The Perils Of Empire
By Paul Kennedy
Sunday 20 April 2003
This Looks Like America's Moment. History Should Give Us Pause
Eighty-six years ago, another powerful invading army had just entered Baghdad. At the same time, other divisions driving north-eastwards from Egypt were occupying Palestine. Urged on by their own strategists and intellectuals, these forces would soon advance upon Damascus. They would exercise great influence upon Iran and the Persian Gulf states. Donning the mantle of liberators, they would encourage regime change in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. They would send out messages of hope that "the entire Arab world may rise once more to greatness and renown" now that its oppressors were defeated. These were folks determined to make the entire Middle East secure and stable -- a blessing to the world, no doubt, but a particular blessing to their own hegemonic nation, and that nation was Great Britain.
This story was told years ago by the formidable Oxford scholar Elizabeth Monroe in her classic work, "Britain's Moment in the Middle East." The title was very deliberate. As she put it, the period of British dominance "is only a moment in the life of a region with a recorded history of four millennia." Forty years after its publication, with the arrival of the American moment in the Middle East, the book makes for eerie reading. The ideas of World War I-era imperialist intellectuals such as Mark Sykes and Leo Amery bear an uncanny resemblance to those of today's American neo-conservatives and provided their political masters with similar justifications for an expansionist policy. They, too, wanted to diminish French, Russian and German influence in the region. They sought secure access to Middle East oil, and to sites for staging-posts and air bases. They also believed that British genius could reconcile Arab and Jewish interests in Palestine. Does this sound familiar?
As readers know, all this turned out to be a romantic delusion. The years following Britain's military victories in the region were relatively easy, but then the tide turned. Monroe's later chapters have titles such as "The Spectrum of Middle East Resistance," "The Decline of British Nerve," "The Years of Impotence" and "The Fragmentation of Power." In Iraq, tribal leaders quarreled. The Kurds simmered, though the British mandate was better than direct rule from Baghdad. Sunnis and Shiites nursed their ancient differences. Arab and Zionist fears and militancy grew steadily. Nationalist, anti-Western intellectuals arose. Socioeconomic measures such as clearing waterways or planting trees could not assuage these emotions.
Will the American artificers of change do better in today's Middle East? Perhaps. But the odds are not good. Even if the United States manages to impose order in the next few weeks or months, it has embarked on a difficult and dangerous enterprise. The region is still criss-crossed with rivalries and blood feuds between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Conservative sheiks sit uneasily upon their precarious thrones. The Kurds and other minorities are bursting to get free. Hatred of Israel is intense, and constantly inflamed by the media and the clerics. The city streets are full of unemployed, restless young men, and the populations of the Muslim world are still soaring. Bringing "democracy" to the Middle East -- if that simply means one person, one vote -- could easily produce majority mistreatment of minorities. Anyone who has read the Arab Human Development Report put out last year by the U.N. Development Program can only be depressed by its unflinching account of undemocratic governance, corruption, economic failures and dire social needs. Were a British administrator from the 1920s restored to life, he would find things all too familiar.
If the American hawks have their way -- that is, if we move to consolidate our position in the Arab world and to transform its society -- then the U.S. "moment" in the Middle East could be a fairly long one, with all manner of unintended consequences. To be sure, history never repeats itself exactly, but it often deals hard blows to those who ignore it entirely. It would therefore be best to approach these ideas with caution, if not outright skepticism, to have some humility about whether a Western-led crusade for democratization is a wise policy, and to insist that Congress play its proper role in asking hard questions and setting reasonable limits on the republic's future foreign policy in this troubled region.
This brings us to the broadest question of all, that of defining America's position in the world over the years to come. The clear victor of the Cold War, it no longer feels constrained from intervening in sensitive areas like the Middle East or Central Asia, should national security interests demand it. The United States is unchallenged militarily and sees no rival Great Power in sight. Yet it has taken little comfort from this. Since 9/11, it feels less secure and is spending massive amounts on armaments. It possesses the world's single largest national economy but faces huge trade and budget deficits and economic rivalries from an equally large European Union and a fast-growing China. It has taken on military commitments all over the globe, from the Balkans and Kuwait to Afghanistan and Korea. Its armed forces look colossal (as did Britain's in 1919), but its obligations look even larger. It is small wonder that while liberals protest soaring defense expenditures, the U.S. military repeatedly warns of overstretch and is dismayed at the hawkish calls for further adventures; in the recent war on Saddam Hussein's regime, part or all of eight of the 10 U. S. Infantry divisions were tied down in Iraq or standing by to go there.
