Phillippines, Malaysia, South Africa: A Full Disclosure Approach to Historical Analogy

To keep a conversation rolling along on a single major point, I want to look at the claim that the history of counter-insurgency in South Africa, the Phillipines and Malaysia supports the tactical and strategic conduct of the current Iraq war by the United States.

Analogies: can’t live with them, can’t live without them. They’re how history achieves much of its relevance, but it’s also easy to surgically extract a single part of a historical case to support a contemporary argument when the larger historical context might argue otherwise. (Or might suggest the relative distance instead of comparability between a particular past moment and the present.)

So are these three cases good comparisons to the current war, and do they support an argument that the current American approach can produce a victory where victory is defined as a “stable liberal democracy” of some kind or another?

1) South Africa: the South African (Boer) War, 1899-1902. I can see its appeal as an analogy for a supporter of the current war in Iraq. A large imperial power (the British Empire) confronts the small ruling elite of two states (the Transvaal and the Orange Free State) by invading their territory. The two sides fight a conventional war in which the smaller group turn out to be relatively well-armed and tactically skilled, which results in the lumbering and unprepared imperial army getting kicked around pretty hard in the early stages of the conflict. The ruling party in London is forced onto the political defensive by the poor performance of their troops. But the difference in resources is too great, and the formal conflict ends in the partial surrender of the Afrikaner republics within a year. However, many Afrikaners turn to guerilla warfare, with considerable success. The British Army adopts harsh counter-insurgent methods, including the confinement of women and children in camps so as to deny the insurgents their base of support. This further erodes popular support for the war in England. However, the counter-insurgency eventually results in the grudging formal surrender of most of the partisans.

Unfortunately, there’s a bit more to the story than counter-insurgent tactics, as there is with Iraq, and it is there that the analogy has to live or die. The first question is, “Was the war necessary for the fulfillment of vital national objectives for the United Kingdom?” The second question is, “What were its short-term and long-term consequences of the war for the national and imperial interests of England?”

On the first question, the South African War practically invented anti-colonialism in the 20th Century, largely because many contemporary observers, including a significant number of people we today would regard as economic conservatives of some kind of another, saw the war as a hugely expensive liability. Certainly it’s a good case of a war which came about not as the result of careful, prudential calculations of vital national interest but as the result of manipulations by a small number of parties with highly particular personal and institutional investments in the situation. The Afrikaner republics posed no meaningful security threat to British power, even had they allied themselves more closely with Germany. Gold had a different economic significance than it does today, due to its relationship to currency values, but imperial control over goldfields was in no way necessary (nor, as we’ll see, did it last). South Africa today would be a very different place if the war had not been fought, but I don’t think that the British Empire would have been terribly different. And that’s the unit of our analogy: the United States now compared to some past imperial or hegemonic power fighting a distant insurgency. If the investment of blood and treasure changes some place far away, but that change is in no fashion necessary or vital for the power spending those resources, what’s the point?

More potently, how about the results? Were the harsh tactics of the late part of the South African War a tactical and strategic triumph that commend themselves as models for the current conflict? They did produce a formal surrender by insurgents, after all. But the result was most certainly not a liberal democracy, at least not in a way that has a happy relationship to the present. Having extricated themselves from an unpopular and apparently fruitless war, what did the British do? They basically handed sovereignty over South Africa back to the local white population on terms that favored Afrikaners. Moreover, they agreed more or less as a condition of imperial withdrawal to hugely strengthen the power of whites over African, South Asian and mixed-race populations, who were the vast majority of the population of South Africa. The 1913 Land Act, which alienated most of the land of the country for the use of the white minority, was a direct consequence of the South African War. Apartheid after 1948 was a direct consequence of the war, in particular the final settlement of the war.

The analogy here is not to a stable liberal democratic and unified Iraq. A far better comparison would be a conclusion to the war in which the United States finally agreed to hand power back to the Sunni minority, gave the new state economic, juridical and military tools for suppressing Shi’a, Kurdish and Turkmen populations and called that a victory, even though it leads to decades of suffering and repression as well as the creation of an authoritarian state supported by a small minority of a large territory. If that’s victory, give me defeat, thanks.

