Empire, War and Citizenship 


Walden Bello*


July 27, 2003

TFF advocates nonviolent struggle before anything else. We disagree with Bello's view that "For a people under occupation, armed struggle is not one option. It is the only option."
We hope, however, that by bringing this to our readers, it will contribute to a much needed debate about the ways in which the Iraqis can liberate themselves from the occupation. In addition, many other perspectives in this article certainly merits our attention and reflection.

Almost daily, we hear reports of American soldiers being picked off one by one by underground forces in Iraq. Since George W. Bush declared victory on May 1, over 30 US soldiers have died in combat. Soon, the number of Americans killed after victory will outstrip the number who died in the invasion.
This speech was delivered at the UP Foundation Day Assembly on June 19, 2003)


" I would like, first of all, to thank Chancellor Emerlinda Roman for honoring me with this invitation to give one of the two UP Foundation Day speeches. Allow me to take this occasion to say what I always tell my undergraduate students: it is a privilege to teach at UP, and my greatest regret in life is having had to do my undergraduate work not at this university but on the other side of Katipunan Road.


Rid Iraq of the invaders

Almost daily, we hear reports of American soldiers being picked off one by one by underground forces in Iraq. Since George W. Bush declared victory on May 1, over 30 US soldiers have died in combat. Soon, the number of Americans killed after victory will outstrip the number who died in the invasion.   

I must confess that I feel no sympathy for plight of the American troops in Iraq. I look at them in the same way I view the Nazi storm-troopers or Japanese soldiers during the Second World War - machines who have opened themselves up to retribution for participating in the brutal invasion and destruction of a country and its people. The average American soldier in Baghdad may plead that he is simply following orders. However, the Nuremburg and Tokyo war crimes trials were clear in this regard: one cannot plead obedience to immoral orders as an excuse for violating people's rights.

If we were in the shoes of the Iraqis, one thing is certain: our primary duty as citizens now would be to rid the country of invaders, and if armed resistance is the only way to do it, then we have no choice but to resort to it. This is not, let me stress, a Fanonian position that glorifies the so-called "therapeutic" functions of violence. In some contexts, moral suasion works. In others, unfortunately, valuable ends like liberation from foreign domination can only be achieved by other means.


Visiting Iraq

These days I find myself wondering about what happened to the students we met at Baghdad University, Iraq's UP, on March 16, a few days before the invasion of Iraq. I had gone there as part of an Asian Parliamentary and Civil Society Mission that was one of the many last-ditch initiatives launched globally to prevent the Anglo-American invasion.

It was a beautiful spring day, March 16. I still remember the exchange we had with students in an English Lit class taking up Romeo and Juliet. What did they think about George Bush, Congresswoman Etta Rosales, one of the members of the delegation, asked. "He is like Tybalt, clumsy and ill-intentioned," said a young woman in near-perfect English, referring to Romeo's tormentor. What did they think about Bush's promise to invade Iraqis? Answered another student, "We've been invaded by many armies for thousands of years, and those who wanted to conquer us always said they wanted to liberate us." Iraq was weak, said another young woman, but "our faith will overcome the invaders."   

Youth and spring are a heady brew, and the threat of impending war made the occasion all the more poignant, and we all felt sad as we sped away. Two days later, we were hightailing it on the 550 kilometer stretch from Baghdad to Damascus, trying to beat the onset of the American aerial bombardment. Those young people, however, had nowhere to go. Some of those eager new fans of Shakespeare will not see another spring, having either died in the bombardment on in its aftermath of chaos. But I am sure that some are now active in the resistance. Just two days ago, an American soldier was shot in the head while buying a Coke at Baghdad University. The main thing that flashed through my mind was: Was the executioner one of the students we met a few weeks ago?

CNN is trying very hard to portray the urban guerrillas picking off American soldiers as "terrorists" or "remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime." But that is increasingly a hard sell, not only to me but to most of the world, who see these people for what they are: freedom fighters, much like the guerrillas of the National Liberation Front in Vietnam and the Waray bolo men who inflicted one of the US forces' worst and bloodiest defeats during the American conquest of our country in the town of Balangiga in 1901.


Armed struggle is the only option - visiting the United States   

For a people under occupation, armed struggle is not one option. It is the only option. This became very clear to me when I was in the US a few weeks ago, speaking at a sparsely attended anti-war meeting. Moral suasion on the questions of Iraq will not work with most Americans at this point. America is Bush country at this juncture, and the polls show that, so far, the majority of Americans approve of the invasion of Iraq even if the Administration manufactured that false story about Saddam possessing weapons of mass destruction to justify the aggression.

