Cascoly Books: Resurrecting Empire

Cascoly Books - Resurrecting Empire

Rashid Khalidi

Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East


The silence of the experts is part of a larger problem, of why public discourse in the United States about high-profile issues in foreign affairs is so often driven by the lowest common denominator, by ill-informed pundits rather than by people who are actually knowledgeable about the rest of the world. Perhaps it also reflects the general preference for what is familiar and reassuring over what is strange and discomforting. One of the objectives of this book is to reflect the history that is behind perceptions in the Middle East of the American role there, perceptions that may not match what Americans think of themselves and their country's role in the world. Some would cavalierly dismiss these views or address them solely via glossy public-relations campaigns. This is to underestimate dangerously what is at work here: these perceptions and the history behind them are extremely important, for it is how those in the region perceive the United States, and how they perceive their own history, whether accurately or not, not how we perceive ourselves and our history, that will determine how they act. We should be able to consider carefully whether these perceptions, unflattering though they may be, might in fact be ac-curate, without having to fend off accusations that we are anti-American or "blame-America-firsters" in doing so. This is an essential element of the respect for the views of others that Americans would expect to receive for their own views, but which is often missing where the Middle East is concerned.

What are the peoples of the Middle East likely to think of when they see foreign troops on their soil without their consent? What memories are triggered for them by foreign invasion, and what are their reactions to it likely to be? How have they reacted to foreign occupation and control, direct and indirect, in the recent past? How have outside powers helped or hindered the countries of this region in their evolution toward democracy and constitutionalism? What has been their experience over the past century as far as control of their valuable oil resources is concerned, and what historical sensitivities do they have on this score?

This raises a final set of questions about whether anyone in the top ranks of the Bush administration in Washington, where the decision for war meant fateful long-term decisions about the future of the United States' relations with the Middle East, ever took into account these and other aspects of the heavy legacy of the painful Western colonial encounter in this region. Is there any realization in these circles that this encounter ended very recently in terms of the extremely long and tumultuous history of the countries of the Middle East, perhaps humankind's longest history, and that memories of it are still vivid?

Before discussing American relations with the Middle East, it is necessary to explain how Middle Easterners came to view the West generally in the decades preceding the mid-twentieth century, how the European powers eventually dominated and occupied virtually the entire region, and how constant resistance to this process ultimately led to their expulsion. . It may turn out that this adventure will end by doing only a relatively limited amount of damage in Iraq and the Middle East, and to the international system. Today this seems increasingly unlikely, and even at the outset the prospects looked dim to most of those who had any deep knowledge of the region. But "bringing" democracy and the rule of law to a land that has long suffered from the tyranny of the Ba'th regime, but that produced Hammurabi's Code nearly four millennia ago, will be a daunting enterprise. This is not to speak of the alarming degree of arrogance involved in the endeavor. And it will be even more daunting to rule, directly or indirectly, over the people of this complex and heterogeneous country, which the United States alone will be fully and totally responsible for in every respect, from law and order to sanitation, until a sovereign Iraqi government eventually reemerges.

Some of those in the War Party surrounding President Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld have been advocating this perilous adventure in Iraq for a long time, and their allies in the media and the think tanks have not hesitated to bandy about words like empire to describe what they are launching.64 The hubris involved is not unprecedented (even if the global reach and power of the United States is): in 1917 General Maude marched into Baghdad and General Edmund Allenby into Jerusalem, and in 1920 General Henri Gouraud entered Damascus, each animated by the same high, global ambitions as are now held by the clique around the president. Of course, many will continue to deny that history repeats itself. But history, starting with Thucydides, teaches us that those who believe themselves to be special, different, and touched by providence, and who ignore history's lessons, may be cruelly surprised by the turn of events.

