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The shaky realms that hubris built

David K. Shipler is the author of "Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land," which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 and was revised and updated last year. He is a former New York Times correspondent in Saigon, Moscow, Jerusalem and Washington.

The Dust of Empire

The Race for Mastery in the Asian Heartland

Karl E. Meyer

PublicAffairs: 256 pp., $26

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I had the good fortune to be finishing Karl E. Meyer’s “The Dust of Empire” the day the bombs began falling on Baghdad. “History is not a blueprint but a cautionary tale,” he writes in his concluding chapter. “It is replete with warnings to those who believe that they can outguess the future, or that their country has a mandate from providence, or that alliances are a nuisance, or that a brusque arrogance is preferable to simulated humility.” As a volume of history about the dangers ahead, in Iraq and elsewhere, “The Dust of Empire” deserves to be read in the White House.

Iraq is Meyer’s subtext, not his primary subject. A swaggering America is his major worry, not his only focus. And so he deftly traces the lines of the past into the present as he documents the imperialist ambitions of outside powers -- mainly Britain and Russia -- in the vast region that stretches from the carelessly partitioned Indian subcontinent through the unconquerable mountains of Afghanistan, across Iran to the eastern edge of Iraq, up into the feuding Caucasus, and among the peaks and plains and deserts of the Central Asian countries that had sovereignty thrust upon them by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Scholarly and eloquently told, the stories of empire in the Asian heartland have an edge of urgency. They teach a lesson about the durability of error: Mistakes made by colonial powers can last for many generations. “Over and over again,” Meyer writes, “proconsuls who believe themselves instruments of Enlightenment or selfless servants of church, throne or history, end up burying explosive caches, like so many land mines, that blow up ruinously in their descendants’ faces.”

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A vivid example can be seen in the boundaries that were drawn to create artificial nations, often without regard to the array of religious, ethnic and linguistic identities that were folded together dangerously. As the defeated Ottoman Empire was carved up following World War I, “Britain, colluding secretly with France,” Meyer notes, fashioned “a patchwork of new Arab states, each with flags, thrones and high commissioners.... Oil was an essential element in delineating frontiers.” So, what eventually became Iraq was configured to include oil-rich areas “to support Faisal I, the Hashemite monarch whom the British had enthroned.” It thus enclosed Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds and all their mutual hatreds.

Similarly, Britain’s “precipitate partition” of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan left a perilous legacy of religious and ethnic enmity. In response to Hindu-Muslim conflict (which the author suggests Britain may have fostered to divide and rule), the British gave themselves merely six weeks in 1947 to draw complex frontiers that tore apart centuries-old communities and ignited a vast slaughter among Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims. Hundreds of thousands died, 10 million were uprooted. The resulting Pakistan “is the archetypal imagined community,” Meyer argues. “Its frontiers are porous, its polyglot population exceptionally diverse,” including millions of Pashtuns, most of whom live on both sides of the border with Afghanistan. “Its chief claim to unity is Islam, on which its authoritarian rulers have relied, inordinately. This has contributed to three wars and a nuclear confrontation with India, chiefly arising from an unresolved dispute over Kashmir.” Pakistan, where Al Qaeda flourished, is “at the heart of the region’s disorder,” he writes, “the most grievous failure of Britain’s colonial unraveling.” It is the most volatile ally in the war on terrorism.

Meyer is a rare combination: a holder of a doctorate in political science who writes beautifully, a journalist who understands that history begins long before the day he arrives in a country. He is a former correspondent for the Washington Post, a former member of the New York Times editorial board, the author of nine books and now editor of the World Policy Journal. With a sense of easy mastery, he gazes broadly at the longest view, then zooms in to inspect the finest detail of a telling fact that someone has pulled from a forgotten archive.

This can be a dizzying journey at times, and while he begs our indulgence for his “digressions” that “are in fact essential tiles in a mosaic,” in some places I wish he had joined them with more connecting mortar and rearranged them to clarify the picture. His chapter on Central Asia, a region he knows well, jumps around confusingly in time and place as it follows the fates of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan back and forth between the 1st century and the 21st, dwelling too little on Russia’s rule and superficially on the new countries’ current political conditions.

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By contrast, there is a brilliant chapter on Afghanistan, the wellspring and harbor of Al Qaeda, the never-colonized “amalgam of tribes under rulers at Kabul skilled at coaxing lavish bribes from foreigners to buy or impose peace at home,” as the author describes the country. He quotes the “Iron Amir,” Abdur Rahman Khan, chosen by Britain to rule in 1880, asking the eternal question: “How can a small Power like Afghanistan,” caught between Russia and Britain like “a grain of wheat between two strong millstones, stand in the midway of the stones without being ground to dust?” The amir’s answer was a streetwise deal to serve as a buffer by acquiescing in the loss of borderland to British India in exchange for annual subsidies and British arms, which he used to build an army.

Not all leaders in Kabul were so savvy. Afghanistan was defined in the following century not only by the ancient ebb and flow of power between tribal chieftains and Kabul, but also by the pulls and pressures between the Soviet Union and the West. When Washington rejected an Afghan request for military aid in 1954-55 while approving weaponry for Pakistan, Moscow moved into the vacuum, and that in turn set a disastrous course. Meyer’s distillation of the subsequent history is chilling: a series of coups and upheavals and big-power miscalculations that in retrospect seemed to lead inexorably to the 1979 Soviet invasion and to Washington’s fateful decision to create a quagmire for Moscow, a project of Zbigniew Brzezinski, the reflexively anti-Soviet national security advisor to Jimmy Carter.

The United States accomplished this goal by arming and supporting the moujahedeen, who came from the most fundamentalist, antediluvian sectors of Afghan society, which opposed such policies of the pro-Soviet Kabul government as requiring girls to attend school. After the Russians withdrew, the Americans lost interest and turned their backs on their erstwhile clients, who fought among themselves and evolved into the Taliban. “Anger at being treated like discarded mercenaries,” Meyer observes, “turned thousands of resistance fighters into easy converts for Islamic jihadists.”

In this sweeping chronicle, the United States comes onstage as the single heir to the failed empires and to the fateful temptations, illogical frontiers and tribal rivalries that have been left behind in the vacuum of power. “Is there an American empire? Are Americans imperialists?” Meyer asks rhetorically. “America now sits where Britain did in the 1890s,” he notes, but with key distinctions. “Britannia had nothing like America’s economic and military preponderance,” he writes. Furthermore, “Americans are if anything more certain that their institutions are the envy and exemplar of less fortunate breeds, and that most of the world’s people would gladly change places with them.” That missionary zeal compounds the risk of hubris.

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Such is especially the case in the absence of serious challenge to the American agenda. At least the Cold War imposed international checks and balances as the United States and the Soviet Union vied for global influence. Each superpower, fervently evangelical, truly believed that its system would benefit humankind: Americans sought to spread the gospel of political pluralism and private enterprise, and the Russians preached the ethics of political unity and classless socialism. Neither side always adhered to those values, but the ideological component remained a driving force in their competition. Even as the rivalry magnified conflicts in the Middle East and other contested regions of the world, however, each side’s power restrained the other. What now restrains the United States from suffering what Karl Meyer calls “the unintended consequences of empire?”


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