Backlash?

John McCain, in the New York Times Magazine article on his foreign policy evolution:

McCain is known for being a gut thinker, averse to overarching doctrines or theory. But as we talked, I tried to draw out of him some template for knowing when military intervention made sense — an answer, essentially, to the question that has plagued policy makers confronting international crises for the last 20 years. McCain has said that the invasion of Iraq was justified, even absent the weapons of mass destruction he believed were there, because of Hussein’s affront to basic human values. Why then, I asked McCain, shouldn’t we go into Zimbabwe, where, according to that morning’s paper, allies of the despotic president, Robert Mugabe, were rounding up his political opponents and preparing to subvert the results of the country’s recent national election? How about sending soldiers into Myanmar, formerly Burma, where Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest by a military junta?

“I think in the case of Zimbabwe, it’s because of our history in Africa,” McCain said thoughtfully. “Not so much the United States but the Europeans, the colonialist history in Africa. The government of South Africa has obviously not been effective, to say the least, in trying to affect the situation in Zimbabwe, and one reason is that they don’t want to be tarred with the brush of modern colonialism. So that’s a problem I think we will continue to have on the continent of Africa. If you send in Western military forces, then you risk the backlash from the people, from the legacy that was left in Africa because of the era of colonialism.”

The United States faced a similar obstacle in Myanmar, McCain went on, shaking his head sadly. “First of all, you’d have to gauge the opinion of the people over time, whether you’d be greeted as liberators or as occupiers,” McCain said. “I would be concerned about the possibility that if it were mishandled, we might see an insurgent movement.” He talked a bit about Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he called “one of the great figures of the 20th century,” but then wondered aloud if the American public would support a military intervention.

Really? I know that colonialism in Africa has long gotten more attention than colonialism elsewhere, but does John McCain really not know about the impact of colonialism on other regions of the world, including the Middle East? Does McCain not realize that the current Middle Eastern borders were drawn by the British and the French after World War I? That our actions in Iraq have been “tarred with the brush of modern colonialism” by al-Qaeda and our other enemies in the region? That Burma itself was a part of the British Empire until 1948?

I largely agree with this by Matt Yglesias.

Actually, though, I think McCain’s not alone here. Very few Americans (even American elites) seem to recognize that most of the “pro-American” regimes in the region — all the monarchies, basically — just are colonial regimes set up by the British imperial authorities. Eventually, the United States took over from Britain as the foreign underwriter of those regimes. But to understand U.S. policy in the region and how the U.S. is viewed, you need to understand that Jordan and the G.C.C. aren’t just autocracies, they’re autocratic creations of the British Empire and CENTCOM is seen as the successor to the Colonial Office. Meanwhile, the “anti-American” or “radical” regimes in Syria, Iran, and (formerly) Iraq all have their origins in rebellions against colonial regimes. The Egyptian regime shared those anti-imperialist origins, but eventually switched sides and joined Team America.

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