About forty years ago, two British historians named Robinson and Gallagher made an interesting argument about 19th-century British imperialism. Britain, they argued in effect, did not seek occupation and direct rule of territories in Africa for its own sake--the British were quite content to work with local elites while pursuing their economic interests. Unfortunately, European economic and financial involvement often led to conflict and chaos--for example in Egypt in the late 1880s, where the government could not longer pay its debts. Faced with the alternatives of loss of their investments, chaos, and intervention, the British (and other powers such as the United States in the Caribbean twenty years later) usually intervened. Again and again, the disproportionate impact of the west in what we now call the third world led to chaos and intervention.
Something similar has been happening in the Middle East for the last thirty years, albeit with wildly differing results. The Shah of Iran's embrace of secularism and his overt and covert alliances with the United States and Israel led to his fall in 1979 and to the first great Islamic revolution. The United States during the next decade found it expedient to strengthen Saddam Hussein, but when in 1990 he used his new wealth and stature to invade Kuwait, a long struggle began that culminated in his most unwise overthrow. Then in 2001 terrorism on a large scale emerged as one outcome of weak central authorities and abundant oil money in much of the Islamic world, and the Bush Administration suddenly decided that the whole region needed a new, democratic form of government. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan resulted. And although the word remains unmentionable among the American political and journalistic elite, a new imperialism had begun.
The history of European imperialism is far too complex (and, to be frank, I do not know enough of the details myself) to summarize it here. Yet it is fair to say that the British, in particular, usually relied to the maximum extent possible on local elites and local power structures to rule new colonies, while introducing some legal innovations of their own. For a variety of reasons, from racism to sophisticated historical understanding, they understood that their own legal and democratic institutions had taken centuries to develop, and did not believe they could be exported wholesale. Arthur Balfour argued publicly in the 1890s that the Egyptians had never governed themselves and that the British were now giving them the best government they had ever had. Americans have never been capable of that level of cynicism--and as long as they eschewed that kind of imperialism themselves, that was all to the good.
If however the United States ever collapses completely, I suspect that an excess of idealism will be to blame. Faced with an increasingly chaotic and hostile Middle East, President Bush decided that the solution was simple: American-style institutions for all. The events of the last five years in Iraq, culminating in the outbreak of civil war in the Shi'ite South, show how mindless that belief was. The American attempt to create an impartial central authority that all Iraqis would trust has been a complete failure--and, to be fair, almost surely never had a chance in the first place. A complicated network of local tribes, militias, and religious leaders competes for leadership all over the country. Such elections have been held have shown a complete division along ethnic and religious lines (as I pointed out the week of the first national elections.) Iraqi politics resemble those of New York's five families more than anything else, and there are no "pezzonovantes, the real .90 calibers," at all, except perhaps for the 150,000 American troops. During the last year they have stabilized Sunni areas without changing the fundamentals of the situation at all. They have simply brought many local Sunni networks into alliance with the U.S., mostly by paying them off on a continuing basis. That does resemble classic European strategies, but the Europeans, as John McCain would say, were willing to stay for a hundred years. Two Sundays ago the Boston Globe had a remarkable story about the American presence in the mixed town of Rashid, recounting a meeting of Shi'ite and Sunni tribal leaders. When some one had the temerity to ask them whether they could remain at peace when the Americans left, they agreed firmly that they could not, to the American commander's dismay. "You are the safety valve," one said.
The "nation-building" projects we are engaged in in Iraq and Afghanistan have much more in common with classical imperialism than with the relatively brief occupations of Germany and Japan, countries that had significant democratic and legal traditions, after 1945. (Significantly, perhaps, we are now engaged in two countries where Europeans never had a lasting presence--in fact, no European nation had the audacity to try to control Afghanistan until the Russians in 1979.) Unfortunately, we have uniformly found that in the twenty-first century, a client relationship with the United States is invariably a huge political liability. Last week also saw the appalling spectacle of a high-level American mission dispatched to Pakistan to impress upon its newly elected government the need not to deviate too severely from the policies of Perez Musharraf, the client upon whom we have been relying, and whom the Pakistani people have now repudiated. In the same way we cling to Mahmoud Abbas in Palestine, all the more so since Hamas actually won the election.
Al-Maliki's attempt to subdue the Mahdi Army in the South, Juan Cole speculates on his blog, was proposed by Vice President Cheney during his recent visit as a means to try to make sure that the pro-Maliki parties won the coming provincial elections. Certainly I do not believe that Maliki would have undertaken such drastic steps without American blessing, and I recall that General Petraeus, in his testimony last September, said bluntly in response to a question that he did not regard developments in southern Iraq as part of his business. The London Times is repeatedly reporting (as American papers are not) that large parts of the Iraqi security forces in the South have simply gone over to al-Sadr. Today he has called for his followers to cease fire, but that may be from a position of strength, not weakness. The on-scene reporting does not suggest that the Iraqi government is going to emerge stronger from this measure. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration's response to the failure of its policies, from tax cuts to invading Islamic nations, is almost invariably to push further ahead. There does not seem to be much chance that they will be restrained by the oncoming election. We desperately need a new President who will be willing to scale back our new imperialist project and began trying to live with the Islamic world as it is.
Meanwhile, on the political front here at home, Frank Rich has an interesting column about Hillary Clinton's astonishing failure to stop claiming to have landed under fire in Bosnia, long after it had been exposed. He wonders how the professionals around her could have allowed this to happen, and I can think of only one answer. Like the Nixon and George W. Bush entourages, her advisers have created their own world, in which their candidate can do no wrong and reality is whatever they say it is. That must in turn reflect something important, and frightening, about the candidate's own personality. It is another reason to hope, in my opinion, that leading Democrats continue to call for her withdrawal and that, as Howard Dean has proposed, the nomination be settled by June 1. My birthday is six days later, and it would be nice present indeed.