We stayed to rule. They want to conquer and go
By Max Hastings
(Filed: 22/06/2003)

Americans have always hated the word "imperialism". Nothing seems more likely to increase their distaste for it than the sort of week they have just suffered in Iraq: more shootings, bodybags and bitterly ungrateful Iraqi criticism of US hegemony. At this point George Bush might interrupt to say: "Ah, but what we are doing is not imperialism. We have only gone into Iraq to save their people from a brutal dictatorship. We shall stick around for just as long as it takes to help them organise a new government for themselves - like we did in Afghanistan."

Just so. One of the gravest mistakes of American foreign policy is to suppose that intervening in places without a lasting commitment somehow makes it all okay. Unfortunately, it does not - as we saw in Somalia, as we see in Afghanistan, and as we are likely to see in Iraq. Everybody knows Kipling's first line about taking up the White's Man Burden. Some people are less familiar with the second: "In patience to abide." The British dealt with the Dervishes at Omdurman in 1898 as ruthlessly as the Americans addressed Saddam's forces in 2003. Yet we redeemed ourselves by staying on to rule the Sudan with exemplary efficiency for half a century.

The successful imperialist must not merely administer government, but become involved in every aspect of the society he aspires to influence. I am indebted to James Morris's peerless history Pax Britannica for a sample from the Colonial Office file headings for Aden in 1897. These include: "Engine Driver, entertainment of, for the steam launch Rose; Ewes, purchase of Abyssinian, for Government Farm; Opium, petition for a reduction of transhipment fees levied on; Pilgrims, copy of an unfinished report on the alleged ill-treatment of; Slave girls, Home Government requires particulars regarding two, made over to the Good Shepherd Convent."

Here, Donald Rumsfeld might say: "All very droll - but you cannot seriously suggest that today's US government should rule Iraq like a 19th-century British colony." Of course not. But there are two relevant, indeed seminal points. First, to change any society takes years, if not decades. Second, even if a superpower which intervenes in the affairs of another nation has no desire to hoist the Stars and Stripes above its capital, it is a fatal mistake to perceive the task as primarily military. Failed societies have lost the plot - or never found it - politically, socially and economically. To enable them to escape from their plight, it is not enough to provide physical security - though that would be a start in Iraq. Local people must be assisted to develop a range of talents and institutions which would daunt a Roman emperor.

British soldiers who have recently served in Sierra Leone lament the lack of civil follow-up to their successful effort to restore stability. Sierra Leone lacks competent bank managers, accountants, tax collectors, detectives, sewage experts. Unless or until the country possesses tens of thousands of people with mastery of these humdrum skills, it will never work. The same applies to Afghanistan, which has been allowed to lapse into warlordism since the United States finished punishing the Taliban to its own satisfaction.

It has often asserted that Iraq has a better chance of making the grade, because it possesses an educated middle class. This seems true up to a point. Yet initiative, entrepreneurialism, justice, fair trading, objective pursuit of truth have been ground out of Iraqis by decades of dictatorship. It will take years, and a lot of outside help, to nurture these gifts. The most important requirement is that those Americans who are sent to aid Iraq should possess a sincere commitment to its people and an understanding that one must work with the grain of local culture, rather than seek to supplant it.

British imperialism was fundamentally selfish. Yet it gave birth to a wonderful tribe of Britons who devoted their lives to the welfare of the peoples they were sent to govern. The great imperialists really did take up The Burden. Paternalistic they may have been, but their achievement was sometimes noble. A solicitous White House aide might place by the President's bedside a copy of that excellent 1906 treatise, Our Empire Story, open at the chapter "How the Maoris became the children of the Great White Queen". Mr Bush might then read the Governor of Ceylon's speech on the Golden Jubilee. Empire, said Sir West Ridgway magisterially, lightened the lives of its subjects, "dispelled the darkness of ignorance, the scales fell from their eyes, the sordid mists which obscured their views were driven away".

Projecting global power demands such sublime self-confidence. It is necessary to believe that the governance of alien nations serves the interests not merely of the rulers, but of the ruled. Then you need to show that you can make good on the lofty rhetoric. America's gravest handicap in Vietnam a generation ago was that almost all the Americans who served there loathed the place and despised the people. When US soldiers spoke of "the gooks" or "the dinks", they were not referring merely to the enemy. Vietnam was merely a location selected by the US for a showdown with communism. American indifference to the interests of the people they were allegedly protecting was fatal to their cause.

By their behaviour over the next few months, we shall discover whether the Americans really care a straw about the Iraqis, or whether they launched their crusade merely as an act of retaliation for September 11, with the strategic objective of shifting the balance of power in the Middle East. There is nothing wrong with self-interest, the foundation of all imperialism, if it can be redeemed by a modest injection of altruism. The Americans will only succeed if they engage with the Iraqi people other than through the periscope of a Bradley fighting vehicle. British hypocrisy and cant about their empire was fortified by extraordinary gifts of enlightened administration.

US forces have a poor record as peacekeepers, because they travel through the communities in which they are deployed in a protective cocoon of Americanism. The US in Iraq today needs not more soldiers, but Sanders of The River and some boring old agriculturalists, tax experts and health professionals. Their role is not glamorous, but it is critical.

The message is simple: either behave like proper imperialists, or stay out of the kitchen. If the US continues to believe that the role of superpower can be fulfilled solely through the exercise of military might, then it will rouse even greater global animosity than it faces today. Gunboats are the easy, and least important part, of overseas power projection. The job is mostly about good sewage engineers.