Saturday, July 09, 2011

sowing crisis in the dust of empires

a few weeks ago i read sowing crisis by rashid khalidi. then a few days ago i finished dust of empire by karl meyer. before i read them i had classified the two books as being about different things, "sowing" about the middle east and "dust" about central asia. but after reading them both, i realize that the two books really complement each other. "sowing" is about how the cold war rivalry between the US and USSR ended up inflaming fault lines and creating conflict in the middle east. "dust" is about how european powers (particularly the UK and tsarist russia) competed over control of the caucasus, south and central asia and how the legacy of that colonial conflict still haunts the world today. but what both books were really about the destructive effects of outside powers on local politics.

not exactly a novel thesis, but both books give a bunch of examples why that happens. in short, it's because the outside powers are spending all their time focusing on each other rather than on the people they govern. so when the UK sought to extend its control of british india into afghanistan, playing the various local leaders off of one another, it wasn't concerned with how this was affecting the afghan people. it was trying to get control of afghanistan before tsarist russia did, as it advanced south through central asia. in the cold war, the soviet union supported baathist iraq, a regime that arrested and executed its own communists, simply because that regime opposed the regime that the US favored. the real reason for the conflict between tsarist russia and britain had nothing to do with conditions in south and central asia, just as the opposing philosophies that were behind the cold war had nothing to do with the local fault lines in the middle east.

together they also seemed to be telling one coherent story, when the european colonialism of the 18th, 19th and early 20th century, blended seamlessly into the neo-colonialism of the cold war. then the cold war ended. but even when the basis for american intervention in the second half of the twentieth century disappeared (i.e. stopping the spread of communism), the economic interests that took root around the world-spanning american power meant that the u.s. never really shifted its policy away from intense foreign intervention in client states or states that threated its perceived interests.