If a positive use of the analogy is meant to claim instead that post-1993 South Africa is the good liberal democracy that the South African War helped to produce, then to quote John McEnroe, “You cannot be serious”. By that standard, I could defend the Mongol invasion of Europe as a great idea because it helped to spread the Black Death which in the end led to the consolidation of capital and land that was a probable precursor to early modern capitalism in Europe which led to my having an iPod. Thank you, Genghis Khan, for my big-screen TV.

Analogy requires some kind of causal proximity if it’s meant to be a guide to matching good policies with immediately good outcomes.

So in the case of South Africa, was the war a necessary expense of lives and resources from the standpoint of the occupying power? No. Did harsh counter-insurgent tactics lead to a good outcome that compares well to the declared standard for American victory in Iraq? No.

2) How about the Phillipines?

First, was the war necessary for American interests? Not in any way that I can see, even from the narrow standpoint of defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War (which I’d also argue was an unnecessary conflict, but that’s a different argument). I think the writing was on the wall for Spanish imperial control over the Phillipines by 1897, despite Aguinaldo’s agreement to go into exile. It was already the beginning of the end.

What would Filipino nationalists have made of the Phillipines without American involvement? Whatever that Filipino state might have been it’s hard to imagine how anything they achieved could have interfered in even the slightest way with American national interests in 1898. Or, for that matter, how that counterfactual state could have served American interests, either.

But the US did get involved, for what in the most charitable interpretation could be said to be accidental reasons or by other interpretations because of mendaciousness and raw militarism, and became the target of a protracted insurgency. Again, as in South Africa, there was a formal surrender by one faction of nationalist leaders, but much of the war went on for longer; in Mindanao until 1913. Harsh counter-insurgent tactics, including the use of concentration camps and torture, gradually sapped strength from the insurgency, at the cost of many Filipino lives–usually numbered between 300,000 and almost a million. Over 4,000 American soldiers died in the conflict.

So what did that achieve? A stable liberal democracy that would not have come about but for the American intervention and but for the use of harsh tactics? Well, let’s take a look around the region. Was the 20th Century political history of the Phillipines after the end of American occupation (1946) markedly different from the political history of the rest of South and Southeast Asia, to the point where we can say that American occupation and the use of harsh counter-insurgency produced a noticeably different and preferable outcome? Preferable to the 20th Century political history of Indonesia? Singapore? Thailand? Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia present some complexities in terms of their comparability, and Malaysia proper (though Singapore is tied up in that) we’ll get to in a minute. Ok, looks much better than Myanamar, I guess. But otherwise? The Phillipines is mainly remarkably for how similar its political history after 1946 has been to regional neighbors who were not occupied by the United States at the end of the 19th Century, and did not have to engage in a protracted nationalist insurgency against it. In other words, counter-insurgent tactics in the Phillipines had the main military result of eventually getting the insurgents to quiet down their activities, but achieved no political or economic aim worth their price save getting the United States out of a situation that it had no business being involved with in the first place.

3) Malaysia. I know the least about this example, but it strikes me as being complicated by its historical emplacement within the Cold War. Did England need to engage in counter-insurgent struggles in Malaysia? Your answer to that will depend on how you judge most Cold War struggles of a similar nature. I’m at least willing to consider that those struggles were necessary or important in some global sense (in a way that occupying the Phillipines or fighting the Afrikaners were not).

Were the tactics employed by the British necessary for achieving a proximate political outcome that was positive which is also potentially analogous to the declared war aims of the United States in Iraq? Yes, arguably. The other two analogies seem either inappropriate or to actually indict American tactics, but I can see this argument a bit better.

Some important differences. . The insurgents were internationally isolated (unlike similar groups elsewhere in Southeast Asia and unlike at least one faction of insurgents in Iraq today). The insurgents were highly concentrated geographically. They were mostly of a single ethnic group (Chinese) who had previously been denied political and civil rights, and one of the important tactics of the British and Malaysia counter-insurgency forces was simply to convincingly promise political inclusion and enfranchisement to the Chinese minority. The British were considerably less slow to appreciate the nature of the conflict and were considerably more attentive to the need to favorably connect with the population early on in the struggle, and if you think that you don’t get a “do-over” as far as that kind of effort goes, you could say that it doesn’t matter whether you understand this point later on: you have to do it right from the outset. More importantly, British armed forces had a lot of prior involvement with the country and a lot of strong connections to the local troops and leadership fighting against the guerillas.

