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Central Asia/Russia

COMMENTARY
The New Imperialism

By Pepe Escobar

ISLAMABAD - Joseph Conrad was the first modern writer to fully understand that in extreme situations the distinctions and nuances between civilization and the "heart of darkness" collapse with a bang. Conrad showed how the sublime heights of European civilization could fall into the pit of the most barbarous practices - without any sort of preparation or transition (no wonder that Belgium still has not officially acknowledged the genocide of millions during King Leopold's possession of the Congo).

Now more than ever it is rewarding to re-read Conrad - and as an added bonus to watch Francis Ford Coppola's reading of Conrad in the recently released director's cut of Apocalypse Now. The New Afghan War increasingly runs the risk of being configured as The New Vietnam. Washington has said from the beginning this is not Gulf War II. But now, deeply frustrated because they are unable to break the Taliban - those medieval architects of a pan-Islamic utopia - the Pentagon is contemplating a Desert Storm-style invasion the next Afghan spring. This won't be Gulf War II: this will be Vietnam II.

Most of the Muslim world's uneducated masses suffer from political and social underdevelopment and extremely corrupt elites. Osama bin Laden capitalized on this dysfunction. Osama and the Al-Qaeda, in their warped world-view, would have the Muslim world believe that we are now facing a war between Islam and the West. It may come as a striking revelation that the West also has its hordes of fundamentalists, of the armchair kind - but although they don't resort to jet-turned-to-missile suicide squads, they are just as deadly.

When Samuel Huntington came up with his Clash of Civilizations reductionist classic in 1993, he relied heavily on The Roots of Muslim Rage, a 1990 essay by the Orientalist Bernard Lewis. Professor Edward Said, a most acute critic of Orientalists, has pointed out that neither Huntington nor Lewis were careful enough to examine the fact that "the major contest in most modern cultures concerns the definition or interpretation of each culture". This goes way beyond a simplistic clash of cultures. Huntington's clash became a road map for American foreign policy because it is basically an ideology: a very handy ideology to fill the vacuum created by the end of the ideology-heavy Cold War.

We don't even have to invoke Freud and Nietzsche - as Said does - to realize that "there are closer ties between apparently warring civilizations than most of us would like to believe". Huntington's clash - although a dangerous warring ideology - must be ridiculed for what it is: mere defensive self-pride. As any urban youth in any world city can attest, the name of the game in the 21st century is interdependence: cultures are not monolithic, they interact in an orgy of cross-fertilization.

Bush the elder was wrong - or his formulation was ahead of his time. Not the Gulf War, but the Afghan War, fought by young Bush, is the preamble to a New World Order. The signs are already in print - and they are all offshoots of Huntington's clash.

An otherwise obscure opinion page editor of the Wall Street Journal is in favor of "colonization of wayward nations", including "the application of a dose of US imperialism". Not beating around the bush either, British historian Paul Johnson has also published in the Journal a piece titled "The Answer to Terrorism? Colonialism". The Financial Times, not to be upstaged by American competition, has carried its own "The Need for a New Imperialism". So what are all these self-important paragons of free speech and exchange of ideas basically saying? They're saying that the future, ladies and gentleman, is the past.

The New Imperialism according to the Financial Times is "defensive" - as defensive as Huntington's clash. It is based on the arbitrarily-defined concept of a "failed state". Afghanistan is given as a prime example. The FT cleverly omits to examine how Afghanistan failed because of relentless Russian and American armed interference since the late 1970s.

In The New Imperialism, the "coercive apparatus" must be provided by the West. To disguise the imperialist thrust, the FT suggests that the United Nations should be in charge of these "temporary protectorates". This is exactly what the US has in mind for Afghanistan. Obviously, nobody is listening to the UN special envoy to Afghanistan, Algerian diplomat Lakdar Brahimi, who said in Islamabad last week that the heavily-publicized utopia of a "broad-based government" cannot be forced down the Afghani people's throats: it will take time, it will have to come from within. Otherwise the end result will be, again, chaos.

Paul Johnson theorizes that the war against terrorism will lead to a new form of colonialism - of the benign or "respectable" kind - by "the great civilized powers". He can only mean America and its blind follower Britain - because the last time we checked France, Germany, Italy, Japan and China, to name but a few, are extremely civilized but not exactly keen on turning back the digital clock of history.

What Johnson really wants is to keep again arbitrarily-defined "terrorist states" under "responsible supervision" - meaning "unavoidable" political interference from the West. He even provides a list of eligible countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Iran and Syria. No coincidence: they are all Islamic. But if Johnson abandoned his leather armchair to do a bit of traveling, he could verify that at least three of these have better fish to fry.

Tony Blair bent over backwards on his recent visit to Damascus to engage Syria: Bashar Assad may not be a paragon of democracy, but he is more interested in education and information technology than bombs. Libya - not South Africa - is the new Eldorado for millions of black western and central Africans: Gaddafi, the Great Survivor, prefers to seduce African youth with economic opportunities rather than with bombs. Iran is torn between hardliners and moderates, but the young generation is fully behind Khatami and his "dialogue of civilizations" - a splendidly articulated cultural platform that strikes a chord all over the developing world.

Billions of people in Southeast Asia, China, South Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East , Eastern Europe or even Western Europe were not consulted about the designs of the New Imperialism. But it is no coincidence that the New Imperialism is being proposed exactly at this historical juncture. The current Pentagon production on the word's screens has turned out to be essentially a relentless bombing of innocent, starving civilians as punishment for terrorist attacks. It is widely regarded - not only in the Muslim world - as a very expensive and ultimately apalling exercise in futility. Apart from America, public support around the world is vanishing at an alarming rate.