It was particularly instructive in this regard to observe the behavior of senior administration advocates of "democratizing" Iraq during the lead-up to the war as they tried to oblige various democratic states whose peoples and governments were strongly against the war to go along with the United States. Most notably, they attempted to impel the government of Turkey, which had won an overwhelming mandate in a recent election, to go against the clear wishes of the great majority of the country's citizens and allow Turkish territory to be used for the war on Iraq: polls showed that by February 2003, 96 percent of Turks opposed a war against Iraq, up from 80 percent in January.I7 The pique of official Washington (one "administration official" fulminated that "the Turks seem to think we'll keep the bazaar open all night") when Turkish leaders dragged their feet in acceding to u.s. demands, was, to say the least, unseemly. It indicated how shallow the democratic inclinations of leaders of the American administration were

================= US & Iran

But in time Parliament, Mosaddeq, and the disparate coalition that supported him were worn down by the pressure of the economic boycott, combined with the collusion between _reign powers determined to prevent Iran from succeeding with its audacious gesture, and members of the Iranian elite, headed by the shah, determined to preserve their prerogatives in the face of the advance of popular power. Finally, in August 1953, the Iranian military, which had been advised by American officers since World War II, carried out a coup inspired and organized by the British MI6 and the CIA.25 The resulting reimposition of the shah's absolute power at the expense of the powers of the elected Parliament thus represented yet another example of the old, cavalier contempt shown by democratic Western powers for constitutionalism and democracy in the Middle East when they perceived their interests were threatened.

The other result of the coup represented a new factor: for the shah's new government, headed by a reliable senior general, proceeded to return the Iranian oil industry to its old state of subservience to Western oil companies. The sole difference from the pre-1951 situation was that the major American oil giants obtained a 40 percent share

Soon after the war ended, a gathering in Damascus of Iraqi leaders had called for the creation of such a state under a Hashemite prince as part of an Arab federation.28 This had an impact on British imperial planners when they deliberated about the country's future. But the well-known presence of oil in Iraq since antiquity, reinforced by the near-certainty of contemporary geologists that it was present in commercially significant quantities, had much to do with Iraq's creation in the form it has retained until the present day.

================== Partition of the Ottoman empire  

In the "railway partitions" of the Ottoman Empire just before World War I, whereby the powers recognized one another's claims to spheres of influence via understandings about areas where each was free to build (or prevent the building) of railways, Britain had established its primacy in the southern part of Iraq. This claim was related primarily to a desire to control the communications of southern Mesopotamia with the Gulf and India, and between there and the Mediterranean, although it was known that there was oil in both the south and the north of the country. This prewar recognition of a paramount British interest in southern Iraq was expanded in the 1916 Sykes-Picot accords between the Allied powers into a zone where Britain was to have direct and exclusive control. Another zone to the north, stretching from the Iranian frontier west to the Mediterranean and including Baghdad, was to be indirectly controlled by Britain. Thus Britain would dominate the shortest course from the Mediterranean to the Gulf that was later used for land and air routes and an oil pipeline. These accords gave France similar zones of control in Syria and allotted it paramount influence in the Mosul region. Britain thereby created a buffer zone between their possessions and those of its old rival, Russia, which had secured recognition from its allies of its paramount interest in eastern Anatolia and at the Straits.

... reading of the history of the Middle East would show that it is impossible to erect a Western system of domination there in the twenty-first century-whether one calls it empire or not that will not face resistance by its subjects. It is impossible to march into the Middle East proclaiming good intentions and to ignore the fact that the locals have a longer sense of history than most Americans, and will recall vividly that over the past two centuries they have been reassured several times by their conquerors that they had the best of intentions. Napoleon, Lord Dufferin in Egypt in 1882, General Maude in Baghdad in 1917, General Gouraud in Damascus in 1920, and many others offered the same reassurances, which in every case turned out to be worthless.

Even if the intentions of the Bush administration regarding the establishment of democracy in the Middle East were as pure as the driven snow, even if this administration and its powerful friends in the oil business had not the slightest rapacious aspiration toward the fabulous potential bonanza of Iraqi oil, even if there existed every sincere intention in the Pentagon to remove all American forces and bases from the entire Middle East as soon as possible-even if all these dubious hypotheticals were granted-Middle Easterners have every reason on the basis of their own lengthy experience to expect the contrary to be the case. They would not be convinced by mere words to ignore the lessons of over two centuries of bitter experience with alien rule. And in any case, they will not take kindly to being ruled by others, whatever these others may say or do and however sweet their rule may be. The British experience in India, the beneficiary of centuries of benevolent British imperial despotism, and the resulting "ingratitude" of the Indians, should be a warning to those in Washington who believe that the benefits they believe they are extending from on high to Iraqis, Afghans, and others will be gratefully received.

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