Kaplan’s Cure for the Middle East: Imperialism

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Kaplan’s Cure for the Middle East: Imperialism

American cartoon by John Bull of an Imperial Octopus with its arms. (Public Domain)

The solution to the current mess in the Middle East is to bring back imperialism—that’s what an influential foreign policy thinker is straight-facedly claiming.

Robert Kaplan has been dispensing advice for decades on how to manage the world, and his words have often been heeded. In the mid-1990s, his book Balkan Ghosts apparently helped convince President Clinton that not much could be done about the carnage in that region, since it sprang from atavistic impulses. Since September 11, Kaplan has been a proponent of a muscular global presence for the United States, citing the British Empire as a role model. 

Now, he seems to have carried his fetish for empire a step further, arguing that only the reestablishment of imperialism can pacify the Middle East.

“The meltdown we see in the Arab world today, with chaos in parts of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Levant, is really about the final end of imperialism,” he writes for Foreign Policy magazine. “Imperialism bestowed order, however retrograde it may have been. The challenge now is less to establish democracy than to reestablish order. For without order, there is no freedom for anyone.” 

For Kaplan, it’s as simple as that. 

Kaplan has a soft spot for the Saudi monarchy. “The House of Saud has impressively navigated its way over the decades through immense social transformation at home and a tumultuous security situation abroad,” he writes.

Really? The Saudi ruling family and its practices—both at home and abroad—are a major cause of the current turmoil in the Middle East. Not only does it make its citizens (especially its women) suffer under its backward-looking Wahhabi form of Islam, it is intent on exporting the strain throughout the region and the globe. But for Kaplan, the Saudis serve as a counter to Iran’s mullahs (whom he portrays luridly) and so are forgiven their sins.

His historical analysis is extremely dubious, too.

“The Middle East is not facing state collapse because of the lack of empire,” writes Professor Juan Cole. “European empires themselves drew lines in the desert and instituted policies favoring minorities and dividing and ruling, which continue to haunt the region.” 

So, Iraq, Syria and Libya are artificial entities created by imperial European powers (as Kaplan himself admits), with consequences that are reverberating even today.

Besides, as Cole points out, the imperial horse left the barn a long time ago. There is no way that Middle Easterners will allows the reimposition of empire (as the United States discovered in Iraq—look how well that approach worked there).

Kaplan’s argument springs from a weird obsession with “order” to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. This explains his nostalgia for the colonial era and for U.S.-backed dictators that maintained “stability” in the region.

That an influential intellectual is arguing to reintroduce imperialism in one of the most prestigious foreign policy journals in the United States is astounding. Talk about a return to the old order.

Amitabh Pal

Amitabh Pal

Amitabh Pal is managing editor of The Progressive. He has interviewed the Dalai Lama, Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter and John Kenneth Galbraith for the magazine.

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