Bush's Desolate Imperium, Copyright © Bernard Chazelle, Princeton, December 2003


Much of the Arab world seems frozen in time, torn between the corrupt remnants of pan-Arab nationalist movements and the siren call of Islamic "liberation" theology. This Hobbesian choice leads some Western observers to comment, rather disingenuously, "Arabs give us hell for the hell they're in, but they have only themselves to blame." The truth is, there is plenty of blame to go around. Arabs may have dug the hole they are in, but the West has sealed the top and made sure there is no way out. Whose fault is it if, in the year the novelist Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize, Egypt published only 300 books but ten times as many thirty years earlier? Probably Egypt's. But whose fault is it if Mubarak is a despot whose jails are teeming with political prisoners? Fewer fingers would point at the US if its government did not prop up the Egyptian leader to the tune of $2 billion a year.

Westerners like to aver, "Better a corrupt autocrat friendly to us than an Islamist in charge." But hasn't Turkey put to rest the notion that all Islamists are incorrigibly theocratic? While far from ideal, Iran offers a mix of Islamic and democratic governance, with genuine elections and a painful but real public debate, that at least offers a glimmer of hope for the future and is, in so many ways, preferable to Egypt's ossified autocracy and Saudi Arabia's feudal monarchy. A leading Middle East scholar, Gilles Kepel, contends that radical Islamism, having failed miserably wherever it has been tried (Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan), is actually in decline [51]. So, yes, terrorism is a deadly serious threat, but is the current hysteria fully justified? New Republic editor Paul Berman's attempt to connect Islamism and Nazism is an intellectually interesting panic-inducing exercise; though little more insightful than the zoologist's observation that mice and elephants all have four legs [52]. This is the sort of fear-mongering that leads the US to choose the vilest secular dictatorship over any sort of Islamic government.

Fortunately, the current administration has a more balanced view of things. It offsets its allergy to Muslim fundamentalism with an exquisite tenderness toward all things Christian; especially sermons that blame gays and feminists for the tragedy of 9/11 [53] or military harangues that extol the superiority of the Christian god [54].

Supporting despotic regimes often has much to do with oil. It is longstanding US policy to view the free and stable flow of oil in the Persian Gulf as a vital interest of the United States. In a State of the Union address, the president declared:
Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.
The president was Jimmy Carter and the year was 1980 [55]. (Let us only hope the Chinese never declare the wood-rich American Rockies part of their vital interests.) It is a common misconception to read in US policy a crass pretext for an oil grab. The objective was—and still is—to prevent outside forces from controlling oil prices. (In Jimmy Carter's English, the word 'outside' means non-American.) Being home to the world's second largest oil reserves, Iraq has an inordinate potential to influence oil prices.

If coveting thy neighbor's oil were not bad enough, the US has made a habit of supporting bloody dictatorships in the region. Saddam's was only one of several. Few in Iran have forgotten how their fledgling democracy under Mohammed Mossadegh was crushed by the CIA in 1953 and replaced by the Shah's police state. This was the start of a chain reaction that takes us all the way to today's crisis in a perfect illustration of the great Law of Unintended Consequences.

  1. British oil interests threatened by Mossadegh; Mossadegh replaced by Shah in CIA-led coup.
  2. Shah replaced by Ayatollah; Ayatollah threatened by Saddam the Good with full US support.
  3. Saddam the Good replaced by Saddam the Bad (after Kuwaiti oil grab); Saddam the Bad defeated by US forces.
Many of the Arab world's grievances against Europe and America are genuine and legitimate. Colonizers rarely endear themselves to their subjects and European colonization was no exception. As a parting gift, Europe broke up vast chunks of the Arab world into a jumble of artificial states. The mess is yet to be sorted out. The Arabs' despair at America is more present and serious. It feeds on three perceptions:

  • US support of despised Arab autocracies.
  • Washington's unwillingness to actualize an equitable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • The humiliation of what was once the world's preeminent civilization at the hands of a giant rubbing its superpower status in its face.