There one comes up against the moral and political tyranny of a poitically conservative majority that Louis Hartz pointed to as the underside of the liberal ideology of America. However, people who are willing to allow the rights of others to be trampled end up losing their rights. We have seen in the last two years a massive assault on constitutional rights that has been tolerated by most Americans on grounds of "national security." There are at least 5,000 Muslim men - permanent residents, citizens, non-citizens - who are locked up indefinitely without charges, their identities publicly concealed, and the great majority of Americans do not see it fit to protest.    Appealing to the decency and values of these people to throw off the yoke of occupation will not work since the majority of Americans are currently political zombies, the living dead, who will leave their state of transmogrified bliss only with great effort on the part of that minority of courageous Americans who court the anger of the very majority that they are trying to awake. We salute those anti-imperialist Americans, but patriotic Iraqis know it would be foolhardy to base their liberation on the eventual success of these fine people.

Empire of the American variety rests on democratic consent, and with George W. Bush, we are entering a new phase of US imperial democracy. Globalization to promote the collective interest of the global capitalist class is out, the nationalist pursuit of supremacy of US corporate interests is in. Multilateralism as a system of global governance is out, unilateralism is in. Managing the empire by relying on a mixture of political and ideological hegemony and force is out, force as the first resort in dealing with threats to the global order is in. Hardt and Negri's Empire as an explanation of the global conjuncture is out, Lenin's Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism is back.

Why has America shifted to the unilateralist mode under George W. Bush? One answer one frequently encounters in liberal circles is that a tiny group of neoconservatives has hijacked the White House and imposed a militarist policy aimed at assuring permanent global hegemony for the United States that is opposed even by key factions of the US elite. I am dubious about this, and the reason I am is that the Democratic Party - the elite opposition - is having a hell of a time trying to articulate a different foreign policy vision than Bush's. If Bush is successful, it is partly because the US elite has largely closed ranks behind him - and, unfortunately, the majority of the American people behind them.


The severe crisis of US hegemony - globalization has failed: overreach   

I think far more plausible is the explanation that Bush's unilateralism is a response to a severe crisis of US hegemony. Look at the 1990's and notice the contrast between the beginning of the decade and the end of the decade. The beginning of the decade was the collapse of the socialist regimes in Eastern Europe, capitalism triumphant, free market ideology or neoliberalism unchallenged. Now look at the end of the nineties and the first years of the 21st century, and you see Seattle, the failure of corporate-driven globalization, massive disenchantment with neoliberalism, the corporation losing legitimacy, the massive Wall Street collapse that inaugurates an era of global economic stagnation and deflation.   

Globalization has failed. Liberal internationalism Clinton-style has failed as a formula for the maintenance of hegemony. Multilateralism and diplomacy are too cumbersome. Unilateralism is the answer. The employment of force is the only reliable way to maintain a global order dominated by the US. This, in brief, is the neoconservative paradigm that reigns at the White House.   

There is only one problem with this, and it is that force without legitimacy creates resistance. And the spread of resistance pretty soon leads to overextension - a condition where there is a mismatch between goals and means, with means referring not only to military resources but to political and ideological ones as well. One can understand why, after watching CNN night after night, many feel the US is supreme and omnipotent. Indeed, this is precisely what Washington wants us to think.

But look closer and consider the following and ask yourself if they are not signs of overreach:

- Washington has, so far, not been able to create a new political order in Iraq that would serve as a secure foundation for colonial rule;

- It has failed to consolidate a pro-US regime in Afghanistan outside of Kabul;

- Israel, a key ally, has not been able to quell, even with Washington's unrestricted support, the Palestinian people's uprising;

- The US's moves have inflamed Arab and Muslim sentiment in the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, resulting in massive ideological gains for Islamic fundamentalists - which was what Osama bin Laden had been hoping for in the first place;

- The Cold War Atlantic Alliance has collapsed, and in its place has emerged a new countervailing alliance, with Germany and France at the center of it, along with Russia and China;

- The forging of a powerful global civil society movement against US unilateralism, militarism, and economic hegemony, the most recent significant expression is the global anti-war movement;

- The coming to power of anti-neoliberal, anti-US movements in Washington's own backyard - Brazil, Venezuela, and Ecuador - as the Bush administration is preoccupied with the Middle East;

- An increasingly negative impact of militarism on the US economy, as military spending becomes dependent on deficit spending, and deficit spending become more and more dependent on financing from foreign sources, creating more stresses and strains within an economy that is already in the throes of stagnation.