But ok. One potentially plausible analogy, two that don’t work at all. How about other potentially comparable 20th Century cases of harsh counter-insurgency methods similar to what the United States is employing now? Algeria, the Mau Mau Rebellion, Indochina (French and American), various past and continuing struggles in Latin America from Colombia to Nicaragua? Rhodesia? Do any of those shape up favorably for the United States? Not particularly. On the other hand, are there any successes at all out there for societies facing protracted guerilla warfare or civil conflict? Not many, but I think I’d venture one thought: most of the sustained long-term resolutions come down to a political settlement, not to the use of intense military power and harsh repression by a foreign occupier.

As far as analogy goes, if you’ve only got one comparable case that shakes out in your favor, and a whole bunch that don’t, I’d say that’s not an encouraging sign.

One more thing to consider. I would say that all examples of guerilla wars against imperial occupiers from before 1945, and maybe even some of the conflicts of the early Cold War, are bad comparisons from a technological standpoint. The force multipliers available to early 20th Century European and American armies in relationship to non-Western guerillas were enormous; the resource disparity between cutting-edge industrial powers strongly tied into global networks and preindustrial insurgent political structures with almost no access to global resources was also huge.

In the case of the Phillipines and the late part of the South African War, imperial powers removed a large proportion of the civilian population into protected concentration camps. Is that even possible in economic and structural terms for the current American occupation in Iraq? (Leaving aside the political consequences on the international and local level.) I’d say not. On the other side of things, it’s possible for insurgents in Iraq to impede the operations of a much larger and better equipped imperial army in a way that was not possible before 1955 or so. Cheap powerful explosives and automatic weapons combined with a ready supply of martyrs adds up to force equivalency in many respects, even before you get to the normal advantage of guerillas versus occupiers (they can vanish into the population while the occupier remains exposed and vulnerable). So the United States isn’t even able to carry out some of the tactics suggested by these analogies. Which leaves only arbitrary brutality, which is not really a tactic in any respect. Or genocide, which is a far darker domain of analogy.

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18 Responses to Phillippines, Malaysia, South Africa: A Full Disclosure Approach to Historical Analogy

  1. My only quibble is with the dismissal of legitimate interests in controlling the Philippines. This was the great age of sea power — or at least sea power theory — and control of the Philipines gave the US a position in SE Asia. Now, you and I may not see imperial strategy as a legitimate policy consideration — perhaps that’s what you meant by “mendaciousness and raw militarism” — but its not entirely irrational.

  2. withywindle says:

    I shan’t counter-argue your examples at too great length–to do so would be tedious, and I am gratified that you have taken the time to consider them at
    length. A few brief points:

    1) I don’t think the justification of any intervention should weigh too heavily on the long-term consequences. I do indeed think that South Africa’s transition from apartheid in the 1990s owed something to the imposition of British political culture and economic ties on the Afrikaners, but the short term
    consequences are far more relevant. I.e., I think the dangers of neutral Afrikaner republics in WWI greater than you do, and the benefit of their firm
    incorporation within the British imperial system for the conduct of that war greater. The benefits of the South African, Philipine, and Malay Wars I take to be justified by their benefits within the window of a generation–30 years at the most. Likewise, the benefits (and costs) of Iraq are largely to be judged
    by their short and medium term benefits; the results 100 years down the line are beyond prudential calculation.

    2) You do underplay foreign roles consistently. American occupation of the Philipines took into account the probability that the alternative was not
    an independent Philipine state, but its absorption as protectorate or colony by Germany or Japan. The South African War also had in mind the dynamic and
    unpredictable policies of Imperial Germany–and I think you should allow for more room for active German-Boer entanglement between 1900 and 1914, absent British conquest. (Cf. the rapid growth of German-Ottoman ties in that period.) The Malay struggle likewise tied in to the Cold War context, and
    the possibility of dynamic Soviet/Chinese/Vietnamese/Indonesian support for the Communist rebels, absent stern British repression. And of course the situation in Iraq is not purely one of Americans and Iraqis, but of dynamic and malicious Iranian, Syrian, and Saudi interference within Iraqi borders–something, I believe, that your analyses have tended to minimize.

