motives, the U.S. has, particularly in recent decades, attempted to subvert the rule of International law and arrogantly assumed the mantle of world policeman (or de facto sovereign).
"The U.S. has renounced treaties controlling nuclear weapons and their proliferation, voted against the protocol enabling enforcement of the Biological Weapons Convention, rejected the treaty banning land mines, endeavored to prevent its creation and since to cripple the International Criminal Court, and frustrated the Convention on the Child and the prohibition against using children in war. The U.S. has opposed virtually every other international effort to control and limit war, protect the environment, reduce poverty and protect health." Ramsey Clark (quoted on page 208 see note 1)
A disturbing parallel presents itself here. On the international scene, the U.S. acts like the trigger-happy American cops who shoot young black men on flimsy (or no) pretenses. Both at home and abroad, the US cop acts as cop, prosecutor, judge, jury and legislator, effectively acting above, or outside, the law. It is not an exaggeration to classify the U.S. today as a rogue state.
"Its reluctance to be held accountable internationally does not distinguish the Bush administration from other great powers, historically. What does distinguish it is the reckless determination to dispense with any project that would integrate others - whether rivals, dissidents, junior partners, or dependents - in a rule-based international order. Anatol Lieven, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, reminds us that the plan for "unilateral world domination through absolute military superiority" has been "consistently advocated and worked on by the group of intellectuals close to Dick Cheney and Richard Perle since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s." Even Secretary of State Colin Powell, considered the in-house dove in the Bush administration, shares this basic goal with the rest of the security establishment. As early as 1992, when he was chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell declared that the United States requires sufficient power "to deter any challenger of ever dreaming of challenging us on the world stage."..What distinguishes Powell from the hawks in the administration is not this basic goal but their commitment to preemptive war, now official American doctrine. Americans need to be aware of the logic of preemptive war. It is not accidental that most genocides have been carried out in times of war. The population is told: if you do not kill, you will be killed. You kill because you fear they may do to you what you are about to do to them. Preemptive war is the logic for genocide." (page 210)
Ironically, this agenda of unipolar world domination is undertaken under the cover of "exporting democracy" to benighted third world countries. Thus President GW Bush justified overthrowing the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein by claiming that he was "democratizing" the country which would, through chain reaction, provoke democratic "regime change" throughout the region.
"They are being civilized"! So claimed 19th century British and French imperialists to justify their colonial adventures. Earlier, coercive conversion to Christianity (to save the souls of benighted savages from eternal damnation) was used to justify and rationalize the conquest of the New World. Christopher Columbus (late 15th century) saw colonial expansion (and the slave trade) as a means of acquiring the capital necessary to convert the world to Roman Catholicism. The scam of "helping" the people one is shafting is ancient.. (note 2)
Another theme treated by Prof Mamdani deserves mention: the common form of political obscurantism he labels "Culture Talk". Its most virulent expression is found in President Donald Trump's "Islam hates us" speech. (I could not find the original, more vigorous, speech so this interview will have to do.)
In Culture Talk, peoples' history (recent colonial political history in particular) is ignored. Cultures become - as philosophers would say - "Essences", the deep nature of collectivities (overriding our common human nature). The state of a culture at any given time explains all there is to know about a people, race or religion. In Trump's categorization of Islam's hatefulness, its (purported) hatred of the West, America and Christianity defines Islam. Islam is this hatred.
A (superficially) more sophisticated variant of Culture Talk discerns two Muslim types: Good Muslims and Bad Muslims. Good Muslims are those who have, in effect, westernized. They have accepted Enlightenment values such as the criticism of Traditional Authority and Scripture. They embrace the Rights of Wo/man. Bad Muslims are essentially backwards, premodern. They have not experienced the equivalent of the Protestant Reformation (otherwise they would think like us and be Good Muslims).
The result of Culture Talk is a radical simplification and dumbing down of the world of political discourse. Critical examination of the West's interactions with Muslims (and other non-Western societies) is suspended. This is especially dangerous since U.S. foreign policy is in desperate need of critical (re-)examination..
The authoritarian streak in Trump and his entourage is interesting in this context. Among the defining traits of the Authoritarian Personality discovered by social psychologists:
- Manichean dichotomization of the world into warring Forces of Good and Evil (with all Good being on our side),
- "stereotypy": all individuals belonging to excluded and scapegoated groups are assimilated to a common "type" or "essence". Individual differences are ignored.)
- demonization of the Enemy (those belonging to excluded or scapegoated groups).
Culture Talk would appear ready made for authoritarian (populist) discourse and demagogy.
