May 11, 2000

Into Africa

Nothing illustrates better the absurdity of post-Cold War triumphalism than the revival of the "white man’s burden." The Western colonists are returning to Africa. The breakdown of the UN "peacekeeping mission" in Sierra Leone has served to re-ignite the call for the Great Powers to do for Africa what Africans are unable to do for themselves: provide peace, good government, and steady economic growth. "Only great powers can make a difference in places like Sierra Leone or Congo. Calling in the UN is no solution at all," sniffs David Rieff, one of today’s leading champions of the imperial idea, in the Wall Street Journal. The new imperialism comes in the guise of "humanitarian intervention." Africa, we are urged daily, is suffering from innumerable crises: AIDS (now deemed "a national security threat" to the United States), wars, poverty, malnutrition, famine, disease, civil wars. The West (the old colonial powers under the leadership of the United States) must return and take the Continent over. But, we are hastily assured, this will not be like the bad "old" imperialism. For this time there will be no exploitation. Everything will be done for the sake of the Africans. There is nothing in it for us.

As Sierra Leone collapses the United States announces the dispatch of a Cyclone-class patrol boat, the USS Thunderbolt. Just a "precautionary measure," the Pentagon explains with characteristically soothing dishonesty. The Clinton Administration has also announced its readiness to transport "peacekeepers" from Bangladesh, Jordan and India to Sierra Leone. The British have gone further. They have sent a Navy taskforce of six ships. It includes an aircraft carrier, a helicopter carrier, a frigate, two landing ships, and a supply ship. Also dispatched are four Chinook helicopters and 700 paratroopers. The ostensible reason is to help evacuate British, European and Commonwealth citizens. However, we are now informed, that the forces will provide "logistical support" to the United Nations mission. The paratroopers have already secured Lungi airport outside the capital Freetown. As always Government officials are busy reassuring everyone that the troops will, of course, not engage in any combat. "We would certainly want to support that logistic movement," explains British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, "but I would hope that when the UN reaches full force, there would be not the need for the presence of others." Note his weasly words. Cook knows perfectly well that there is no "peace" in Sierra Leone. Therefore, a UN "peacekeeping" mission is an oxymoron. The issue is not who does the actual fighting, but who underwrites the mission. The goal is to take the Sierra Leone over. As for warfare, that can always be allocated to other, lesser people.

The Americans and the British are getting away with murder. It was the United States and Britain who insisted that Revolutionary United Front (RUF) leader Foday Sankoh be given a senior government position and that the perpetrators of atrocities, gruesome even by Africa’s standards, be granted amnesty. "Sankoh is delivering the right message," the hideous harridan of Foggy Bottom declared last year, "and I hope very much he will continue to intensify his efforts to insure full adherence to the Lome accord. The atrocities must end…. he peace must be sustained." Such latitude is of course never extended to Slobodan Milosevic or Radovan Karadzic. But then Africans come higher in the pecking order than Serbs. Blacks are the Democratic Party’s most important constituency. Who cares about Serbs? But then US decisions as to "good" guys and "bad" guys are always opaque. The Tutsis are the "good" guys; the Hutus the "bad" ones. Clinton "apologizes" for the 1994 massacre of the Tutsis in Rwanda. Yet he says nothing about the slaughter of the Hutus by the Tutsis in the Congo in 1996-7.