    3) The fact that the ethnic balances in these wars was not identical to the ethnic balance within Iraq does not, to my mind, matter as much as the fact that each of these wars did involve, internally riven, vulnerable societies, which each provided openings for the establishment of occupying rule, by some variation of divide-and-conquer. Such advantages as we have (Kurdish support) have derived from similar fractures; such advantages as we may gain (establishing ourselves as essential brokers to prevent mutual Sunni-Shia
    slaughter) derive from other such fractures. This basic similarity is another reason I take these examples as offering instructive lessons and possibilities for our engagement in Iraq.

    4) “Although I’d rather they had not, / A Maxim gun they now have got.” You are correct that this changes the military dynamic drastically. We do also have new weapons, tactics, and doctrines. This is not a cause for despair, but it is a cause not to take the given analogies as warrants for simpleminded optimism, and to take very seriously, and adapt to, the changed military situation.

    5) You mention Nicaragua–where we did squeeze out the Sandinista government. Surely a success?

    6) I do think the political culture of the Philipines is distinctly superior to its neighbors–I think you give insufficient credit to its awkward democracy.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    The simpler version of this whole discussion is the following.

    What did “harsh tactics” buy for imperial powers in these cases, save perhaps Malaysia?

    A political fig leaf for withdrawal from a situation that had cost a lot of lives and money and had been largely unnecessary in the first place.

    What did “harsh tactics” cost in terms of human life? Enormous costs to innocent people who almost certainly would have lived out their lives in better circumstances had there been no conflict. Deferred political resolutions of difficult situations. I’m 100% certain that had the UK not engaged in the South African War, the Afrikaner republics would have proven unsustainable far sooner. They were already in enormous crisis in the 1890s in a number of ways. I don’t see any difference substantively now between Filipino politics now and the politics of Indonesia, really–and in the Marcos years, probably Indonesia was a preferable place to live and be.

    So if harsh tactics now are just about providing the current Administration (or its successor) relief from its self-inflicted political wounds, that’s a really high price to pay, and it’s not our troops that are paying it. It would be a novel event if the people who did wrong had to pay the price for it themselves, if only in political terms. In other terms, if the difference between withdrawing now and five years from now is just X thousands of Iraqi lives and X hundreds of American lives, then do it now, and damn the political consequences to the party and individuals who ought to suffer those consequences anyway.

  4. withywindle says:

    I think you are engaging excessively in straight-line counterfactuals–the assumption that a war avoided at one point would not lead to a different war, perhaps with worse consequences. Also, so there is the question of necessary burdens–did Afrikaner suffering buy a British victory in World War One? If so, this strikes me as a worthwhile price to pay. (Incidentally, what do you mean when you say the Afrikaner republics were unsustainable? An ambiguous term.) I see a far more vibrant and deep-rooted democratic culture in the Philipines–we can still say their democracy is twice as old as the Indonesian one!–and I note that Indonesia has had quite a number of brutal massacres in the last fifty years, from Sumatra to East Timor, the 1960s massacre of 500K Communists and Chinese most notable among them, to which nothing in the Philipines (to my knowledge) quite compares. (I am including the long war against Mindanao, and Marcos’ anti-Communist wars.) And, of course, harsh tactics is not just about providing political relief; if it were, I would not be arguing with you.

  5. withywindle says:

    The Philippines War brought America the exclusion of Japan and Germany from the Philippines, a strategic base by which to extend power and influence in Asia, a tripwire against Japan, a limited but non-trivial Americanization of Philipine political culture, and the eventual affections of a non-trivial number of Filipinos, both at home and as immigrants in America. (Some now fighting for America abroad, in a more happy irony than usual.) The South African War assured Britain of the wealth of the Afrikaner republics during World War I, likewise assured them that the population would not engage in open hostility or dangerous neutrality, improved Britain’s ability to pick off the German colonies of Namibia and Tanganyika, meant Britain would not have to maintain a watchful army to defend against a possible Afrikaner incursion, and provided the counsel of Botha and Smuts. In Malaya, as I believe you recognize, it guaranteed a defeat of the Communists–and also assured the rubber (and tin, yes?) of Malaya would continue to accrue to the sterling balances, and thus substantially contribute to Britain’s economic solvency.