The major part of Good Muslim, Bad Muslim traces the evolution of U.S. foreign policy in the late Cold War, post-Soviet era. The author argues that the Cold War provided a simplifying framework fo U.S. (and Soviet) foreign policy makers: thwart the enemy's attempts to achieve global hegemony. During the late Cold War the internal contradictions of Soviet domestic economic and political policy increasingly weakened one pole of the stable bipolar political universe which emerged after World War II. The post-war anti-colonial struggles in the third world colonies only muddied the waters further. In the late Cold War era, U.S. policy makers found third world nationalist movements particularly problematical: they did not fit on the bipolar Communist versus Free World map. These movements were wild cards and potential disruptors. Successive administrations, both Democratic and Republican, attempted to undermine these popular movements. One can speculate on the role that multinational corporations, often centered in the U.S. while exploiting third world resources (minerals, oil) and cash crops (rubber, coffee, palm oil..) played in the development of U.S. foreign policy. Such speculation, though, is not essential to the argument Prof Mamdani develops and can be left our of an initial description and appraisal of those policies. The goal of U.S. foreign policy became the establishment of compliant "puppet states", open to globalized U.S. and multinational "Free Market" trade. Also important was the minimization of regulatory legislation, social safety nets and social service networks in third world client states in order to reduce the costs to multinational corporations. A stable, predictable world controlled by American military might and profitable for (U.S.) multinationals.
One of the author's surprising claims (for non-cynical readers anyway):
" Rather than a residue of a premodern culture in modern politics, terrorism is best understood as a modern construction. Even when it harnesses one or another aspect of tradition and culture, the result is a modern ensemble at the service of a modern project." (emphasis added)
The paranoid Reagan administration (Republican, 1980 - 1988), in particular, interpreted the Post WW II anti-colonial struggles as deliberate Soviet attempts to undermine U.S. / Western values and world hegemony. Applying the old rationalization of the "end justifies the means", the U.S. began supporting reactionary forces employing terrorism to suppress popular anti-colonial, nationalist movements. This was a major moral failure for a nation which was forged in the fire of an anti-colonial revolution (the American Revolution, 1765 - 1783). American anti-liberation policy reinforced imperialist / racist tendencies in American thinking and thus degraded American democracy at home and abroad.
Over time, the anti-nationalist, anti-liberation, anti-liberal forces supported by the U.S. became increasingly vicious and degenerate. Programs to fund these forces became increasingly covert, "off the books", creating - in effect - an imperialistic, anti-democratic "shadow government" within the U.S. federal government.
"If one advantage of proxy war was that its conduct could be hidden from public scrutiny, the disadvantage was that it was not easy to finance from public funds. This explains why covert wars have often tended to go hand in hand with illicit trade, usually in drugs. There has been a long-established link between the drug trade - whether licit or illicit - and the financing of colonial wars. In the early nineteenth century, the British empire set up an official monopoly for the cultivation of opium seed in its Indian colony and exported the harvest to China. When the Chinese emperor objected, the British claimed he was in violation of freedom of trade. To defend the freedom to trade opium, the empire sent gunboats up the Yangtze River and fought the ignoble Opium War. Similarly, in neighboring Indochina, the French used officially sanctioned opium revenues to pay the cost of their colonial occupation.
In a monumental historical study of the link between the drug trade and counterinsurgency, The Politics of Heroin, University of Wisconsin scholar Alfred McCoy has traced the global expansion of drug-production centers - in Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Colombia, and Afghanistan - to the political cover provided by CIA-sponsored covert wars. At the heart of the global drug trade after the Second World War has been trade in opium, the raw material base for the industrial manufacture of high-grade heroin. When the CIA began its alliance with drug lords, the global opium trade was "at its lowest ebb in nearly two centuries." The war disrupted international shipping, and tight security had blocked heroin smuggling into the United States. The CIA entered into two sets of alliances it consider key to waging the Cold War, both of which boosted the drug trade far beyond prewar levels. The first was with the Mafia in Italy and France, the second was with anti-Communist Chinese forces along the Burma-China border. From 1948 to 1950, the CIA allied "with the Corsican underworld in its struggle against the French Communist Party for control over the strategic Mediterranean port of Marseille." The Corsicans triumphed and "used their control over the Marseille waterfront to dominate the export of heroin to the U.S. Market" for "the next quarter century." At the same time, "the CIA ran a series of covert operations along the China border that were instrumental in the creation of the Golden Triangle heroin complex." Beginning in 1950, these operations were aimed at creating an anti-Communist Chinese force to mount an invasion of mainland China. The invasion never happened, but the anti-Communist Chinese (KMT) "succeeded in monopolizing and expanding the Shan states' opium trade." The CIA retained these forces along the Burma-China border, hoping they would function as an advance warning system against an anticipated Chinese invasion of Southeast Asia. Instead, this anti-Communist army "transformed Burma's Shan states into the world's largest opium producer" over the next decade." (page 66-67, emphasis added. See note 3)
Religion has been press ganged into serving the anti-national liberation movement as well. The instrumentalization of religion to serve this parallel government is well documented in Jeff Sharlet's excellent investigation, The Family.
