When Empires Speak

Mahmoud Awad

Condoleezza Rice, the USA National Security Advisor, was the first to hail the November speech of President George Bush regarding the new USA vision in the Middle East and the world, considering it to be the future USA agenda of vital importance in defining the features of the road - that of America to the Middle East or the other way? it does not matter. Just for the sake of mental gymnastics, I took myself to imagining President Bush reading some of the major books analyzing the course of empires throughout history, while preparing for his speech.
With all the grand designing for the 21st century, President Bush has little time for books.
Let’s say for instance that he read Arnold Toynbee’s study on ‘The world and the West,’ or Paul Kennedy’s book about ‘The Rise and Fall of The Great Powers,’ or some others. I quickly realized that President Bush does not have much time to reach such books, and remembered that he even mentioned once that he did not read any newspapers and settled for the information reports prepared by his assistants. President Bush and his entire administration deny the very idea of an American empire, claiming to be simply good people guided by God.

Maybe we’ll get back later to God, but for now, the empire is present, even if in an unofficial way. The proof of it is the fact that it has imperial assets, armed forces, war bases, all spread around the world. In addition to the widespread conviction in the USA that there is an American tradition based on individual freedom, representative government and market economy, a fact that enables American leaders to assume the role of guardians of humankind in its journey towards perfection. It is true that the Bush administration has become the most repressive government of individual freedoms and political opposition, but all this is justified by the fact that the USA knows what the higher national interests are.

Going back to my mental gymnastics, I tried not to be surprised by indications in the speech that would convey a great American message of imposing democracy over the Middle East, especially with the occupation of Iraq. On the way to this new political and strategic geographical truth, the USA did not care about negotiating at the Security Council, or about the democratic features of the UN General Assembly.

I chose to read a book by Steven Kinzer ‘All the Shah’s Men,’ first because the book itself is very important. Second, the book talks about Iran, which has been under fire by the USA for at least 24 years. Third, it was released on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the coup planned by the CIA to bring the Shah back to his throne in 1953. Forth, because the coup happened in cooperation between a falling empire, Great Britain, and between a rising one, the USA

The story of the British Empire with petroleum is an old one. The breaking point in it was World War I. When the British fleet moved from coal to oil, Great Britain nationalized the British private sector’s share in the British oil company working in Iran.
Reza Pahlavi, as Shah of Iran, was keen to do business with the west. When the people revolted, and chose Mossadeq, this created problems for capitalists in London and New York.
In the early fifties, the British government owned the Anglo-Iranian oil company. Through popular vote, Mohammad Mossadeq became Prime Minister in Iran and decided to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian oil company after he considered that what was happening for decades was clear theft of Iran’s oil. In return, Britain acted as if it had created the oil industry in Iran from nothing, and in consequence Iran’s oil was its lasting right.

Mohammad Mossadeq and his government did not cave in. But Britain refused the decision of the international Court of Justice to grant Iran the right to nationalize the British share, and imposed a full siege against Iran’s oil exports.

America intervened at this point upon the will of both Britain and Iran. Mossadeq was truly sincere in seeking to gain America at his side; he had all the credits that the new America was calling for. The USA ambassador to Tehran sent a letter to his government in Washington saying that the British are determined to practice the old tactics to topple the Iranian government, while Mossadeq had the support of 98 percent of the Iranian people, and it would be foolish to topple him.

There are then two options: justice, liberalism and democracy on one hand, and oil on the other hand. America approved to intervene under Harry Truman’s term. In 1953, it would do something that Britain was unable to do alone: topple Mossadeq and his government through a coup carried out by the CIA.

Mossadeq at the trial after the coup, at which he was sentenced by the Shah?s courts to three years, and prevented from entering politics again.

Mossadeq at the trial after the coup, at which he was sentenced by the Shah?s courts to three years, and prevented from entering politics again.

Mossadeq and his government were removed and Iran’s Shah, who had fled to Italy, returned and became very grateful and submissive to the CIA. The latter became the actual ruling force in Iran for a quarter of a century. And Iran’s Shah became a primary ally to Israel. The CIA did the same thing in Guatemala, Cuba, Chile, Congo and Vietnam. All these events had deep repercussions that are still remembered to this day.

The comparison between the early version of the neo-conservatives in 1953 and their new one in the Bush administration is amazing. There is a repeated talk about toppling regimes by force, the ignorance of the other people’s ambitions and cultures, the excessive trust in what power can do, whether it is clear or not; and finally covering all this with resonant slogans about freedom and democracy, just like George Bush did in his speech.

This speech in fact features a momentous missionary call: America’s determination to spread democracy in the Middle East. These are such beautiful and poetic words, but there are two problems: first, international politics are not of the fruit of a poet’s imagination. Second, the poet here is a specific American president who has just occupied a major Arab country, and who personally views himself as God’s messenger to guide humanity.

This reminds me of another former American president called William McKinley, who ordered the invasion of the Philippines in 1898, and in order not to be accused of imperialist behaviour, he claimed that they went to the Philippines not to occupy it, but because Jesus had appeared to him in his sleep and asked him to go there and help the people there enjoy civilization. All that the people there ‘enjoyed’ afterwards was 48 years of direct American occupation, even though the Philippines did not have any oil.


Published Thursday, November 20th, 2003 - 10:57am GMT

Article courtesy of Dar al-Hayat

This is the print-ready version of When Empires Speak

Mahmoud Awad



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