Magazine

The American Raj in Central Asia


By Paul Starobin

THE DUST OF EMPIRE

The Race for Mastery in the Asian Heartland

By Karl E. Meyer

PublicAffairs -- 252pp -- $26

The very idea of a global U.S. empire sticks in the craw of most Americans, who trace their anti-imperialist convictions back to the Revolution. Well, too bad, says Karl E. Meyer, editor of World Policy Journal and a former Washington Post foreign correspondent. "Like it or not, Washington is the seat of an empire whose awesome economic power has given it an unparalleled global reach," he declares in The Dust of Empire: The Race for Mastery in the Asian Heartland. Politically, Meyer is a liberal, but unlike others of his persuasion, he doesn't seek to roll back the U.S. empire so much as to broaden and elevate its purposes beyond military bases and oil-field contracts.

The Dust of Empire offers a learned and graceful exploration of territory ripe for American domination: the swath of former European and Russian colonial territory stretching westward from Pakistan to the Caspian and the Caucasus. Displaying a keen sense of history and geography, Meyer describes the triumphs and disappointments of both the British and the Russians as they sought to extend their influence there in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is possible to read Meyer's account simply as a fascinating story, studded with nuggets that could improve anyone's score at Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit. Do you know the origin of "checkmate"? In his chapter on Britain's and Russia's lengthy jousting over Iran, in which the British twice deposed their own handpicked Iranian leaders, Meyer informs us that the term derives from the Persian shah, meaning king, and mat, meaning helpless or defeated.

Meyer's primary goal, however, is to offer policy lessons -- recommendations to today's empire-builders in Washington. "History is not a blueprint but a cautionary tale," he says. Just look at the example set by the British, who tended to associate the firing of weapons with the delivery of virtue. After crack British troops, assisted by Egyptian squads, made mincemeat of Islamic Sudanese rebels in a one-sided engagement in the 1890s (28 British dead, 10,800 Sudanese), young Lieutenant Winston Churchill could barely contain his enthusiasm for this "reclamation from barbarism of a fertile region and large populations," as he put it. "The act is virtuous, the exercise invigorating, and the result often extremely profitable." But in just two decades, amid the devastation of World War I, the best days were over for the empire on which the sun never set.

Although Iraq is not part of Meyer's survey, his warnings offer a rebuttal to the conclusions that hawks seem eager to draw from the thrashing of Saddam. "A go-it-alone arrogance, it seems to me, is the surest means of sparking conflicts that can threaten America's predominance," he says.

So what alternative path can the stewards of U.S. empire take? Many liberal internationalists cling to Woodrow Wilson's ideal of national self-determination as a recipe for world order. But Meyer is acutely aware that this approach, by spawning dozens of unstable small states, is not working well. That injects his analysis with a tough-minded realism that is often lacking in challenges to the hawkish view of the world.

Meyer offers a sophisticated defense of multilateralism, by which, he says, America can "seek influence through numbers." For example, he would put NATO in charge of new military bases in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, rather than continuing their current status as American dependents. NATO, he points out, played a crucial role in settling the Balkan wars of the past decade, with both the U.S. and the major West European powers on board. The suggestion of a broader NATO role in Central Asia seems, not least, politically prudent, since it would make it tougher for the region's Islamic militants to enlist recruits under the guise of opposing Washington's domination.

Second, Meyer says the U.S. must insist that the small, autocratic states in Eurasia now seeking America's protection must begin extending basic human rights to their citizens. So far, regimes such as Uzbekistan's, run by the dictator Islam Karimov, have acted as if grant- ing military bases to Washington gave them permission to delay democratic reforms or even to turn the screws tighter. It's a dismaying pattern.

And most persuasively, Meyer argues that the U.S. empire can't possibly be a force for good unless Americans acquaint themselves with the history, strivings, and grievances of Central Asia's inhabitants. Among his sensible ideas is the expansion of federally funded cultural-exchange efforts such as the little-known Muskie Scholarship Program, which over the past decade has sent nearly 3,000 citizens from the five ex-Soviet Central Asian republics to study or fill other roles in America. It's one good way for Central Asians and Americans to become mutually acquainted.

Without an improved cultural exchange, Americans can only continue to be baffled by the anti-American rage that emanates from the region. But so far, Americans seem more taken with high-tech weaponry than with the complex civilizations coming under U.S. sway. "If America has a crippling disadvantage in its encounter with the inner Asian world of ancient silk routes, modern pipelines, and imperial debris, it is something worse than lack of knowledge," Meyer writes. "It is lack of curiosity." He's right -- and The Dust of Empire is a good place for Americans to begin stimulating an interest. Starobin is Moscow bureau chief.


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