Unapologetic Imperialism

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET
  • Sam Sedaei Senior Director of Iran Programs at Nonviolence International, Documentary Producer

During a campaign stop last month, someone in the audience rose to ask John McCain about Iraq. The questioner began to share some background facts before posing the question, saying "President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for fifty years." Before he got the chance to ask the question, McCain interrupted him by saying, "make that a hundred!" "Is that..." the questioner gets cut off again; "We've been in South Korea ... we've been in Japan for 60 years," McCain said. "We've been in South Korea 50 years or so. That would be fine with me. As long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed."

During his farewell speech at CPAC, Mitt Romney made a similar remark about America's military ventures abroad. He made the point that because the United States has never taken land during its occupations, they should not only be condemned, but celebrated as the sign that we're "the greatest country on earth." The ironic part of the statement was not the fact that it was factually inaccurate as throughout the past century, the United States has taken land for its 700 military bases abroad that stretch from Australia and Saudi Arabia to Eastern Africa and South America. Neither is the most ironic part of the statement the fact that Romney was quoting Shimon Peres's remarks about America, who coincidentally was at the time of the statement the leader of a country that itself has maintained a 4-decade long military occupation and home demolitions in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, all with the help of one-fifth of the United States' entire foreign aid and vetoes of just about every UN Security Council resolutions every year. But making that very statement was rooted in Romney's complete misunderstanding of how America's military ventures are viewed abroad.

John McCain has served this country for two decades and was a prisoner of war for five years in Vietnam. And although the value of his service in the Vietnam War that should have never been waged is not determined, his willingness to serve has been extraordinary. But his statement about permanent occupation represents a complete lack of understanding of the differences between occupations that have been different in numerous aspects such as the time of occupation, reasons for occupation, country of occupation, international support for the occupation and the impact of occupation on America's standing in the world.

Senator McCain's reasoning is very similar to those of most other conservatives. They believe that "Terrorism" is an extreme interpretation of Islam and committed by people who are inherently "evil" and whose sole purpose is to cause America harm, because we're "the greatest country" on earth. "They hate us for our freedoms," we're told. And because they are evil, American military action and occupation in the name of annihilating the evil would have the support of the people around the world and cause no anger by indigenous populations. They attribute all of the violence in Iraq to Al Qaeda, which nicely fits into these conservatives' narrative. Based on this analysis, McCain would argue that America's staying infinitely in the heart of Arabia would cause no anger or resentment and can lead to the consequent pacification and ultimate neutralization of and domination over the people of Iraq.

It's a nice narrative, except that it's not true. The conservative narrative has been written not to express the realities of the challenges we face. It is rather designed at the predetermined aim of meeting the following criteria: a) to exclude any act of terrorism committed by the United States and any of its closest allies; b) paint all terrorists in history as Muslims; c) take any elements of rationality out of anything that can be identified as a "cause" for terrorism, and hence, avoid having to address America's responsibility in provoking violence; and e) provide the United States with an implied moral authority and the justification to take preemptive action against anyone it considers "terrorists" without defining what constitutes "terrorism."

But reality is far from this narrative. For one, the notion that terrorists of any kind hate the United States for our freedoms is ridiculous. I lived in Iran for seventeen years, for ten years of which I went to public schools where the teachers are forced to teach every single anti-American piece of propaganda ever produced. Never have I heard a single teacher make the case that America's freedom is a reason for resentment.

As for John McCain's remarks, there are several aspects of it that are based on plainly wrong assumptions. For one, the occupations in South Korea and Europe during World War II were a part of a coalition effort. It was the consequence of a conclusion and agreement by the members of this coalition that they were fighting a common enemy: fascism. That consensus and America's military actions during the war as an "empire by invitation" made the occupations more acceptable by the occupied people. The occupation in Iraq, however, was done without any such consensus or deliberate effort to understand and reach agreement on the nature of the threat. Instead, America embarked on a unilateral mission to invade a sovereign country before the international body and U.N. inspectors finished their job after dismissing old allies as "old Europe" and withdrawing The United States from Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban treaty, Antiballistic Missile Treaty and the International Court on War Criminals.

Following the invasion, there may have been a short time when the people of Iraq may have thought that America actually had good intentions. But as time passed and Americans refused to leave Iraq even after the capture and execution of Saddam, the indigenous people began to have a very different view point about the occupation. It began to look like the Americans were no longer there for the sake of the Iraqi people; after all, it's really hard to see an occupation force as liberators when the occupiers close off the streets in your own city and tell you not to go into a certain region because the Americans are there and your very presence poses a threat to them. McCain implies that there will be a day when the U.S. forces can have a presence in Iraq and not face hostilities. Such a scenario is impossible when sixty percent of the Iraqis - not Al Qaeda or "terrorists," but Iraqi citizens - now say that it is okay to shoot Americans.

There is something utterly ignorant about McCain's understanding of how American actions are seen throughout the world. Although I don't support Ron Paul, his presence in this election has been of great value in the sense that he has repeatedly asked questions throughout various debates that have led us to put ourselves in the shoes of those countries we occupy. How would you feel if a foreign country were to invade the United States in the name of liberating us, build military bases in Florida and California and declare New York City "green zone" where no Americans are allowed unless they go through multiple foreign-operated check points? Many people have strong religious convictions in the Middle East and find America's military presence in the holy land as a dagger in their hearts. It was America's presence in Saudi Arabia - and not our freedoms - that played a major role in motivating the highjackers to give their lives in attacks against "the infidels" on September 11, 2001.

Throughout this campaign, various candidates have gotten away with defining themselves as they have wished with little challenge to their claims. When Hillary Clintons claims experience while having served in public office shorter than all the other candidates who ran on the democratic side, the media would rather go along and define her as the "candidate of experience" instead of challenging her claim. When Mitt Romney claims economy as his strong suit, the media passively accepts that self-definition instead of challenging him for essentially supporting the same kind of supply-side economics that has cost America thousands of jobs and led to the current economic downturn that we face today. So when John McCain claims foreign policy experience, it is not surprising that the media is once again failing to question the merits of that claim even when he makes the kind of a remark that is rooted in his utter lack of understanding of the forces that have caused America's standing to take such a vertical dive over the past seven years and led to unlikely alliances against the United States among hostile powers.

John McCain may believe that America's presence in Iraq will eventually lead to over 1.8 billion Muslims around the world to roll over and accept Christian presence on holy land. But in reality, as long as America does not chart a course that would lead to self-government in Iraq and withdrawal of all American forces not just from Iraq but also from Saudi Arabia and other sensitive regions from around the world, Americans will remain a target for attacks at home and abroad and used by terrorist organizations to recruit disillusioned Muslims to join in violence against the American forces abroad or citizens here in the United States.