  6. jpool says:

    OK, now I’m confused. Withywindle, is your point that you can come up with reasons why the U.S. or Britain might have thought that what they did was a good idea at the time, or that it really was a good idea from the standpoint of creating liberal democracies in those countries? Because if it’s the latter, then a) I’m unconvinced by any of your causal reasoning, and b) you’re a complete racist.
    I’ll leave South Africa alone, but because Tim’s already covered that, but how do you figure the U.S. supported Marcos regime was in any sense democratic? Or are you using Cold War math — communist=non-democratic, non-communist=democratic?

  7. withywindle says:

    I think both the arguments of short-term strategic advantage and long-term promotion of liberal democracy have some weight to them–at any rate, are more arguable than in Tim’s analysis. Both arguments seem to be relevant for the moral calculus–they ought, as much as possible, to be separated from another, to sharpen the power of analysis. If I have failed to do so, I must beg pardon for my failings. I’m not quite sure what in everything I said leads you to toss out the accusation of racism; do spell out your thought process. I do rather buy the Kirkpatrick thesis that authoritarianism is preferable to totalitarianism, because it allows for an easier transition to democracy. However, I believe what I said was that America favored, and promoted, a non-trivial Americanization of Philipine political culture, including a non-trivial sinking in of liberal democracy. We supported an imperfect democracy before Marcos declared martial law (1972), and an imperfect democracy after he fled (1986); that we supported him in the interim was our preference in an imperfect world, over which we had limited power. And to identify America’s policy toward the Philipines solely with its policy toward Marcos in his period as dictator is somewhat distorting.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    I think this last point of accepting imperfect situations is important. That’s not to say that one should do so to the point of erecting a sociohistorically phony doctrine like “authoritarianism leads to democracy better than totalitarianism”: that’s just a fig leaf for “This guy is our bastard, not their bastard”. There was not much of a moral difference between Savimbi and Santos, and it was puke-worthy to hear Kirkpatrick act as if there was.

    But accepting imperfect situations because the cost of perfecting them in the immediate short-term is far too high both in terms of moral commitments AND in terms of blood and treasure is what this kind of evaluation of Iraq is all about. If you can accept a realist calculation when evaluating past American policies, what makes such calculations so distasteful today? Or is it just, “Whatever the Republicans did under Reagan was good, and whatever they do now is good, even when the premises of action are very different.”

    Realism in this sense need not be Kissinger realpolitik, either. I actually take the more idealist neoconservative criticism of that sort of realism quite seriously. Moral and ethical concerns in foreign policy matter; the promotion of freedom matters. Both for reasons of self-interest and philosophical commitment. You can be realistic about the cost of acting more forcefully while patiently believing in the power and appeal of liberal democracy, a power which is burnished when we continue to do everything we can to uphold its principles and communicate its attractiveness.

    So I look at something like the Phillipines and I say, that’s got nothing to do with decades of American occupation and counter-insurgency. And nothing to do with a fairly ghastly degree of enthusiasm for Marcos. It’s about the world-historical force of liberal democracy as a political and cultural system. If there was a role for “Americanization” in that, it came through more quotidian, everyday and massified connections between postwar America and the culture and society of the Phillipines. I think you do more to promote liberal democracy when you liberally hand out green cards to the nationals of countries we’d like to see change their political systems than you do by deploying troops. Long-term change takes long-term calculations, but also long-term faith that the system we endorse is in fact the best available to humanity at the moment.

  9. withywindle says:

    I don’t actually think we disagree on most of the bundles of principles at stake, but rather (to keep flogging a dead horse) on the prudential judgments of means and circumstance. Now these are significant–I rate the acuity of Kirkpatrick’s prudential judgment and analysis far more highly than you do, and it does of course have significant policy differences–but I recognize you as inhabiting the same moral universe as I do. (The universe is a large place, but still.) I do keep hoping that this statement of basic moral recognition will elicit a countervailing response. However, if not you, I hope to receive it from some unknown reader, now or in the future. The point of all this gabbling, after all.

    (And, fundamentally, why I keep bugging you by commenting on your website. Aside from the fact that I find you interesting and decent, and I do take intrinsic pleasure in reading and commenting here, you seem to me to be right at the edge of the mental horizon where you can either fall off the edge of engaging someone of my views in discourse, or of turning back to continue the effort. I think it’s worth the effort to try to rope you into continued discourse. What I’m doing here is in effect the encapsulation of one of my larger projects–persuasion by varying rhetorical modes aimed at academics to make them acknowledge my political and philosophical stance as part of their moral universe. A great number I’m afraid are beyond my reach. It is your dubious fortune that I judge that you are not quite.)

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    Well, right back atcha on that. It’s definitely worth continuing the conversation. I think one thing I’d like to convince you of is that there are more academics, left and otherwise, who are “within your reach”, that the core of academia are people who care primarily about ideas and intellectualism despite a lot of the institutional and careerist pressures that try to push them elsewhere. But as you know, I’d also agree that there’s an awful lot wrong with academia.

  11. jpool says:

    You politely commanded that I should explain my use of the term “racist.” My temptation is to say, you’re a smart guy, figure it out, but, as it is indeed a serious charge, I’ll make an effort to explain.
    The short version is that you discus the decisions of the US and Britain as colonial powers without any reference to their effects on the rights, welfare or lives of the colonized. You write about necessary trade offs in South Africa in terms of Afrikaner suffering, not in terms of the much greater long-term suffering of non-White South Africans. This is not just looking at the big picture, it is considering a historical dynamic with one set of sympathies turned up to 11 and another turned down to zero.
    This is why the question of whether you were seriously arguing that these efforts to maintain colonial control in the face of insurgency were good for liberal democracy seemed important. Perhaps you simply equate the U.S. and Britain with liberal democracy, in which case you could argue that you are not a racist, but simply a colonialist and an ultra-nationalist.
    We can deconstruct the old image of colonialism as the “crusher of rocks” and take seriously itself image as a civilizing mission and late efforts at democratic tutelage all day long (and, indeed, I do some of this in my work), but it doesn’t change the fact that it was, in essence, a system of national and racial domination. This is why I think Achille Mbembe’s point about commandement is important, and it’s why colonial regimes tended to be very poor teachers of liberal democracy — because they were examples of it themselves.

  12. jpool says:

    Sorry, that last line should read “because they were poor examples of it themselves.”

  13. withywindle says:

    Tim: thank you for return of compliments and civility! I don’t actually know that I have an exact sense of the proportion of academics I fear are beyond my persuasion. In the younger generation, I would say a minimum of a quarter–perhaps a majority, although I hope not. I would not be surprised to discover that I was in the most conservative 1% of humanities academics in my age cohort.

    JPool: Re South Africa, I deliberately excluded the Africans from the moral calculus because I understood that that is usually held to aid the case for British annexation–that (contra the tenor of Tim’s argument that the Boer War bears culpability for apartheid) the Afrikaners would have been more harsh toward the Afrikaners absent British annexation–imposed apartheid or some other system of racial oppression sooner and/or more harshly. I thought it would be unfair of me to add that complicating argument in my favor–playing with the given terms of the debate. So that was intended as a free gift to Tim.

    More broadly, 1) I weigh the interests and survival of nations whose liberal democracy is rooted in stable institutions and a deep political culture far above the interests of nations lacking these attributes; 2) in each given historical period, my judgments favor the nation whose liberal democracy is broadest and most stable among its contemporary peers; 3) I take the growth of liberal democracy in history to be inextricably bound up with oppressions, expulsions, and conquests, and that (tragically) these were the necessary prices of the growth of liberty. (I.e., English liberty depnded on giving the anti-democratic upper classes room to play in Ireland and the larger Empire; sucks to be Irish or colonial, but better they suffer than no English liberty. American freedom is built on American slavery and mass murder of Indians; ditto on suckage and the preferability of American liberty.) If you like, I accept much of the left-critique on how great was the cost of the growth of modern liberal democracies, but preserve a right-judgment on the value and worth of the said liberal democracies–which is not dependent on said liberal democracies being particularly nice. I am perfectly willing to acknowledge the sufferings of the colonized; I don’t take their suffering to be the only measure of historical judgment. I fancy that most Irishmen and Africans are unlikely to share my scale of values anytime soon, but that isn’t by itself a sufficient judgement on their rightness or wrongness. You are welcome to call this racist or nationalist if you like, some thin screen or justification; it is to my mind a discrimination between free men and the unfree.

