Outside View: America, Obama and the anti-colonial dilemma

By SILVIO LACCETTI, UPI Outside View Commentator  |  Aug. 31, 2012 at 6:30 AM
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HOBOKEN, N.J., Aug. 31 (UPI) -- The documentary "2016: Obama's America" is sure to reignite controversy surrounding U.S. President Barack Obama's political philosophy.

The film explores sensitive points about Obama's youthful intellectual exposure to anti-colonialist thought and outlines what the United States might look like if the president is re-elected. In so doing, it inadvertently uncovers a latent schizophrenia in the interpretation of U.S. history: the Americans' anti-colonial dilemma.

How did it come to pass that the United States has become a symbol of neo-imperialism in so much of the world when the United States began its national existence as the first anti-imperialist nation?

The ideals of 1776, uniquely expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, have served as the pillars of all subsequent struggles for freedom. Even North Viet Nam's Ho Chi Minh was enamored of them!

True, the small U.S. foray into imperialism in 1898 resulted in acquiring territories from Spain, notably the Philippines and Puerto Rico. Early on, the Philippines, judged unready for independence after the war, were promised freedom by 1944. They obtained it in 1946. Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens in 1917.

In contrast to this "colonial" record has been the United States' periodic 20th-century intervention in Latin American affairs. In the Western Hemisphere, the schizophrenia of the U.S. anti-colonial dilemma surfaces.

But the real watershed for passage of the United States from the champion of anti-colonialism to neo-imperialist power comes with the post WWII changes that redefined the entire political profile of the planet.

First, the United States' European allies were all colonial powers, determined to hang on to empire even as their defeats in Africa and Asia spawned national independence movements.

Second, the Cold War with the Soviet Union -- which might, at some point turn nuclear-hot -- meant the Amercians had to support our allies.

The first turning point defining the American dilemma came with the Suez Crisis of 1956. Britain, France and Israel went to war against Nasser's Egypt when it sought to nationalize the Suez Canal. To the surprise of the French and British, their powerful NATO leader, the United States, didn't support them.

A sea change had occurred in the diplomacy of the time. The Cold War merged with anti-colonialism as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev began exploiting Third World (still mostly colonies) aspirations.

Under the leadership of Dag Hammarskjold, the United Nations launched its first peace-keeping force and it, the Soviet Union and the United States forced an end to the war.

Unfortunately, America didn't receive just credit for its position. By skillfully playing the anti-colonial card, the Soviets, not the Americans, filled the influence vacuum in the Middle East, supporting Egypt and Syria (still today) and, later other states that left the Franco-British orbit. This so, despite the fact that the Soviets were repressing tens of millions in Eastern Europe!

Meanwhile, in Southeastern Asia, what had been a struggle to contain aggressive communism in Korea was melding into American replacement of France in Indochina. In 1954 President Dwight Eisenhower was talking domino theories, and by 1956, the American Military Assistance Group had begun operations in Indochina.

In Africa, after the Suez crisis, independence movements exploded. By 1960, 18 former European colonies had gained freedom. In 1961, the Third World non-alignment movement, led by figures such as Abdel Nasser, Sukarno of Indonesia and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana became a major force in the United Nations and in world politics.

America's certification as a neo-imperialist power came with the Congo Crisis of 1960. When, under serious pressure in its colony and from world opinion, Belgium granted the Congo independence in June 1960, the land was woefully unprepared for it.

By July, the new nation was fragmenting. Katanga province, leading world producer of uranium and industrial diamonds, seceded with encouragement from Belgium.

Leftist Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba asked for help from the United Nations and from the Soviets.

In the end, it seemed that the whole world took sides in this catastrophe: the Soviet Union, Cuba (which declared itself a communist state in 1961) China, and Egypt. On the other side were Belgium and the United States (sans France and Britain!!).

The United Nations assumed an active military role to reunify the Congo but the successful effort was blunted when Hammarskjold died in a 1961 plane crash while on a peace mission to Africa.

After the Congo crisis, there was no going back. The Americans were tarred with the paint of imperialism. No sooner done in the Congo than involved in Viet Nam. Ever since, it has been fashionable in many circles to view the United States as the neo-colonial imperialist power par excellence, even though international politics underwent another radical upheaval with the end of the Cold War in 1991.

Now globalism came to the forefront of political thinking. There were no more colonies to be freed, but, oddly, anti-colonialism acquired a transposed definition and a new back-history. In some quarters, all European and U.S. expansion in the world was deemed reprehensible, a genocide against the indigenous -- especially in the New World.

So when it came time to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Columbus' discovery, it was suddenly and summarily canceled, thus seeming to confirm U.S. and European guilt at having led the world from the Middle Ages onward. Today, in new curriculums, movies and global propaganda, Americans are taught to be ashamed of the homeland.

Furthermore, anti-colonialism has resurfaced in the global setting as a demand for reparations for ancient wrongs -- another schizophrenic position.

The United States must reject these positions. Obama must proudly and vigorously champion America as freedom's best friend. The United States began as a beacon of freedom and remains such.

No nation is perfect. The Americans have made errors, surely. All have. But the United States has nourished freedom far more than any other political system in history and Americans try to be better still. And that helps all people everywhere.


(Silvio Laccetti is a retired professor of history and social sciences. His doctoral research focused on colonialism after World War II. Reach him at slaccett@stevens.edu.)


(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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