A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Apparently Neo-Ottomanism Isn't Limited to Erdoğan, and Other Talk of Empires Past and Future

When the New Zealander/adoptive British Imperial apologist J.B. Kelly, author of Arabia, the Gulf and the West, and other works died in 2009,  I called him "the last Imperial Briton" and treated him as an anachronism. But even then, American neocons were exulting in an American neo-imperialism of sorts, and one was already hearing  revisionist historians like Niall Ferguson in his books Colossus and Empire seemingly yearning for the good old Empire days. Now, much of the world will be surprised to learn that most Americans don't see ourselves as an imperialist people. Perhaps back in the days of Teddy Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan, but not today. We rationalize our global ambitions as bringing stability, order, and democracy, as France once rationalized its Empire as la mission civilisatrice.

But nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire is still, for the most part, limited to right-wing Turkish nationalists and to "Neo-Ottomanist" President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

At least until now. 

Robert D. Kaplan's piece at Foreign Policy, "It's Time to Bring Imperialism Back to the Middle East," actually goes there. Kaplan has written a number of popular works. I never read his Balkan Ghosts so i won't comment on it here. I must confess that his Arabists: the Romance of an American Elite annoyed me, though giving the pleasure one gets from yelling at a book as one reads it, Since it dealt with many friends, teachers, mentors, colleagues, and former bosses (some of whom weren't even technically Arabists as they didn't know the language), I read it a least twice.. (The cover shows the late Talcott Seelye, Ambassador to Syria and Tunisia, whom I was lucky enough to know well and whose daughter Kate is now my colleague as Senior Vice President of MEI.)

So I admit to some bias in judging Kaplan's arguments because, to use the academic terms, I consider them dangerous imperialist bullshit. Read it for yourself. His conclusion:
Thus, the near-term and perhaps middle-term future of the Middle East will likely be grim. The Sunni Islamic State will now fight Iran’s Shiite militias, just as Saddam’s Sunni Iraq fought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Shiite Iran in the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran War. That war, going on as long as it did, represented in part the deliberate decision of the Reagan administration not to intervene — another example of weak imperial authority, though a successful one, since it allowed Reagan to concentrate on Europe and help end the Cold War.
Back then it was states at war; now it is sub-states. 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.
Ah, yes, Ordnung supersedes democracy, human rights, and other frills. Notice how it's more sinister if I use the German word? I wonder why that is?

While Kaplan doesn't urge a reestablishment of the Ottoman Empire in its original form, I rather expect he's going to have some 'splainin' to do with his Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian friends, if he has some.

In another area, the current anti-Iran hysteria in the US, Israel, and the Gulf Arab states has led to much talk about Iran pursuing a "new Persian Empire," Professor Hamid Dabashi, Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies at Columbia University takes this apart very nicely at Al Jazeera in "Persian Empire, Anyone?"

I truly believe the age of empires is gone. We may have a (I believe false) nostalgia, for a (falsely?) remembered stability, and no one prefers the barbarity of ISIS, but Kaplan's solution is to treasure an anachronism.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is INDEED an article to shout back act!!!

Empires may well have kept the lid on internal fighting, but that is because their subjects were too busy fighting the empire's OWN wars with its neighbors. It is also the case that. While obvious imperialism is no longer with us for the mot part, when you look at the countries to today's warring parties are proxies for, things start looking very familiar. And who are the empires supposed to be helping? The center or the periphery? Empires have this nasty way of letting the non-combatants in their colonies starve while their boys are off fighting for the glory of said empire. Who is neo-imperialism supposed to be good for?