America already tried imperialism in the Middle East – and it failed

Those who dream of a new imperialism in the Middle East are full of nostalgia and amnesia, writes Faisal Al Yafai

US Marines enter the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah as they move towards the capital Baghdad in March 2003. Even before the invasion spiralled out of control, US troops were encountering fierce resistance (AFP/Eric Feferberg)
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Every so often, like an old man rising from a nap, the new imperialists raise their voices, full of nostalgia and amnesia, crying out for the old ordered days of empire.

Without exception, these cheerleaders for empire have never experienced the reality of it: they have never been among the soldiers maimed, blinded and killed in defence of a far-off ruling class. They have never been among the subjugated, ruled by a foreign power, resisting by any means at hand.

So it is with this latest longing for an imagined past, coming from Robert Kaplan, an American author best known for expansive essays about geopolitics (usually leavened with a healthy dose of belief that American military power can solve most problems).

Writing in Foreign Policy this week, Kaplan argues that America must bring imperialism back to the Middle East.


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“Imperialism bestowed order, however retrograde it may have been,” he writes. “For without order, there is no freedom for anyone.”

Yet there is little need for Kaplan to argue “a new American president in 2017 may seek to reinstate western imperial influence” – because an old American president already tried it. “New” imperialism is really an old argument, one that was repeatedly made in 2002 and 2003, before and during the invasion of Iraq.

George W Bush tried to bring a new imperialism to the Middle East, to bring about a new American order to complex societies – and it failed comprehensively, paid for in the shattered countries of Afghanistan and Iraq, in the broken lives of Iraqis, Afghans and Americans, and in the vast depletion of US resources that have hastened the curtailing of US influence.

Indeed, part of the dark days that Iraqis are living can be traced directly to the White House’s disastrous decision to invade the country.

The difficulty with these men who dream of imperialism is that they always dream of being the empire themselves.

Kaplan wants to bring imperialism back to the Middle East – but he doesn’t want the imperialists to be Iranians or Turks or Russians or Egyptians. He doesn’t want the Arabs to look at the chaos in Israel and Palestine and decide they could run the two countries better.

Such imperialism is not of interest to him. When he cries for a new imperialism, he means a new American imperialism.

(One wonders why Kaplan, if he is such a fan of imperialism, doesn’t wish to bring back British dominion over America.)

It is precisely that kind of narrow nationalistic lens, that blindness to the vast complexity of the world that makes some analysts and authors unable to understand any country but their own.

Although Kaplan’s starting point is wrong, his conclusion is sound. He has correctly diagnosed the problem only to prescribe the wrong medicine.

The importance of stability in the Middle East cannot be overstated. But there are many paths to stability. Other countries and regions have created stability without empire. The chaos in parts of the Middle East today is merely a historical moment; there is nothing in particular about the region that requires a firm hand.

Indeed, what Kaplan ought to be prescribing is partnership, not domination. Stability in the Middle East would benefit both the region and the wider world. Genuine partnership would be the way to achieve it.

The grave situation at the moment is complicated by politics and differing visions for the region: America arms Israel, which threatens Iran, which meddles in the Gulf, which buys advanced weapons from America.

By seeking to set one country against another, Kaplan is, in fact, merely arguing for the status quo, just with a new actor. But the idea that America could impose itself across the Middle East is, for neoconservatives, a comforting fiction.

Imperialists and their cheerleaders often forget how bruising attempts at empire are, both for the colonised and for the country seeking to conquer.

After all, of the British in Iraq, the French in Algeria, the Russians in Afghanistan and the Americans in Iraq (again), none left voluntarily. All left because they were pushed.

In that sense, the urging of new imperialists for a return of America to the Middle East is both a fantasy of American power today and amnesia at the historical record. America already tried imperialism in the Middle East, and it failed.

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai