The colonialist consensus

Posted: Jul 15, 2003 12:00 AM

No one wants to say it out loud, but we are all colonialists now.

Conservatives want to provide security and decent government to far-flung parts of the world for our own good -- to protect America's interests; liberals want to provide security and decent government to far-flung parts of the world for other people's good -- to protect humanitarian principles.

The unspoken assumption of both sides is that swaths of the world have proven incapable of self-government, and they're both right. So conservative Republican President George W. Bush sends American troops to take over from the nasty dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, and liberal Democrat Howard Dean wants to send American troops to take over from the nasty dictator of Liberia, Charles Taylor.

Beneath all the vitriolic partisan disagreements about American foreign policy, then, there is a sort of colonialist consensus, which is why American troops are in Afghanistan and Iraq (a Republican president's colonialism), Bosnia and Kosovo (a Democratic president's colonialism), and perhaps soon Liberia, too (a Republican president's colonialism that is pleasing to Democrats).

The covert return to colonialism implicitly admits that old-fashioned colonialism -- at least of the civilizing British Empire sort -- never deserved its bad name. The British were capable of brutality and greed, but the historical ledger of the British Empire is positive. As British historian Niall Ferguson writes in his new book, Empire: "No organization in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labor than the British Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And no organization has done more to impose Western norms of law, order and governance around the world."

That we forgot all this -- buried under an avalanche of guilt and of Marxist and multiculturalist self-critiques -- is a sign of how no one can beat the West at anti-Westernism. Sept. 11 was a blunt reminder that the piratical regimes that have flourished in Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa in the absence of Western assertion are not just a disaster for people living under them, but are dangerous to us.

Consider Africa: If you want to see the post-colonial legacy on that continent, look no further than child soldiers, doped up and made to kill their parents. The failure of African self-government is so self-evident that it isn't just America that is feeling colonial impulses. One reason U.S. troops might end up in Liberia is that the Europeans we would ideally want to fob such a task off on are otherwise occupied -- the French in Ivory Coast and the Congo, and the British in Sierra Leone.

America's covert colonialist consensus should come out into the open. Then we can stop being surprised when we end up running countries, from Bosnia to Iraq, and concentrate on developing the difficult skills appropriate to the task. As we are learning in Iraq, breaking things is relatively easy, making them anew is very hard.

We can also openly study the British example and learn its lessons, especially how to create a -- in Ferguson's phrase -- "self-liquidating" empire, one that builds the institutions necessary to decent government, then leaves.

Among the most important of those lessons is that colonialism usually isn't appreciated by its beneficiaries. One of colonialism's fruits, as Rudyard Kipling wrote, is "The blame of those ye better, The hate of those ye guard." The countervailing force necessary to seeing the enterprise through is moral self-confidence, which the British had in buckets.

Winston Churchill once asked, "What enterprise that an enlightened community may attempt is more noble and more profitable than the reclamation from barbarism of fertile regions and large populations? To give peace to warring tribes, to administer justice where all was violence, to strike the chains off the slave, to draw the richness from the soil, to plant the earliest seeds of commerce and learning?"

It is a sign of the depth of America's covert colonialist consensus that part of even Howard Dean -- eager to intervene in Liberia -- agrees.