Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Empires reach limits and fall

Back during a time that feels like (and was) several lifetimes ago, I was a graduate student of European history, interested among other topics in the First World War (1914-1918) that blew away the continent's social arrangements, fed the Bolshevik Russian Revolution, and marked the emergence of the United States as what Madeleine Albright called "the indispensable nation" and less sanguine observers labelled simply "top nation." Every once in a while I return to this interest.

Lately I've been dipping into David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. This 1989 volume is a diplomatic history, apparently largely based on British records, of the flounderings of British officialdom in the war years. It is history told from the outside and from above; the unfortunate indigenous inhabitants of the region barely appear as Fromkin describes imperial officials trying to figure out whether and how to overthrow the Ottoman regime, Zionists and their sympathizers in Britain asserting their claims to Palestine, and Arab nationalism(s) beginning to surface amid a welter of local rivalries. A mix of confusion, avarice and imperial competition led to the drawing of the boundaries of states between Turkey and Iran, most of which lines still hold today.

If so many people hadn't died, so many lives not been destroyed, and so many future territorial conflicts set up, this story of imperial folly might be humorous -- or perhaps could have been for a detached western hemisphere observer before watching the very similar flounderings of the US empire over the last few decades.

World War I-era imperial Brits were woefully ignorant of opinion in the lands they intended to re-arrange.

A characteristic flaw in the information-gathering ... was that they frequently accepted information supplied by a single informant without testing and checking it. Instead they seemingly relied on [a] sort of intuitive ability ... the gift of being able to divine the extent to which any native is telling the truth.

...In evaluating reports that there was dissatisfaction with Ottoman rule in some sections of the empire, British Cairo particularly misunderstood one of the salient characteristics of the Moslem Middle East: to the extent that it was politically conscious, it was not willing to be ruled by non-Moslems. ... They regarded rule by a Christian European power, such as Britain, as intolerable. ... Wrong-headed and professionally ambitious, Britain's men on the spot supposed that Arabs wanted to be ruled by Europeans ...

I guess these men were the true ancestors of Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld -- it's hard to not be reminded of Bushite Washington's enthusiasm for the Iraqi conman Ahmed Chalabi.

After a stumbling start, troops from British India did overrun Ottoman Baghdad and Basra in 1917 -- and then London authorities realized they had no plan how to govern these Iraqi cities.

On 16 March 1917 the War Cabinet created a Mesopotamian Administration Committee under the chairmanship of Lord Curzon to determine what form of government should be installed in the captured provinces. The committee decided that the province of Basra should become British [ruled from Cairo] -- not British-Indian -- while the province of Baghdad should join or should become a Arab political entity subject to a British protectorate. ... It was evident that London either was not aware of, or had given no thought to, the population mix of the Mesopotamian provinces. The antipathy between the minority of Moslems who were Sunnis and the majority who were Shi'ites, the rivalries of tribes and clans, the historic and geographic divisions of the provinces, ... made it difficult to achieve a single unified government that was at the same time representative, effective, and widely supported.

... The Mesopotamian Administration Committee had no ready [replacement] for the Ottoman administration of Mesopotamia had been driven out... It was an inauspicious beginning and suggested the extent to which the British government did not know what it was getting into when it decided to supersede the Ottoman Empire in Asia ....

Naturally these European imperial diplomats never thought of the possibility that the Ottomans, whose empire they considered moribund, might fight them to a standstill. But in fact in the early years of the war, led by modernizing Young Turks, the old empire did just that.

The Ottoman Empire benefited from the fact that it was not the principal theater of war for any of its opponents, all of whose forces and·energies were concentrated elsewhere. Even so, its wartime performance was surprisingly successful. Engaged in a three-front war, the Ottoman Empire defeated Britain and France in the west in 1915-16, crushed the advancing armies of British India in the east at the same time, and in the north held off the Russian invasion forces.

It never occurred to the British that Middle Easterners might resist domination by European conquerors, fiercely and sometimes effectively; the United States made the same mistake in invading Iraq and continues it today in central Asia.

In an afterward, Fromkin explains that, by the end of the exhausting European war, British society had changed so that entrenching the empire in its new Middle Eastern territories was no longer feasible, even if governments didn't yet understand that. He writes:

In 1922 the British government had arrived at a political compromise with British society, by the terms of which Britain could assert her mastery in the Middle East so long as she could do so at little cost. To British officials who underestimated the difficulties Britain would encounter in governing the region--who, indeed, had no conception of the magnitude of what they had undertaken--that meant Britain was in the Middle East to stay. In retrospect, however, was an early indication that Britain was likely to leave.

I believe United States governments will find that our empire too has hit its limits just at the moment when our neo-conservatives thought they had the whole world under their thumb. Let's just hope they don't kill too many more people before they notice.

1 comment:

tina said...

aah if you only knew what they are doing diplomatically in lebanon. they are really stupid.
but we will win! :)