The word empire has been in the news recently, and with good reason. With an election underway in the US which will (once again) determine how America projects itself in the world, the widespread reaction to a single film has placed those men and women who embody America’s power around the world in highly dangerous and precarious situations.
Some indeed have tragically lost their lives in Benghazi.
They have been cast as empire builders. In a broadcast on Al Jazeera a protesters in the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli screamed ‘America’s empire will pay for this insult’ and around the same time a statement from senior Iranian cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati concluded that the film would intensify hatred towards America’s ‘stupidity’.
The perception of America as an all-powerful empire, unafraid to enforce its will, has haunted US diplomats in almost every global posting for decades. But this characterisation is always a particular headache when working in the Middle East, or to more precise, in Muslim countries in the Middle East. In spite of the charm and communications abilities of successive US presidents such as Obama and Clinton, America has failed to explain its vision for the region to those who actually live there; US diplomats would still be justified in feeling misunderstood in the region.
What’s changed in recent weeks is that the attacks in Muslim countries against US facilities will worry decision-makers in Washington that misunderstanding is becoming an ever shorter step from outright hatred.
How did America acquire its image of global bully and enemy of Islam? Is it simply because America is the largest, and strongest, target for the outpouring of anger and discontent within fragile Muslim countries? Possibly. But global dominance by one country isn’t new. Indeed, the cold war was one of a small number of unique periods in history when more than one country projected comparable influence around the world.
Many of those protestors who are so outraged at the insulting and offensive film will no doubt cite America’s wars against Islam in Afghanistan, and Iraq, and its steadfast support for Israel as evidence of its aggressive empire building. It is a very easy case to make, and who knows what history will make of these US foreign policy decisions.
One thing that history has shown is that empires don’t like to admit where they have made mistakes; and as the historian Erna Paris observes, the stories of empires can be much like the stories of our own lives: threaded through with ‘remembered fact and fiction’.
That comment could just as easily be made of Britain’s approach to understanding its historical pursuit of empire. Indeed, trade union activist Owen Jones recently called for a collective ‘owning up’ to our imperial past.
But is that kind of humility just an over-simplistic historical readjustment, a way of facing up to reality decades, or centuries, after the acts of imperial violence took place? For sure if there was a time for that discussion to take place then the summer that Britain was hosting the Olympics probably wasn’t it.
It is very easy to call for apologies with hindsight. I’m not sure that an apology for the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, or even a renunciation of its support for an independent Jewish state in the Middle East would heal the open wounds in America’s relationships with many of the protesters currently rioting outside their embassies and consulates across the Muslim world.
Whatever the solution is, the two candidates for the biggest job in global politics had both better come up with an answer soon, or America risks convincing another generation of people in the Middle East to fear and misunderstand its global influence.
David Chaplin writes the Progressive Internationalism column for Progress
Photo credit: Freedom House
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