A Warning against Kaplan’s Argument That “It’s Time to Bring Imperialism Back to the Middle East”

By Johan Galtung and Naakow Hayford

There is much to agree with Robert D. Kaplan’s 25 May 2015 publication in Foreign Policy in his well-informed analysis. And very much to disagree with, especially his wrong remedy.

Kaplan ascribes the present “chaos” – as if major changes can be orderly or take place under old much praised “order” and “stability” – to the break-down of imperialisms, in plural, starting with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. And he manages the incredible: not a single word about who gave them that death blow: Sykes-Picot, UK-France, helped by czarist Russia. Analysis?

However, he has much positive to say about the Empire-Caliphate as an order where diverse groups had very few territorial disputes (the millet system). But he does not draw the obvious conclusion: maybe there is a longing in the whole region back to that order–without Istanbul?

True, it is Sunni but do not leave out the possibility of some genius bridging the Sunni-Shia gap by creating a political-economic-military community including both Iran and a new Saudi orientation. Kaplan leaves no opening for any such potential, even though it is desired by millions in the region. More important than ISIS is the yearning for a caliphate. That is the driving force behind ISIS.

Rather, Kaplan sees the rise of the Islamic State as a result of the collapse of the European empire on the ruins of the Ottomans, the artificial colonies, Iraq and Syria; Palestine and Lebanon. For ISIS, eliminating Iraq and Syria as independent countries is an obvious part of recreating a non-Istanbul Ottoman structure, based on wilayat, provinces, instead of the Westphalian states. But there is not a word from Kaplan about that old Sunni dream, the ummah, the borderless community of the believers, with countless nodes, cities and oases, communities in plural, headed by the imam as community leader. For or against, believing in its viability or not: no analysis is meaningful without an understanding of the dreams on the other side.

Sykes-Picot from 1916 was one death blow; another the Balfour “Jewish homeland” in 1917 established in the mandate-colony Palestine. For some, racists, a way of getting Jews out of England-Europe; for others, zealots, a way of speeding up Armageddon and with that the return of Christ; for others still, a genuine effort to help Jews, victims of ghettos and horrible pogroms.

However we balance these and other motivations, out of it came a regional Israeli empire, unmentioned in Kaplan’s argument: That empire, based on a divide and rule called “peace by pieces”, with separate and very diverse approaches to the five neighbors and beyond, cooperated, more or less, with the declining US world empire, called “hegemony”. The Arab spring was against both, and their clients.

Kaplan rightly points out that the dictatorships associated with Assad, Hussein and Gaddafi were “organically connected to the legacy of imperialism” not to USA-Israel imperialism but to European imperialism. But they tried secular models too with Ba’athism, which were also socialist, thus hated by USA. And they were at times growing and succeeding; hated by Israel that wanted them cut into pieces. The nuclear dimension was a useful pretext; the major threat to Israel right now, is its own policy: Dirty bombs are cheap these days.

Yes, Zoroaster-Sassanid-Persian Iran has an old tradition and is self-conscious. But so was Islam expanding from Casablanca to Baghdad within 70 years after the death of the prophet. Saudi Arabia is only “custodian of the two mosques” and has no moral authority, unlike Qom in Iran.

ISIS is an effort to establish a Sunni authority, maybe doomed to failure in the short term, but not in the midterm. Saudi Arabia, like its allies USA and Israel, bases power only on killing unlike Mao who in addition, had very much more to offer than that which came out of the barrel of a gun. Though doomed to fail in the short-, mi- and long term, US-Israeli-Saudi imperialism seems to be precisely what Kaplan wants to bring back.

Helped by Egypt and Turkey. “Egypt’s security services under de facto military strongman el-Sisi are already quietly allied with the Israeli security services in Gaza, Sinai and elsewhere”. True. “A strong Turkey in and of itself also helps balance against Iranian power.” This is old, discredited “balance of power” thinking that could easily lead to arms races and wars setting all of the Middle-East on fire.

But imagine Iran is “contained”. At the price of the “military strongman” (read: dictator and coup-maker) getting away with murder directed at Islam, deepening the secular-military/Muslim Brotherhood abyss. What would we end up with? More intractable conflicts than ever, within all five countries. Cholera to cure pestilence?

Kaplan comments on the “collapse of central authority across the Middle-East that began with the fall of Saddam Hussein.” He fell by himself, did he? Used by the U.S. against Khomeini 1980-88, Hussein discovered late how he was being used, before turning against USA who made sure to hang him, without giving him a chance to defend himself, in a caricature of justice. They hurried up to deny him, an authority, that opportunity.

Every hour on the hour we can now learn more details about the obvious collapse of the key strategy so far: to train locals to fight US wars – be it in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, or Yemen and Somalia; repeating the Vietnam failure. Underlying it all, we sense deep intellectual – in addition to moral – deficits and deficiencies. Kaplan points to very real problems but systematically omits to point out that many or most were due to Western in general and US policies in particular. He sees chaos where many others see hope; he wants an order which most others see as hopeless; tested and found wanting.

We invite Kaplan to consider alternatives to his idea of bringing back order by imperial killing.

Rather, help them create a Caliphate with the best qualities of its Ottoman predecessor: tolerance, minority millets, even potentially bridging the Sunni-Shia gap. Use military peacekeeping to protect, defensively, exposed and threatened minorities. Negotiate space for Israel. But do not get lost in sterile military power rivalries; already lost by the USA.

First published by Transcend Media Service here.

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