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In The Dust of Empire, Karl E. Meyer examines the present and past of the Asian heartland in a book that blends scholarship with reportage, providing fascinating detail about regions and peoples now of urgent concern to America: the five Central Asian republics, the Caspian and the Caucasus, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and long-dominant Russia. He provides the context for America's war on terrorism, for Washington's search for friends and allies in an Islamic world rife with extremism, and for the new politics of pipelines and human rights in an area richer in the former than the latter. He offers a rich and complicated tapestry of a region where empires have so often come to grief—a cautionary tale.
IS THERE AN American empire? Are Americans imperialists? When a superpower exercises global influence, what means are legitimate, effective and comparatively benign? And if a superpower gets the answers wrong, what are the penalties? These are scarcely new questions, but in the months following September 11, 2001, they were asked more generally and, in America, more anxiously. The focus of this book is the vast region of mountain and steppe that geopolitical analysts like Sir Halford Mackinder once grandly dubbed the Heartland or World Island, now an area of belated security concern to Washington. It is my belief that a fair understanding of this distant region, and its inhabitants' discontents, requires a prior examination of the broad questions.
My own response, briefly stated, is that while Americans may not see themselves as an imperial people, they are so perceived across the globe. For reasons just or unjust, rational or otherwise, there is widespread unease about American methods and motives, even among the educated foreign elites whose children attend American universities. These doubts derive in part from the profound imbalance, or asymmetry, between American power and that of every ally or potential adversary. In these circumstances, American influence is most effective when exercised jointly, when Washington's purposes are clearly articulated and consistently pursued, and when security arrangements do not compromise the claims of decency and transparency that are America's most valued assets. A go-it-alone arrogance, it seems to me, is the surest means of sparking conflicts that can threaten American predominance. An obvious parallel is the unraveling of Great Britain's supremacy, which began with the outbreak of the morally disabling Boer War at the end of the nineteenth century.
A consideration of imperialism, past and present, serves as the frame for what follows. Examined within is the theme of asymmetry, and its consequences. It is my hope that even readers familiar with the subject may discover new material in these pages. My claim to authority is not that of a specialist, but of a generalist who has spent much of his career as a writer mediating between experts and the public, seeking to convey (in Walter Lippmann's phrase) a picture of reality on which citizens can act. This is not the picture viewers find on the television screen, the main source of foreign news for most Americans. For all its merits of speed and enterprise, television journalism almost always lacks context. What we normally receive is a hailstorm of filmed snippets and breathless commentary. Television's effect on viewers was graphically anticipated by John Henry Newman in The Idea of the University (1873): "They see visions of great cities and wild regions; they are in the marts of commerce, or amid the islands of the South; they gaze on Pompey's pillar or on the Andes, and nothing which meets them carries them forward or backward, to any idea beyond itself. Nothing has a drift or relation; nothing has a history or a promise. Everything stands by itself, and comes and goes in its turn, like the shifting scenes of a show, which leaves the spectator where he was."
Let us begin with maps. I have on my desk a globe, circa 1938, on which the world's overseas colonies and dominions are tinted in different colors: red for Britain's empire, green for France's and orange for other European holdings (Italian, Dutch, Belgian, Portuguese and Spanish). Most of Africa and South Asia is thus colored, although the cautious cartographers failed to indicate Japan's conquests of Korea, Manchuria and great swaths of China. Scrolling halfway around the northern latitudes, tinted pale pink, is the former Soviet Union with its fifteen national republics: a contiguous imperium stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Bering Strait. Yet as the twentieth century ended, so did these empires, becoming one with Nineveh and Tyre, their existence terminated by global war, rebellion, voluntary decolonization and the collapse of Communism. A statistic suggests the scale of change. At its founding in 1945, the United Nations had 51 charter members; as of 2002, the number had more than tripled, to 189.
On its face, this seems cause for celebration. No country has promoted the principle of self-determination more robustly than the United States, the first new nation to inscribe consent of the governed on its founding document. Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points and Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms helped fan resistance among the world's colonial peoples. Indeed, taking the long view, Wilson was in a real sense a more successful revolutionary than Lenin. In 1918, he informed a joint session of Congress that "self-determination is not a mere phrase. It is an imperative principle of action...." So it proved after the dissolution in 1991 of Lenin's Soviet empire, when, from the Baltic to the Adriatic, from the Balkans to Central Asia, nineteen new nations sprang into existence.