Soviet helicopter brought down by Afghan rebels. Stinger missles provided by the U.S. were often used.
As they say, politics makes strange bedfellows. In the later Cold War period, 1975 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, U.S. foreign policy planners decided not merely to "contain the Communist menace" but to "roll back Communism". Although the roll back doctrine has come to be associated with the neoconservative Republican administration (1981 - 1989), it actually began a bit earlier under the Democratic Carter administration which began funding the Afghan mujahideen - those who wage jihad ("struggle" or, at the limit, "Holy War"). The objective was to weaken the pro-Soviet government in Kabul and force the Soviets into an expensive, possibly humiliating, foreign war against irregular (guerilla) forces, further weakening Soviet world power and influence: "roll back" in other words. The Soviets took the bait. The Soviet-Afghan war lasted from 1979 to 1989, cost the lives of about 15,000 Soviets, 55,000 wounded and a massive loss of helicopters (brought down by hand-held U.S. provided Stinger missles). This humilating costly conflict has been described as the Soviet Union's Viet Nam and is listed as a contributing factor in the weakening and final break up of the Soviet Union.
Afghan mujahideen fighters
Mujahideen with portable stinger missle
However, actions - especially political ones - produce unintended consequences: blow-back. Once the mujahideen were in power in Kabul, they could not hold onto it. Factionalized, they ended up fighting among themselves. One of their number, an Osama bin Laden, ended up turning to bite the hand that fed. Bin Laden, be it not forgotten, was the mastermind of the September 11, 201 attack on the Twin Towers, New York City which left 3,000 Americans dead. In a sense, the U.S. was reaping what it had sown. It decided to fight the dirty war, so now the dirty war was coming home..
The reasons for bin Laden's turning are not important in this article, only the fact that, in choosing to use terrorism to roll back Communist and thwart nationalist movements in the third world, the U.S. had let loose a Frankenstein's monster on itself. After the September 11 attack on American territory, bin Laden went to ground in Afghanistan, sheltered by a mujahideen faction called the Taliban which provided a reason for President GW Bush to invade that country. Thus the wheel of Karma ("causality") turned full circle. Dirty covert war by proxy against Communists and third world liberation movements employing terror against civilian targets led directly to the New Normal we are living, post 9-11: terrorist attacks (often homegrown) in Paris, Nice, New York, Orlando, Ottawa, Manchester..
As the Good Book puts it:
For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap - Galatians, 6:7
1- Ramsey Clark: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramsey_Clark
2- Evolutionary psychologists claim that human nature has a hypocritical streak for a reason: we are lousy liars. If, however, we manage to convince ourselves that our BS is true, we will make a much more convincing case before a potential audience. It pays, then, not to scrutinize our motives or rationale too closely! I recall a grandmother who called the CBC talk show, Cross Country Check Up, to say that her grandson had joined the army to "bring education to girls in Afghanistan", an argument used by the government to justify Canadian participation in the war. Yet, before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, few Canadians could find Afghanistan on the globe or could state whether girls had access to education there or not. Making people feel good about doing lousy things (wars, slavery, oppression of women, tax holidays for the rich..) is extremely useful to ruling elites since most people prefer to see themselves virtuous and meritorious amongst their peers.
3- Note that it is these very same neoconservative inspired governments who pushed a punitive "war against drugs" at home and abroad. The questions that need to be addressed here are:
- Who payed for the drugs? R: the American taxpayer through covert proxy wars.
- Who payed for the war on drugs? R: the American taxpayer.
- Who benefited from the war on drugs? R: the privatized prison and police system - subsidized by the taxpayers - installed by "Free Market" neoconservative ideologues. Also the bloody thugs in third world countries receiving funding to carry out America's proxy wars.
- Who suffers the most from the drug traffic supported by covert wars? R: American drug addicts, particularly from marginalized groups like blacks who received heavier sentences.