Nation building: The White House’s burden

Influencing considerably

In her recent piece in Foreign Affairs magazine, Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, argues that in the aftermath of September 11th, “democratic state building” has become “an urgent component of our national interest.”

Wilsonian idealism it appears has been replaced by a sort of “Bush realism.” In part, Secretary Rice’s general assessment that we should be involved in democratic state building is an attempt to re-package the Bush administration’s pre-emption policy through something we can all feel good about: giving the gift of democracy to the wailing masses through little more than militaristic altruism.

The imprudence of involving ourselves in an expanded vision of nation-building merely lends to the claims that the Bush administration is involved in a sort of ‘sentimental imperialism’ – a new “White House’s Burden,” if you will – to civilize the backwards people of the world; and only, by coincidence, are we creating acquiescent governments and multi-billion dollar contracts.

Why, one wonders, did Secretary Rice write this treatise on the last leg of the Bush administration’s tenure, and just as the 2008 presidential campaign reaches its crescendo? It’s safe to assume that not only is it meant to explain away the policy she helped coauthor, over the past eight years— one that many consider disastrous— but to ensure that the next president, whether Republican or Democrat, continues the same failed policy. “This uniquely American realism has guided us over the past eight years, and it must guide us over the years to come,” she argues.

As we consider the next Commander and Chief, the question becomes whether or not to continue, in effect, a third Bush term or otherwise revise the very strategy that has led to two concurrent occupations and further calls to invade other ‘weak’ nations (“we must be willing to use our power,” Secretary Rice argues, against ‘”weak and poorly governed states” because it is there that our influence “can be considerable”).

But whether or not one believes that we have adopted traditional imperialism – the policy of extending the rule of a country over other countries – what is certain is that we are currently involved in is a form of cultural imperialism, extending some of our cultural preferences over other countries through increasingly overt coercive means to justify our larger political and military actions.

In 1899, the great literary altruist Rudyard Kipling, hoping to convince Americans to invade and occupy the Philippines, wrote of the need to take up the ‘White Man’s Burden’ to civilize these backwards populations. Today, the same calls ring far and wide to democratize, liberalize, and in so many words— let’s be honest— civilize those ‘cartoonishly’ backward Muslims. The “White Man’s Burden” has become the “White House’s Burden.”

The calls for democracy by both Bush and Rice, and the calls for modernity and civility by Kipling are less about selfless humanism, then power consolidation. But even if the idea of democratization is wholehearted, real democratic reform is ultimately confounded by our confused national interests, which we will never be able to disconnect from; where one hand may be in the democratic cookie jar, while the other unabashedly supports (and almost prefers) every form of undemocratic rule for some abstract national or corporate interest.

For this reason, ‘democratization,’ writes Eva Bellin, in the same Foreign Affairs issue as Secretary Rice’s article, “must be the work of forces on the ground who daily make their own calculations of the costs and benefits of mobilizing collective power and challenging the status quo.” For the past few years Pakistan has seen those very ground forces at work. Unfortunately, the same Bush Administration which is playing the democracy card in Iraq continues to support and tacitly legitimize the undemocratic rule and unconstitutional acts by President Musharraf –who has dismantled the nation’s once proud independent judiciary.

Who we elect then, as our next Commander and Chief, may ultimately determine whether we use our democracy as an example for the world or as a ruse to over power those weaker elements in it.

(Photo: Peter Kreder via flickr under a Creative Commons license)

Hazem Ibrahim is political consultant and syndicated columnist who writes on US politics and Islam. You can reach him

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