The Roman Empire and the importance of citizenship and legitimacy - Bush not so

Now let us go back over two millenia.

At another time, another place, another empire confronted the same problem of overextension. Its solution enabled it to last 700 years. The Roman solution was not just or even principally military in character. The Romans realized that an important component of successful imperial domination was consensus among the dominated of the "rightness" of the Roman order. As sociologist Michael Mann notes in his classic Sources of Social Power, the "decisive edge" was not so much military as political. "The Romans," he writes, "gradually stumbled on the invention of extensive territorial citizenship." The extension of Roman citizenship to ruling groups and non-slave peoples throughout the empire was the political breakthrough that produced what "was probably the widest extent of collective commitment yet mobilized." Political citizenship combined with the vision of the empire providing peace and prosperity for all to create that intangible but essential moral element called legitimacy.   

The Bush people are not interested in legitimacy. They are not interested in creating a new Pax Romana. What they want is a Pax Americana where most of the subordinate populations like the Arabs are kept in check by a healthy respect for lethal American power, while the loyalty of other groups such as the government of Gloria and Golez is purchased with the promise of cash. With no moral vision to bind the global majority to the imperial center, this mode of imperial management can only inspire one thing: more and more resistance.


Global civil society on the move - choose resistance   

The Bush invasion of Iraq has had very many bad consequences, but it has had one good outcome, and this is that it has brought together for the first time a truly global citizens' movement to oppose it--a movement that showed its power on Feb. 15, with coordinated demonstrations in some 100 cities throughout the world that turned out millions and millions of demonstrators. The New York Times called the movement the "other global superpower," and you and I are part of it.   

That movement is alive and kicking. Just a few weeks ago, representatives of this movement from all over the world met and drafted the Jakarta Peace Consensus which stated that the first order of business after the Iraq invasion is the unconditional withdrawal of all US, British, and other forces from Iraq, and the second order of business is the convoking of tribunals to try George Bush, Tony Blair, and other political and military leaders of the invasion for war crimes. These demands have since been picked up in one assembly after another since then.

Am I exaggerating the temperature of global civil society? I do not think so. For even as the US population lies lobotomized, others are up in arms. Ask Tony Blair, who is now under assault by an angry British public for manufacturing the data about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. Because of international civil society opposition, the US continues to have very few allies on Iraq, and most of those in the so-called continue to be embarrassed by their membership in the Coalition of the Willing. Our president, of course, is an exception.    So it turns out that the invasion of Iraq was merely the first phase of a protracted war. We have, in short, the makings of another Vietnam--rising internal resistance, a powerful occupation force that is overextended and pinned down, and a global movement against intervention and war. The main difference is that the global peace movement today is much stronger than it was during the Vietnam War.   

We will not have peace in our time. The rogue superpower that the United States has turned into will not give the world peace. Here in the Philippines, we must expect to be drawn in more and more into direct confrontation with a US military that desires the country as a staging area for projecting power against China and against Islamic movements in the Southern Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Sooner or later, just as in Iraq and just as in the Philippines at the turn of the last century, our choices will narrow. Mindanao is seen by Washington as one of what Samuel Huntington calls the bloody borders between Islam and the West, between Asian revolution and American imperium, and they are determined to protect their interests even if permanent war and destabilization is the fate of our peoples. As the American troops occupy more and more of our national space - both physically and psychologically - we will have to choose between submission or resistance to Empire.   

Periods when peace and justice reign are evanescent. This is why we look back to such periods as Golden Ages. But even as we realize that it may vanish as soon as we achieve it or our efforts to achieve it may fail, we must struggle to bring about the reign of peace and justice, for it is in that struggle that we become truly human.    Let me end by connecting this to our concern today: citizenship.   

Good citizenship means many things. It means electing people who really serve the people. It means fighting and exposing corruption. It means participating in the battle against poverty and inequality. But it also means struggling against empire, imperial pretensions, against aggression, against the callous violation of the rights of the weak countries by the powerful ones. I daresay that the one of the most urgent demands of good citizenship, both at the global and the national level, at this point is the struggle against American Empire. This is a call that we can resist only at the pain of being damned by future generations.

I thank you."


*Professor of sociology and public administration, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City.


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