Yet from the outset, prescient Americans sensed the dangers implicit in Wilson's imperative. Secretary of State Robert Lansing feared the phrase was "simply loaded with dynamite." In his private diaries, Lansing worriedly wondered what unit Wilson had in mind. Did he mean a race, a territorial area or a community? For without a definite unit, the principle would be "dangerous to peace and stability." In his entry for December 30, 1918, Lansing elaborated: "It [the promise of self-determination] will raise hopes that can never be realized. It will, I fear, cost thousands of lives. In the end, it is bound to be discredited, to be called the dream of an idealist who failed to realize the danger until too late to check those who attempt to put the principle into force. What a calamity that the phrase was ever uttered! What misery it will cause! Think of the feelings of the author when he counts the dead who died because he coined a phrase! A man who is leader of public thought should beware of intemperate or undigested declarations."
It needs adding that Secretary Lansing (1864-1928) was not a reactionary or an isolationist, but a moderate Democrat and New York attorney who helped found the American Society of International Law and edited its Journal for twenty years. Moreover, in one of those instances of synchronicity that makes research a pleasure, Lansing's nephews happened to be Allen and John Foster Dulles. In their youth, the Dulles brothers joined "Uncle Bert" during the summer to fish for smallmouth bass on Lake Ontario, where they listened wide-eyed to tales told by yet another kinsman and fly fisherman, John Watson Foster, a Civil War veteran who was also a onetime secretary of state, a former U.S. envoy to Russia and author of A Century of American Diplomacy: 1776-1876. On that catboat, one may surmise, was nurtured the air of invincible entitlement that the Dulles brothers brought to their Cold War actions during the Eisenhower years.
Lansing's fears were cruelly realized in the post-Soviet 1990s by "ethnic cleansing" in former Yugoslavia; by unremitting brawls in the Caucasus between Russians and Chechens, between Armenians and Azeris, between Georgians and Abkhazians, between South Ossetians and Georgians; by the internecine toll in disputed Kashmir; by a dozen intertwined civil wars in sub-Saharan Africa; by the separatist risings in Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka; by the never ending Arab-Israeli conflict; and by the convoluted disorders of Afghanistan. In fact, at the Paris Peace Conference, Wilson himself acknowledged the perplexities of self-determination. He was visited by a delegation of Irish Americans protesting British efforts to prevent Irish nationalists from making their case. One of the delegates, Francis Patrick Walsh, a prominent lawyer and wartime head of the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations, later related to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations what he said were the president's words:
You have touched on the great metaphysical tragedy of today.... When I gave utterance to those words I said them without the knowledge that nationalities existed which are coming to us day after day. Of course Ireland's case, from the point of view of population, from the point of view of the struggle it has made, from the point of interest it has excited in the world, especially among our own people, whom I am anxious to serve, is the outstanding case of a small nationality. You do not know and cannot appreciate the anxieties that I have experienced as the result of these many millions of people having their hopes raised by what I said.
Wilson's second thoughts do him credit. Extending statehood to a hundred-odd entities has not brought the world appreciably closer to peace and prosperity. Even the smallest of the new states, enclaves or "autonomous republics" seems to harbor still smaller minorities whose rights may be threatened, as in Kosovo, East Timor, Moldova, Macedonia, Kuwait, the Baltic States and Fiji. In a wider perspective, we thus perceive an implicit paradox. In an era obsessed with globalization, the world's state system is fragmented as never before, with the concomitant reality that the United Nations and its affiliated agencies lack the resources, the mandate and most of all the will to address effectively the human and material catastrophes in what used to be called the Third World.
None of the above constitutes an argument in favor of imperialism. To allow frustration or nostalgia to incline us to the old-style imperial system is to disregard its racism, brutality and rapacity, as well as the self-delusion of its rulers. A compendium of Anglo-Saxon vainglory can be found in William L. Langer, The Diplomacy of Imperialism, 1890-1902. With unerring eye, Langer exhumed specimen British estimates of their right to rule as their empire reached its apogee. The empire, averred Lord Rosebery, Gladstone's successor in 1894 as Liberal prime minister, was "the noblest example yet known to mankind of free adaptable just government.... When a community is in distress or under oppression, it always looks first to Great Britain." By 1900, Rosebery was all but lost in adoration. As he rhapsodized in a speech at Glasgow, "How marvelous it all is! Built not by saints and angels, but the work of men's hands; cemented with men's honest blood and with a world of tears; welded by the best brains of centuries past; not without taint and reproach incidental in all human work, but constructed on the whole with pure and splendid purpose. Human and yet not wholly human-for the most heedless and the most cynical must see the finger of the Divine.... Do we not hail in this less the energy and fortune of a race than the supreme direction of the Almighty?"