  14. jpool says:

    OK, I can sort of see the not further complicating the argument thing, but given that your view of the situation runs precisely counter to what Tim was arguing, as well as to what I would say is the current historical consensus on South Africa, I don’t see how this would be a “free gift to him.”
    But then that doesn’t matter, because you go on to the very odd teleology through which you view the last couple centuries. So all of this enslavement and disenfranchisement and suffering is not just a tragic historical reality, but a necessary element for the creation of British/American democracy? From someone who often insists, “But if you take away this variable, then who’s to say others wouldn’t arise in its place?” this seems a particularly odd theory of history. So would you say that Jim Crow was a good thing because it somehow preserved liberal democracy for White US Southerners (and I suppose white US unity) rather than a cowardly betrayal because it specifically denied liberal democracy to non-White Americans? And would you then see its dismantling some 80 years later not as the result of sucessful resistance by those disenfranchised, but as the flowering of that same political culture that sought to disenfranchise them? Your 93-year cicada theory of British democratic culture in South Africa starts to seem at least more consistent in this light.
    I could try asking you how you make this discrimination between free people (or just men?) and the unfree, or what it means to have stable politcal institutions and a deep political culture (so, at the time, the creation of the US was a horrible mistake, yes?), or what other nations you see as having these qualities (France, the Netherlands?) and thus as being worthy of historical advocacy over the Others, but I don’t know if that would illuminate the underlying issues. So, yes, I’ll stick with my earlier assessment of your beliefs here.

  15. Timothy Burke says:

    I can certainly say that aspects of British liberalism reproduced themselves in the political imagination in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent, with at least sometimes good long-term results. But this was an accident of history, not the result of a policy or purpose; if liberalism reproduced itself in the minds and hearts of Africans, it was because they grabbed at its implications against the declared will of colonial policy-makers, much as slaves and abolitionists in the United States wrote the humanity of slaves into the Constitution despite considerable attempts to write them out of it. You can give liberalism itself, or the Constitution itself, some credit as a philosophical doctrine for containing the possibility of its accidental universality. You can’t give colonial policy-makers credit, or many of the initial drafters of the Constitution, credit, because that universalizing was expressly counter to their intent, and often counter to very considerable efforts to prevent it from happening.

    This compares to Iraq in a crucial way. Suddenly Withywindle wants the war in Iraq to get credit for its deliberate policy objectives, to write an imaginary future history of Iraq some decades hence in which it is a fully liberal society and to collapse anything that might have come between the deliberate, programmatic decisions being made now and that hypothetical future.

    But 1993 was not what the British were trying to do in creating the Union of South Africa. In fact, the bargain they struck with the defeated Afrikaner leadership more or less made 1993 less likely to happen in any future rather than more likely. Even in the most Hegelian and teleological scheme you could imagine, the settlement of the Boer War deferred the freedom of all South Africans rather than secured it. The only credit that Britain can get for anything good about the post-1993 era is indirect and accidental, for the underlying vigor and potential of its political culture. Joe Chamberlain, Alfred Milner, Lord Salisbury, Cecil Rhodes and others get credit only for spending lives and money like a sailor chasing whores and then more or less capitulating to the repressive whims of their defeated enemies in order to get out with their political asses intact.

    This is what’s nuts about Niall Ferguson’s claim that liberalism and good governance were spread programmatically and on purpose by colonial officers, as an altruistic gift to the non-Western world. Liberalism was spread the way that ticks are spread by a dog, by riding invisibly along with people whose job it was to administer an empire or to convert its subjects into Christians. They couldn’t help themselves, though lord knows they tried from time to time.

    This is the point about Iraq. At this juncture, anything that American policy-makers choose to do is likely to have little relationship to the achievement of some distantly future political order, frankly. In that case, given that withdrawal at the least saves American lives and resources, might as well. The war itself is likely to have a pretty catastrophic effect on the possibility of progressive change in Iraq for some time to come regardless of how it formally concludes.

