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Post-Colonialist Chic

You'd think Secretary Rice would know better.

By 11.18.08

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It's sad but not surprising that even now, after the terrible political price that she and the administration she has so loyally served have paid for their delusion, Condoleezza Rice still doesn't "get it" -- to use the highly intelligent Barack Obama's favorite put-down. Interviewed in Sunday's New York Times Magazine about the international challenges about to be taken on by the incoming Obama administration, she echoed the Bush administration line of 2003, as if she had learned nothing from the Iraq adventure. "I've seen too many peoples dismissed as not ready for self-government," she told the Times's interviewer. "First it was Asians, and then Latin Americans and Africans were there for a while. I know for a while black Americans were, too. I've seen it said, well, you know: They're illiterate; how could they vote? And then you see in Afghanistan people line up for long, long lines. Because somehow they know that making a choice matters."

Oh dear, oh dear. You could understand this kind of thing coming from the Obamites, with their limited experience of those parts of the world disinclined to "stand together" with their well-meaning selves, but not from someone whose reputation will be bound up with that of the Iraq war for as long as she has a reputation. Can she really suppose that conservative dissenters thought the Iraqis or the Afghans unready for self-government because they were illiterate? Far from it! They could all have been as erudite as Secretary Rice, but they were unready because they had nothing of the political or civic culture necessary for a self-governing democracy to grow in. The native tribal honor culture, typical of much of the Arab and Islamic world, had simply been suppressed for the best part of half a century by a tyrannical central government seeking to impose upon it an alien ideology imported from the West. Once that government was removed, Iraq simply reverted to the sort of tribalism and war-lordism that even now is making a mockery of the Afghan people's sense that "choice matters."

This is not to take away from the real progress that has been made -- in both countries, though more now in Iraq than Afghanistan -- in acclimating a form of Western-style democracy to such inhospitable conditions. That democracy may even survive our departure as Barack Obama makes a dash for the exits. But at what a cost has such progress come! You'd think that by now Secretary Rice would at least be ready to acknowledge that it wasn't simply a matter of setting people free to follow their native yearnings for democracy and so to recognize some of the consequences of dealing with tribal-style honor cultures which produce the kind of war-lordism we are seeing in Afghanistan and -- still -- parts of Iraq as naturally as a bramble produces blackberries. A few words about such consequences might even have been welcomed by the President-elect. Unlikely, but possible.

Yet perhaps we shouldn't read too much into this interview. If Secretary Rice has learned anything from the last six years, she wouldn't be the diplomat I take her to be had she chosen to announce the fact in the pages of the New York Times. For in such matters the media culture is far more blinkered by an out-dated ideology than the Bush administration could ever be. Just consider the following report in Saturday's Washington Post, which shows that its author, Stephanie McCrummen, had the Congolese civil war all figured out well before it -- or at least the current version of it -- ever started. "As panicked thousands have abandoned villages across eastern Congo in recent months," she writes, "the scale of looting that has followed has been massive, a crime reflecting the predatory culture pervading Congo since the Belgian colonizers perfected it decades ago."

Mind you, this is ostensibly a news article: a report from the front. Yet it insists on giving the now-official left-wing diagnosis of anything that is regrettable or dismaying or horrible or deadly in the developing world as part of the legacy of "colonialism." At some level, the media parrots who have picked up such a "post-colonial" bromide must know its untruth as well as they know that of their own oft-reiterated "objectivity." Otherwise, they wouldn't have to keep repeating it. Otherwise they wouldn't have insist that war-lordism and the absence of civic institutions and order was a product of European "imperialists" and "colonialists" instead of being, as the wicked colonialists themselves had no difficulty in seeing, the conditions prevailing both before and after the European presence -- and the conditions that the European presence was intended, in part, to suppress.

That's the part that routinely gets left out in the media accounts, just as the Bush administration's noble but naïve belief in the powers of democracy to Westernize a resolutely tribal culture routinely gets left out of media accounts of the Iraq war. The media, otherwise supposed to be the champions of "nuance," like having clear-cut heroes and villains too much, and President Bush has made them a splendid villain. Like his intervention in Iraq for most of its first four years, the Europeans (especially the Belgians) may have done a poor job of introducing Western-style civility to tribal cultures -- though it is hard to see how they could have done a better one by never having attempted such a thing in the first place -- but it is absurd to blame them for the actions of today's warlords when they have been gone for almost half a century.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.