This war was imposed from above on the Afghan population. They were never consulted about its legitimacy. They are not responsible for it. They are helpless victims. A cartoon in the Pakistani press explained the real meaning of "carpet bombing": American bombs fall on an Afghan carpet while a group of unflappable Taliban pose on the side for an Al Jazeera TV crew.

The proponents of New Imperialism conveniently forget to examine how the Taliban got to the ruined top of "failed" Afghanistan in the first place. The Taliban are eminently an Afghan, Pastun and tribal movement. It is easy to forget they are a direct product of the Saudi-American-financed anti-USSR jihad of the '80s. They took power in Kabul in 1996 with the absolute blessing of the US.

Afghanistan was beyond "failed" as a state in 1996. But at the time the Taliban were regarded as a convenient tool for the implementation of another classic American business plan: the construction of oil and gas pipelines from the Central Asian republics through Afghanistan, with Karachi as a major destination. The Taliban would theoretically control the whole country, impose law and order, and guarantee a safe trading environment.

The US had high hopes for the Taliban. They would clear Afghanistan of drugs. They would act against Russian and Iranian economic and geopolitical interests. They would get rid of terrorist training camps. They would pave the way for the return of former king Zahir Shah (no joke: this is what Washington thought way back in 1996). And most of all they would open the gates for the mega-pipelines from Central Asia.

So the whole thing was a sub-plot of the New Great Oil Rush: how America would win against the stiff competition of Russia and Iran. The American-Saudi coalition of Unocal and Delta was the main Western player. Then came the fall of Kabul - mostly financed by none other than Osama bin Laden himself. Unocal at the time was madly in love with the Taliban: an official statement praised the Taliban and the prospect of "immediately" doing business with them. In Afghanistan in 1996, as Afghan veterans comment in Peshawar, the perception was that the Taliban were supported or even financed by Washington.

Unocal was actively negotiating with the Taliban the construction of pipelines from Turkmenistan to the Arabian Sea, via Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unocal officials were extensively briefed by CIA agents. The positioning of Unocal in relation to Pakistani sources was equivalent to the positioning of the CIA during the jihad in the '80s. Unocal's main source of information was the disinformation-infested US Embassy in Islamabad.

Apart from all the by-products of their demented version of Islam, the Taliban in the end dealt a major blow to Washington. They did not control all of Afghanistan as expected. They did not bring peace: on the contrary, they installed a police state and engaged in ethnic cleansing (against the Hazaras). Average Afghans stress that the Taliban version of "peace" soon degenerated into an internal jihad against the civilian population.

They did not end poppy cultivation: on the contrary, they made a lot of money out of it. They treated women in the most repulsive way. And - the ultimate reason for their current predicament - they extended a precious red Afghan carpet to Osama bin Laden and his Arab-Afghans.

From courting this irascible lover, America is now bombing it to oblivion. But as millions in the Muslim world keeps on repeating, not a single piece of evidence has been produced in public to suggest that the Taliban are totally, partially, or even marginally responsible for September 11. Not a single piece of a so-called unimpeachable evidence was "independently verified" - as BBC and CNN are so fond of saying (even when they are verifying something during a Taliban-sponsored tour of Kandahar).

Any talk of a future broad-based Afghan government is a smoke screen. As far as American interests are concerned, it has to be a government that no matter what facilitates the American perspective of the Last Great Oil Rush. If push comes to shove, America may even contemplate an occupation of Afghanistan, more or less disguised via the UN. Before that happens, policy makers had better listen to Afghan professor Jamalluddin Naqvi, who says, "History is witness to the fact that Afghanistan is a human and territorial Bermuda Triangle from where no one ever comes out - at any rate in one piece."

Henry Kissinger would grumble that this is just realpolitik. It would certainly be an instance of the New Imperialism in action. The international community should thank the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times for informing us all in advance.

Another imperialist with impeccable credentials, globalization's puppy dog Thomas Friedman, wrote in the New York Times that "the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps". Globalization does not work without the New Imperialism. But another reading of history is always possible. In their seminal book Empire, Tony Negri and Michael Hardt argue that the process of globalization has generated a universal and oppressive New Imperialism - but stress that a real humanist alternative to imperialism and war is more than possible.

Ibn Khaldun, a Muslim historian of the 14th century, would agree. He was not deterministic like Huntington, Fukuyuma and assorted cohorts. He said that civilizations follow a process - they go through different stages. Centuries before Adam Smith, Ibn Khaldun came up with an extremely sophisticated analysis of free trade, the role of the market, and the rule of law. The Muqaddimah - the introduction to his immense Universal History, is a prodigy of humanism: nothing remotely similar to the intolerant Islam of the Taliban or the confrontational Islam of Al-Qaeda.

If Ibn Khaldun were alive today, he would tell us that American civilization - like the Caliphates, or the Umayyad dynasty of his time - has expanded to almost limitless power. And when you reach Absolute Power, the only way is down. Not only the eminent Muslim reached this conclusion, but also Western icons like Gibbon - talking about the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - and more recently Professor Paul Kennedy, who excelled in his examination of the concept of overextension of great powers.

In a fruitful "dialogue among civilizations" - an Iranian idea - Ibn Khaldun and Professor Kennedy would probably agree that America is now overextended. And they would certainly agree that civilizations do decline. America still is by all means a civilization of boundless, fascinating energy and dynamism. But it must beware of hubris - the essential element in Greek tragedy, the cultural foundation of Western civilization. Unfortunately, some dreamers of New Imperialism and assorted Pentagon generals have never heard of Sophocles. They'd better get their act together before they plunge America into another heart of darkness.

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