Léon Cogniet, The 1798 Egyptian Expedition Under the Command of Bonaparte (1835; Musée du Louvre/public domain).
Has neo-Orientalism killed our ability to sense the limits of Western influence?

The failure of Afghanistan should open our eyes to the fact that we don’t really know other countries and cultures at all.

In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed his conviction that the people of Iraq would welcome “liberation” by the United States and Britain. He refused to listen to warnings that Britain’s imperial record in Iraq would in fact lead them to regard British military intervention with instinctive distrust and hostility.

Yet Blair was also the first British prime minister to apologize in public for the crimes of the British empire. As with Western liberal internationalists in general, this acknowledgement of past national sins did not qualify in any way Blair’s assumption of the right to lecture other nations on their sins, tell them how they should be governed, and invade them in the name of building democracy. This combination of attitudes is inexplicable in rational terms — but makes perfect sense as a manifestation of secular religion. In a religious context, how often have loud public confessions of personal sinfulness provided the justification for ferocious condemnation of the sins of others? 

This combination is to be found in those American liberal internationalists who have acknowledged and apologized for systematic American support for savage Middle Eastern dictatorships — only to demand that people in the Middle East trust their promises that this time, a U.S. administration is really, truly sincere about bringing democracy to the region. Why on earth, on the basis of all past evidence, should any Arab or Iranian trust such promises? Indeed, on the basis of their past record, would you buy a used car from these drummers for democracy?

Blair’s combination of ideological fanaticism and the total historical illiteracy on which it depends was starkly revealed in his July 2003 speech to the U.S. Congress justifying the invasion of Iraq:

“Ours are not Western values. They are the universal values of the human spirit and anywhere, any time, ordinary people are given the chance to choose, the choice is the same. Freedom not tyranny. Democracy not dictatorship.” 

This belief permeated the rhetoric of the Bush administration after 9/11, the U.S. National Security Strategy of 2002, and the “Freedom Agenda” for the Middle East. In the words of that NSS:

“The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom – and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy and free enterprise…People everywhere want to be able to speak freely; choose who will govern them; worship as they please; educate their children – male and female; own property; and enjoy the benefits of their labor. These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society…”

In a somewhat less blatant form, this continues to form the core ideological doctrine of most of the Western media and vast range of Western institutions, including those aid ministries engaged in promoting “governance reform” elsewhere in the world. 

The denial of the importance of local histories and traditions, as well as the lessons drawn from the imperial history of the West, is intrinsic to the American and European sense of ideological mission in the world, which underpins their claims to global and regional hegemony. It is also to some extent intrinsic to how the Western bureaucracies concerned operate. Bureaucracy, as well as ideology, demands universal templates, universally applicable. For the bureaucracy to function smoothly (as opposed to the achievement of actual change), local expertise is more a hindrance than a help. 

Furthermore, the fact that in many parts of the world, the priority of personal safety (known in British officialdom as “The Duty of Care”) means that Western officials can barely travel outside the capital cities, or even outside their own embassies and international hotels. After a couple of years, having failed to develop any serious knowledge of one society, they hop on to try to implement identical programs in another society — which they also fail to study. The result: programs that have only the most tangential relationship to local reality, and consequently, don’t stand the remotest chance of even limited success.

For example, British officers and officials working in Helmand province of Afghanistan were on the most part completely ignorant of the local Battle of Maiwand in 1879, in which Afghans defeated a British army. Every Helmandi knew of this battle, and most were convinced (absurdly, but still) that a key motive for the British military presence today was to get revenge for Maiwand.

Academia has played its own part in undermining the West’s ability to engage meaningfully with political, social and economic developments elsewhere in the world. Recent decades have seen a steep decline in history and area studies (and foreign languages in the United States and UK). Their place has been taken by disciplines based overwhelmingly on Western liberal prejudices masquerading as objective general theories, with “rational choice theory” as the crassest version of this.  

Additional pressure against the serious study of other cultures has been provided by the legions of academics who have adopted crude and conformist versions of Edward Said’s “Orientalism” thesis, whereby every Western attempt to study other cultures on their own terms can automatically be suspected of Western quasi-racist “essentialism” and denounced accordingly. This has had an especially destructive effect in the area of anthropology.

The weird thing about this is that this supposedly “anti-colonial” ideology not only denies any autonomous culture to other peoples in the world, but contains an implicit assumption that all human beings (unless warped by evil Western influences) are at heart Western liberal college professors. This is in fact a nice liberal-sounding version of the famous statement of the U.S. Marine general in Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam War film Full Metal Jacket: “Inside every Gook there is an American waiting to get out.”

All too often, these illusions are fostered by liberal urban intellectuals and activists from the countries concerned, who have tremendous emotional and practical incentives to present their countries as intrinsically modern (with modern implicitly defined in entirely Western terms). Emotionally, this serves their own passionate desire to be part of the West and treated as equals by their Western colleagues. Practically, they soon learn that if they want Western jobs and money it is a good idea to reinforce Western ideas. As urban intellectuals, they may also be sincerely ignorant of most of their own country, as well as sincerely contemptuous of its population. 

Since such people are often the only ones to whom Western journalists and officials seriously listen, the result can be a sort of copulation of illusions. When I visited Afghanistan in 2002-2003, I was initially deeply amused to hear from newly-arrived Western officials, relying on Afghan information, that Afghanistan in the 1960s had been “a successful democracy”, with strong middle classes. The joke wore pretty thin, however, after I had heard this garbage for the third time, and realized the degree to which it was contributing to these people’s delusions about the prospects for Afghan democracy.

What has happened in Afghanistan should provide the impetus for a soul-searching debate in the West about our entire approach to programs of democratization and “governance reform” in other countries. For while the Western military effort in Afghanistan failed only relatively (in the sense that while Western forces failed to achieve their goals, they were not actually defeated), Western efforts at democratic state-building failed totally and unconditionally. There is literally nothing left of them. Nor were the Afghan classes whom we had trusted and fostered prepared in the last resort to fight and die for the system that we had jointly created.

The critical importance of local history, culture, and tradition applies both to the Western defeat and the Taliban victory. For contrary to years of self-deceiving Western and Afghan government propaganda, a central element in Taliban success was their deep rootedness in Pashtun rural culture and its core values of conservative religion, familial loyalty, and resistance to infidel occupation — including past attempts at conquest by the British Empire. This appears very clearly from Taliban propaganda, poetry, and the recorded conversations of Taliban fighters.

 These values are deeply alien to contemporary Western liberal ones; but no honest person can deny any longer either the tremendous resilience and courage they gave to the Taliban struggle, or the fact that in the end, these values and those who held them prevailed over the values and the Afghan people that we had tried to foster.

The final lesson of the Afghan debacle is that while it might be possible in principle to imagine recrafting Western aid institutions and programs so as to be more appropriate to the countries that they are trying to change, this is virtually impossible in the case of counterinsurgency campaigns. The deep local knowledge required to manage the core political element of a counterinsurgency cannot be developed in advance,  and when U.S. forces have actually become engaged in a counterinsurgency, it is impossible to build up this knowledge quickly enough to shape basic policies, even if the will to do it is present in our military, civilian and academic bureaucracies. 

We should have learned this from Vietnam. If we fail to learn it from Iraq and Afghanistan, it will suggest that our political systems and political cultures have become intellectually, morally, and institutionally fossilized to a degree reminiscent of the Soviet Union under Brezhnev. We may think that democracy will save us from this fate, but democracy, like God, helps those who help themselves.

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