With all that is crying out for attention -- from our inner cities to the slaughters in central Africa -- can we really afford this missionary zeal to remake the Middle East in our own image? We could end up merely creating for ourselves ever more crumbling frontiers of insecurity. Successful in our Iraq military campaign, is it not time to rein in our own "forward" school and be a little more modest in our aims, language, spending and relations with the international community? Just a few days ago, I was shocked when a Dutch journalist told me that many of his countrymen were now "scared" of America. The Dutch. Scared. Is that a good long-term policy for the number one power in the democratic world?
The Dutch aren't alone, of course. Most countries in the world, including members of the current anti-Saddam coalition, are dumbfounded at the threats against Syria and Iran made by influential members of the Bush administration. Still, despite the fears of liberals at home and abroad, there are at least four reasons to think we will not be marching on Damascus or Tehran -- at least not now. The first is the announced recall of some of the U.S. Navy's carrier groups and the return of other military units for rest and overhaul. The second is that, during the prime minister's question time in the House of Commons last week, Tony Blair insisted that there were "no plans" for invading Syria. The third is that an aggressive move against the governments in Damascas or Tehran would probably provoke the wholesale resignation of the U.S. foreign service, including its boss, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. And the fourth is that even the present supine Congress would bestir itself and demand that the brakes be applied. "Big stick" warnings to Syria and Iran may continue, but neither the Marines nor the Army are about to embark on another war.
That said, it is clear that the U.S. government is at, or close to, a great turning point in its relations with the Middle East, the Muslim world and the rest of the international community. If it took a minimalist approach, the United States might just do its best to quell local disorders and feuding, encourage a multi-party political process, assist in relief aid and swiftly retire from the scene, handing things over to the locals plus U.N. agencies. But the hawkish intellectuals and policymakers inside the Beltway believe that America should take this opportunity to transform and reform the Middle East. The region would thus be brought into the modern world, in their view, and have Western-style democracy thrust upon it through an odd combination of Wilsonian idealism and Reaganite muscularity. Syria and Iran may escape American action this time, but in another year or two, well, who knows?
Viewed from a narrow military-technological perspective, this larger agenda looks feasible. With the carrier groups rested and rearmed, fresh ground forces and total command of the air and communications, the defeat of Syria and Iran in some future campaign seems possible (although both would fight more fiercely than Saddam Hussein's Potemkin village of an army). Indeed, if the American military could not achieve victory one would have to ask what the enormous Pentagon budgets -- equal now to the combined defense spending of the next 14 or 15 powers -- have been spent upon.
In the same expansionist vein, the U.S. government could help establish, supervise and secure a new Palestinian state, putting pressure upon Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab kingdoms to democratize. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank could be encouraged to bankroll these transformations, though the U.N. Security Council, with those pesky French and Russian vetoes, would be kept on the sidelines. As a result, the world's oil supplies would be in safe hands, the American people full of gratitude and today's nit-picking critics of White House policies thoroughly confounded. And the 21st century would remain the American century.
Some readers of this article will now be rushing to their pens or word processors to argue why this expansionist strategy may not be such a good idea. A march on Damascus, they will point out, would deal a terrible blow to the stock markets and the U.S. economy, provoke condemnation from the world community (there would be no half-hearted and half-completed "coalition of the willing" this time), produce considerable discontent in our military and rest on less and less support from the American people. We are told, however, that the "forward" school in Washington discounts those claims, arguing instead that the Middle East would become stable, accessible and prosperous, that external critics would cease their complaining as further successes occurred and that Americans could be rallied to support bold policies to expand democracy and (of course) eliminate the seedbeds of terrorism.
As the arguments rage both for and against a lengthy and sizable American presence in the Middle East, the story of Britain's "moment" in those lands is worth recalling. In my view, it is a tale that should give us further pause before accepting the neo-cons' recipes for changing the Muslim and Arab world. Simply put, we -- that is, great powers from the West -- have been there before, and the results are not encouraging. Nor, for that matter, is America's own track record of trying to transform other societies, be they in Central America, Cuba or the Philippines. We took over the latter two territories more than a century ago, yet Cuba's history has been a shambles and the Philippines is now receiving fresh cohorts of U. S. military advisers. Why do we think we will do better in Syria or Iraq or Saudi Arabia?
It was the prospect of an American takeover of the Philippines in 1898 that prompted Rudyard Kipling, the British imperialist poet and novelist, to write his famous lines about the need for policymakers in Washington to assume the "white man's burden." But we often forget how deeply bitter Kipling felt about the ingratitude and hatred he was convinced that foreign rule would bring. Born and brought up in British-ruled India, Kipling believed there were two parts to the burden -- the unavoidable responsibility and the unpleasant consequences:
Take up the White Man's burden --
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better
The hate of those ye guard --
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light:
"Why brought ye us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?"
Perhaps this verse might be framed and hung in the corridors of various institutions in Washington where ambitions to remake the world run rife.
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