There is nothing terribly new about the notion of "humanitarian intervention." Throughout history, imperialists have justified conquest and their right to rule over others by claiming that their only concern is the welfare of their subjects. As bearers of a higher civilization, the conquerors have a moral duty to rescue primitive men from their benighted condition. Imperialism is always humanitarian imperialism. The rhetoric of the Clinton Administration echoes uncannily the moral zealotry of the nineteenth century, but adds to it a contemporary politically-correct twist. In 1998 Clinton went to Africa and everything he saw made him gush: "My dream for this trip is that together we might do the things so that 100 years from now, your grandchildren and mine will look back and say this was the beginning of a new African renaissance." Then he went into his standard routine of sucking up to an audience by apologizing for the deeds of others. "Going back to the time before we were even a nation," he mused, "European Americans received the fruits of the slave trade." Then he apologized for the Cold War: Too often, we "dealt with countries in Africa…more on how they stood in the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union than how they stood in the struggle for their own people’s aspirations to live up to the fullest of their God-given abilities." On Rwanda: "It may seem strange to you here…but all over the world there were people like me sitting in offices...who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror." UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, architect of the US intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor is a fervent believer of getting "involved" in Africa. "It’s better to dream the larger dream and try to lead people towards it," he drooled last December in Pretoria, "In the coming year, we will work long and hard to attain more support for our programs. We will continue to make the case that it is in America’s interest to see an Africa that is at peace, prosperous, and whose people are free and empowered to shape their own destinies."

But there is one sense in which today’s imperialism is unlike the nineteenth-century variety. In the last century, as we know, the Europeans acquired in Africa cheap raw materials as well as secure markets for their manufactured products. Today’s imperialism does not work like that. The West is not looking for markets. And raw materials are not as important as they once were. What the West is after are higher profits. The goal is to try to build up Africa’s export industries. Africa remains a source of cheap labor. And there are fewer health, safety and environmental regulations to worry about. The rate of return on investment is a lot better than in Europe, the USA or even Southeast Asia. Not surprisingly, the biggest enthusiasts for getting "involved" in Africa are the giant multinational corporations and their cheerleaders in the media.

Hence the African Growth and Opportunity Act. Hacks rave about it as if the future of the Continent depended on America’s importing more cheap clothes from the Third World. Opponents of the bill have been attacked with extraordinary malevolence. "Shame on the people blocking this bill. Shame on them," cried the reliably fatuous Thomas L. Friedman. Since America is already inundated with cheap clothing from all over the world, the sale of a few jeans and T-shirts will not dramatically alter Africa’s destiny. That is not really the point. The point is to force us to accept the dogma of Friedman and his ilk that there is something sinister about people trying to protect their jobs. Looking out for oneself is some antediluvian throwback that needs to be eliminated. There are no nations; there is just globalism. But this is the way imperialists always talk. They always set their sights on higher things. Ordinary people suspect, rightly, that empire is a vast drain on resources; and that whatever benefits there may be will go not to them but to the elite.

Africa is rich in natural resources and has plenty of fertile agricultural land. There is no reason, therefore, for Africa to be poor. The Europeans granted their former colonial subjects independence as part of the Cold War strategy. A grateful post-colonial elite would look upon the West with gratitude, enable Western companies to make money and deny Communists the opportunity to seize the "nationalism" issue. But Africa’s rulers squandered their chances. Instead of enriching their people, they only enriched themselves and turned on one another. Newly independent states degenerated into civil wars. Tribes fought tribes; ethnic group sought to exterminate one another; and private armies took up arms for the right to run states as their own little fiefdom. The West did not care very much, so long as Africa’s rulers did not turn for aid to the Soviet Union. Once the Cold war ended, however, everything changed. Africa’s glittering prizes seemed to beckon again. Africa once again became a mission. The imperial idea was reborn. It was only a matter of time before the cry went up for the "white man’s burden."

Text-only printable version of this article

George Szamuely was born in Budapest, Hungary, educated in England, and has worked as an editorial writer for The Times (London), The Spectator (London), and the Times Literary Supplement (London). In America, he has been equally busy: as an associate at the Manhattan Institute, editor at Freedom House, film critic for Insight, research consultant at the Hudson Institute, and as a weekly columnist for the New York Press. Szamuely has contributed to innumerable publications including Commentary, American Spectator, National Review, the Wall Street Journal, National Interest, American Scholar, Orbis, Daily Telegraph, the Times of London, the Sunday Telegraph, and The New Criterion. His exclusive column for appears every Wednesday.

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