Occupation humiliates and humiliation motivates. The picture of an Abrams tank rolling down Baghdad is the best recruiting tool bin Laden could ever hope for. (Obviously, Bush has the bin Laden vote locked up in '04.) US arrogance—blind though it may be at times—does not help either. Here is again America's most influential foreign affairs columnist at his patronizing best [56]:
We just adopted a baby called Baghdad—and this is no time for the parents to get a divorce. Because raising that baby, in the neighborhood it lives in, is going to be a mammoth task (Thomas L. Friedman, 5/4/03).
If America's elite is so damn supercilious to think it can "raise" the inhabitants of the world's oldest civilization, it will come out of the experience battered and humbled. This colonizing impulse is key to this discussion and deserves a little detour.

Empire is back in vogue. The brilliant colonial apologist Niall Ferguson makes a compelling case that taking up the White Man's burden was a magnificent gift to the world [57]. (I am always struck by the fact—no doubt a coincidence—that it is always the colonizer, not the colonized, who gushes over the magnificent gift.) The revisionists' arguments are quantitative and utilitarian; hence their persuasive power. For example, they explain that African-Americans are richer, healthier, and live longer than black Africans (all true); therefore, slavery was a good thing. Well, they do not actually say that, but their methodology not only allows such a conclusion, it actually makes it inescapable.

India's superb universities, its vibrant democracy, its extensive railway network, even the great cities of Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras, are all byproducts of the British conquest. Ferguson does not simply call them positive, happy, or even wonderful consequences of colonization—though they might well be all of these. He actually uses these achievements retroactively to justify the conquest itself. His logic is flawed in at least two major ways. To begin with, we know that the Brits did not conquer India in order to build universities, railroads, and cities, but, rather, to expand trade. In justifying an enterprise, intentions do matter. There is also this little thing called freedom. By Ferguson's thesis, it would be quite all right for Bill Gates to kidnap poor children in Sri Lanka, since they would be better fed and better educated in his hometown of Redmond. Or perhaps, for similar reasons, we could have a law that requires poor American parents to give up their kids for adoption. In fact, why not pay Mexican immigrants working at McDonald's only half-wages? They would still be much better off than in Mexico, and McDonald's would thus be able to lower the cost of a Big Mac, which would help everyone. Niall Ferguson's brilliant mind opens up all sorts of exciting possibilities.

The revisionists privilege hard variables, such as literacy, health, wealth, and property laws, over such soft, subjective, quaint notions as humiliation, deculturation, discrimination, degradation, servitude, respect, and freedom. And actually, come to think of it, the economic argument is not all that convincing, anyway. In 1750, India's share of the world's GDP was 25 percent. In 1900, it had fallen to 1.7 percent. But by then, of course, it had cricket.

If you naively thought, as I did, that one of the greatest moral achievements of the last half-century was the universal, irreversible recognition that colonization was on the whole a ghastly affair, then think again. Lord Curzon's judgment that the British empire was "under Providence, the greatest instrument for good the world has seen" has gone full circle from serious, to farcical, back to serious. I guess it is only a matter of time before we hear again about the glory of getting the trains to run on time. Scary.

The US should resist the temptation to take up the White Man's burden again. Past imperial ambitions have all been tainted by phenomenal amounts of arrogance. Bush's Iraqi adventure is proving to be no different. America's racist past should also invite an extra dose of humility and restraint. We have learned that dropping bombs on other people's heads for their own good is not always the wisest course. The US failed to save Vietnam from communism; and even that required two million dead. Fighting in self-defense is one thing; to do so in the name of educating the "natives" about one's superior ways stinks to the heavens. This is a lose-lose proposition: In trying to save others' souls, the US risks losing its own.


[51] Jihad: Expansion et declin de l'Islamisme, by Gilles Kepel, Gallimard, 2003.

[52] Terror and Liberalism, by Paul Berman, Norton, 2003.

[53] Jerry Falwell, September 13, 2001.

[54] General William Boykin, 2002-2003.

[55] State of the Union Address to Congress, by President Carter, January 21, 1980.

[56] Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times, May 4, 2003.

[57] Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, by Niall Ferguson, Basic Books, 2003.