And so agreed Lord Curzon, the celebrated viceroy to India, for whom (in 1894) the empire was "under Providence, the greatest instrument for good the world has seen." Ditto Joseph Chamberlain, the most robust of colonial secretaries: "We are a great governing race, predestined by our defects as well as our virtues, to spread over the habitable globe." To doubters who recalled the scores of bloody "little wars" during Queen Victoria's reign, the colonial secretary rejoined, in what became the hackneyed phrase others borrowed to condone every future horror, "You cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs."
It is hard to overstate the euphoria that gripped the British in late Victorian times. Even so resolute a skeptic as Bertrand Russell confessed to being a Liberal imperialist and enthusiastic free trader. Crowded on the same bandwagon were Manchester manufacturers and Fabian Socialists, high-minded preachers and jingo journalists, thoughtful Cambridge dons like J. R. Seeley, author of the best-selling Expansion of England, and maverick radicals like Sir Charles Dilke, author of an earlier best-seller, Greater Britain. Britain was to them the indispensable nation, standing taller and therefore able to see farther. To be born British, as Cecil Rhodes famously remarked, was to draw a winning ticket in life's lottery.
Yet the decade following Queen Victoria's triumphant diamond jubilee in 1897 shed a new and harsher light on imperialism. A first glimpse came in 1898 near Khartoum on the banks of the Nile. There Major General Horatio Herbert Kitchener arrived by rail and steamboat as commander in chief, or sirdar, of an Anglo-Egyptian force 26,000 strong, armed with eighty cannons and forty-four machine guns. Kitchener's mission was to settle an old account and reassert British dominion over the Sudan, which had become a base for Islamic extremism in a domain extending over a million square miles.
Fourteen years earlier, General Charles ("Chinese") Gordon had been slain at Khartoum by fanatic followers of Mohammed Ahmed, known as the Mahdi, the son of a carpenter rising seemingly from nowhere to challenge the Sudan's Egyptian and British overlords. The Mahdi preached a simple but potent doctrine: return to the basic tenets of Islam and reject everything that resembles the customs of "Turks" and infidels-"Turks" being synonymous with corrupt Egyptians. From the thousands who acclaimed him as the messiah, the Mahdi demanded fidelity to decrees forbidding drinking, smoking, music, dancing, feasts, buying brides, cursing, fine clothing and jewelry. Entranced by the purity of his example, moved by his denunciation of apostate Muslims and impressed by his eloquence and sparkling eyes, his followers multiplied. His legend grew when a powerful sheik presented the Mahdi with a noble bride and a mysterious Crusader sword inscribed in Arabic but bearing the double eagle of the Holy Roman Empire.
The Mahdists sought to achieve their master's goal through a universal jihad, or holy war, that would repel European armies and purify the entire Muslim world. With the death of Gordon, the Sudan was theirs. Six months later, the Mahdi too was dead, but the uprising continued under his designated heir, Abdullah ibn Mohammed, known as the Khalifa. Over and again, the Khalifa's dervish warriors repelled punitive raids, but Kitchener and his new weapons proved their undoing. With a former royal engineer's rigorous planning, Kitchener prepared for battle at Omdurman, the Mahdist capital opposite Khartoum, its river approaches defended by seventeen forts and some sixty guns. In the main engagement, pitting 50,000 defenders against half as many expeditionaries, the Khalifa blundered by ordering a frontal attack in daylight against infantry squares backed by howitzers and machine guns. The outcome was foreordained, its butchery made more terrible by flesh-shredding dum-dum bullets. A British war correspondent wrote: "Our men were perfect, but the Dervishes were superb-beyond perfection.
Excerpted from THE DUST of EMPIRE by KARL E. MEYER Copyright © 2003 by Karl E. Meyer
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Prologue: Pax Britannica, Squared|
|I||Patterns of Mastery, British and American||1|
|II||Russia: The Long Talons of Memory||29|
|III||Iran: The Agonies of Non-sovereignty||51|
|IV||Pakistan: Sins of Partition||83|
|V||Afghanistan: In a Dark Defile||113|
|VI||The Caucasus: A Bedlam of Identity||139|
|VII||Central Asia: Invented States, Real Godfathers||169|
|Epilogue: "What Is to Be Done?"||199|
|Notes on Sources||215|
Posted February 3, 2006
Karl Meyer rightly reminds his audience about the importance of history. Whoever lives in a perpetual present will burn his own fingers in dealing with countries such as Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Meyers has written highly readable and illuminating vignettes on these countries, which belong to what he calls the Asian heartland. This region is a theater of confrontation between liberalism and despotism. Russia, China, and the U.S. vie with each other for preeminence in a region often rich in natural resources but usually poor in liberal traditions.
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