Kaplan: An Impish Desire for Imperial Déjà Vu

Daniel Martin Varisco | (MENA Tidningen) | –

A recent online commentary by Robert Kaplan for Foreign Policy displays the provocative title: “It’s time to bring imperialism back to the Middle East”. The punch line surfaces in the final paragraph: “Imperialism bestowed order, however retrograde it may have been”. Retrograde? How about brutal?

Let’s see: Mussolini made the trains run on time; Hitler brought Germany out of the humiliation of a World War I defeat; Genghis Khan lengthened the Silk Road by slaughtering just about everyone along the way. So let’s bring back the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein, Colonel Qaddafi and all the recently demoted dictators so we can have “order” again, the kind of “order” which is imperially blessed and apparently serves American interests.

Kaplan’s view of Middle Eastern history is about as top-down and lop-sided as you can get. Take the Sublime Porte, for example: “For hundreds of years, Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Jews, Muslims and Christians, in Greater Syria and Mesopotamia had few territorial disputes. All fell under the rule of an imperial sovereign in Istanbul, who protected them from each other”, he writes. Really? What romance novel has Kaplan been reading? Was there such love for the Ottoman sultans that no ethnic group ever complained? Did all these subjugated people sleep peacefully at night knowing that the Janissaries would protect them from each other? But why stop with the Ottomans?! The caliphs in Abbasid Iraq must have been all made for a Disney Aladdin movie and their mercenaries nothing short of angels? And what barbarian would have dared speak against the glorious Pax Romana of the Caesars? Forget the out-dated Sermon on the Mount. According to Kaplan, blessed are the Machiavellian despots for only they can enforce peace in the name of order, at least in what used to be called the Holy Land.

In Kaplan’s apocalyptic view ISIS has now obliterated the “the borders erected by European imperialism, British and French, in the Levant”. Israel’s annexation of the West Bank never happened, of course. It seems that the new ISIS empire could be a candidate for membership in the United Nations. But crossing the borders in humvies and pick-up trucks hardly changes the lines on the maps. The borders may be porous, but they are still internationally recognized borders and will revert to the established countries once ISIS is cleared out. We are told that for Libya, Syria and Iraq, “Because identity in these cases was fragile, the most suffocating forms of authoritarianism were required to merely hold these states together”. But this puts the cart before the camel. The dictators arose not because the local population was given a chance and failed the “rigors of democracy”. The dictators gained power as a result of the dismal policies of Western imperialism before and after World War I and II.

Huntington’s simplistic clash of civilizations scenario is the inspiration for Kaplan’s thesis that “Only suffocating totalitarian regimes could control these artificial countries formed from vague geographical expressions”. Forgetting that all modern states are “artificial” and imagined, Kaplan assumes that the region must inevitably be totalitarian, as though revolutions can only occur in the West. The totalitarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa that came to power did so in the power vacuum created by Western imperialistic manipulation. The fact that Saad Zaghloul and Mohammad Mosaddegh were denied self-determination seems to have escaped Kaplan’s imperial vision. So the dictators get praised and blamed at the same time, as though they evolved in a vacuum.

As Kaplan rightly notes, “Strong Arab dictatorships across the region were convenient to American interests…”. Indeed they were, but they were hardly convenient to the people they ruled and often ruthlessly killed. What a sigh of relief there must be in Washington that a democratically elected President Morsi is now replaced (and condemned to death) by a military general who imagines himself a pharaoh draped in red, white and blue. And then there is the House of Saud which “has impressively navigated its way over the decades through immense social transformation at home and a tumultuous security situation abroad”. Public beheadings and not allowing women to drive are indeed immense, are they not? It is not that hard to be impressive when there are billions of dollars of oil wealth at their disposal, much of which has financed the jihadi mentality now coming back to haunt the Saudi kings. And, of course, Operation Decisive Storm is yet another example of how impressive it is for a country with all the military hardware Washington can sell to bomb a poor neighbour into the Stone Age. The shopping malls and fancy hotels in Mecca must be protected at all costs.

“Thus, the near-term and perhaps middle-term future of the Middle East will likely be grim”, concludes Kaplan. Indeed it will be thanks to the unlimited supply of arms to all sides, the polarizing rhetoric on all sides, the blatant hypocrisy of American foreign policy and the blind eye to every belligerent action of the Israelis against the Palestinians. But let’s not make it any grimmer by returning to puppet despots and imperial ambitions.


Daniel Martin Varisco is President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Research Professor at Qatar University and advisor to MENA Tidningen.

Reprinted with the author’s permission from MENA Tidningen

Readers may also enjoy Juan Cole, “What’s Wrong With Robert Kaplan’s Nostalgia for Empire” at The Nation this week.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Euronews: “‘Deadliest day’: reports of 80 killed in Saudi-led strikes across Yemen”

5 Responses

  1. Kaplan is going to be real depressed when many of those french and British empire borders disappear, which is what will happen as the de-colonization process continues.

    Also there is NOTHING the USA can do about the de-colonization process, other than get lots of Americans killed for no good reason, no matter what Kaplan thinks.

    The past 10,000 years of human history shows that the region will sort out its borders and power structures through often bloody conflict and then one day everything will stabilize and the USA will be equally hated by everyone.

  2. I always wonder what it would have been like to construct an empire if nuclear weapons had been available. How would London have faired while adding jewels to their crown if one of the unwilling jewels acquired such a weapon?

    We seem to think that we are operating in the 19th century!

  3. Well then, I’m sure Mr. Kaplan will have absolutely no problem with China extending its empire of bribery entirely across Eurasia and restoring order using a tiny fraction of its population of 1.5 billion as boots on the ground. Whom better to impose “the most suffocating forms of authoritarianism”? Especially since, unlike our Wall Street empire, China can actually create jobs for poor people.

    Oh wait, that’s not who he really meant? Huh. Who else could it be?

    • One of the BIG advantages of having a 5000 year old culture is China has tried pretty much every scheme possible in international relations. They have come to understand that empires based on force ALWAYS cost more than they benefit and always fall apart.

      BUT playing on the other sides greed works every time.

      Why conquer an area when you can just buy what you want while manipulating the exchange currency.

      All the commentators keep pointing out how much bigger the US military is, but fail to understand that the huge, scary US military frightens everyone and just lets China be the “friendly good guy with cash in his pocket.”

  4. I thought America was doing its part for imperialism. The U.S. knocked out the leader in Iran in the 50s; and since that time: invaded Korea and Viet Nam; invaded Panama; invaded Cuba (Bay of Pigs), invaded Iraq more than once, invaded Afghanistan, and supports territorial expansion of Israel. I know I have left out numerous other instances. America has military installations all over the world, and has flotillas sailing all of the seas. Perhaps Kaplan is saying that America needs to step it up? Well, then get Dick Cheney to run for president! J.E. Bush is probably close enough.

Comments are closed.