  16. jpool says:

    I haven’t read Ferguson, though between you and Fred Cooper I feel like I’m going to have to sometime to understand this contemporary mythology and the resurrected defence of empire that, sooner or later, is going to show up in my prospective classroom.

    Part of the deconstruction of colonialism I do is around the idea of colonial citizenship circulation in 1940s and early 1950s British West Africa (but also Uganda and Tanzania) where the British tried unsucessfully to catch up with and redirect some of these ideas of liberal democracy and national sovereignty already in circulation. As you note, these debates, in those lucky cases where I’ve encountered them, contain a lively mix of ideas from pre-colonial political values, missionary and colonial schooling, and wartime propaganda. It’s worth noting in this light that pre-colonial Akan political systems, while containing many elements of radical inequality and a large excluded class, was certainly a liberal democracy by Withywindle’s standards.

    On Iraq, that’s an interesting point. It shows neocon millenarianism dove-tailing with Christian fundamentalist millenarianism, even though they have differing views of the great change coming.

  17. withywindle says:

    JPool: Jim Crow was a *necessary* thing bound up in the good of preserving liberal democracy. (I recognize that a Communist might say something structurally similar about, say the Gulag.) You make an interesting point about contingency. I think what I want to say is that to recognize contingency, to say there are not inevitable laws of history, is not to say there aren’t overdetermining patterns, that render very likely results. Tim’s pessimisms about the efficacy of American action in some situtations, for example, have some justification as intuitions or temperaments; I just think he is too consistent in his pessimism. I don’t see American political culture in the 1870s as being able to sustain Reconstruction–though you are right that I should probably add a dollop of contingency to that judgment, and say that things could have been significantly better in terms of racial equality (or significantly worse, I suppose). Let me rephrase then: *to the extent* that various past sufferings were necessary prices for liberty, we should endorse them in terms of necessity. (Although never think of them as good in and of themselves, nor cease to engage in moral judgment.) But you are right that we should always keep contingency in our sense of the past, not least so we don’t succumb to the temptation to say “What was, was good.” Practically, the difference between the 1870s and the 1960s that made the dismantling of Jim Crow derives from intervening transformation in the political cultures, societal attitudes, of all Americans, black and white. As for discriminations between free and unfree–oh, come on, why are you asking me a question that requires a book to answer properly? Let us say that philosophically I am something of a neo-Aristotelian right now (wait until I read another book; I may be something else tomorrow), and that Hannah Arendt’s sense of liberty is close to mine. Say also that I am a Burkean conservative who places high value on the institutionalizations of ideals–that liberty as an unattached ideal matters little, but liberty institutionalized in parliamentary practice, history, and emotional attachment to parliament matters very much. America clearly had a broader and more radical liberty and democracy to offer than the UK in the 1776, rooted in enduring provincial legislatures, so deserves advocacy–although I have great sympathy for the Loyalists who thought they opposed only a revolutionary rabble. My advocacy, as I say, always depends on the relevant protagonists–I suppose if you feed me an endless stream of examples, I can give you an endless stream of answers, though this strikes me as a waste of time. If you like, I think the British case in the Boer War is actually one of the weaker ones, since I understand the Afrikaner Republics to have been pretty (white) liberal and democratic; and the case for British interest is, if not quite as derisory as Tim thinks, not the strongest in the world. You’re not the first to call me racist, and I suppose you won’t be the last. Who am I to deny a man his innocent pleasures?

    Tim: I think that we should give some credit to people for unanticipated outcomes–not least because they are not entirely unanticipated. We hold our beliefs knowing they are subject to a variety of outcomes, knowing that by excluding some alternatives we open the door to others. British principles in 1899 closed the door on tyranny, and established liberty as an irreducible ideal; the door was held open to 1993 by that choice–and not entirely unconsciously. 1899 may not have loved 1993, but they had already made the fundamental choice that preferred the possibility of 1993 to the possibility of the revocation of 1688. So, yes, they get credit for that. I think the US should get the credit for a future liberal Iraq, just as it should get the blame for a future Hezbollah Iraq–both implicit in the alternatives we have foreclosed.

  18. But doubledubya, what’s you position on analogies in meaningless mayral campaigns?

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