The Illogic of Empire
by DANIEL GREENFIELD
October 31, 2012
The British Empire may have made a mess of the Middle East but at least it knew what it wanted to do with it. That is more than can be said for our latest round of aimless fumblings in the region. Our latest project to flip Syria from the Shiite into the Sunni column might at best balance out the time we flipped Iraq from the Sunni into the Shiite column, but that just means we're moving territories back and forth between two groups that hate us equally.
Our accidental empire was built on 20th century rhetoric that depicted a world caught between the forces of freedom and tyranny. Naturally we were on the side of freedom. And we are still on the side of freedom, even if it's the freedom of Egyptian and Syrian Islamists to persecute Christians. Over the years our freedom crusade has worn thin and now we are left with the tawdry task of liberating the majority to persecute the minority. A majority that will thank us for it with more terrorist attacks.
The idea that introducing free and open elections to the Muslim world will restructure its governments in alignment with our freedom agenda is naive. More naive than the British thinking that processing a few future Arab monarchs through Sandhurst and Oxford would accomplish the same thing.
The British were at least following in the footsteps of the Romans, even if they forgot that what happened to the Romans was that a religion from one of the annoyingly combative parts of their empire overran them and displaced their native belief systems. Islam seems on track to do to Britain what Judaism and Christianity did to the Roman Empire. But the end result will likely be a lot less civilized.
The Romans assumed that destroying the Jews as a nation, destroying their Temple, massacring large numbers of them and using population replacement to fill the country with foreigners while deporting the native population as slaves would solve their Judean Problem. What they actually did was import two religions into their own cities that were unlinked from temple or nation. The rest is history.
Conquests are rarely one way. The invaders may force their culture and laws down the throats of the invaded, but the invaded end up returning the favor. Wahhabi Islam has been working strenuously to purify Islam of all the extras that the non-Arab peoples they incorporated into Islam, particularly the Mongols, added to it. And incorporating the Persians has burdened them with a bulwark of Shiite Islam. Most religious warfare among Muslims is taking place because of their own past imperialism.
It has not yet occurred to the scimitar waving Salafis that their mission of conquest and their dedication to Islamic purity are at odds with one another. That if the Muslim Brotherhood ever succeeded in bringing about Eurabia and Amerabia, that would be the Mongol wars all over again. It also hasn't occurred to the Saudi bandits that a Muslim America and a Muslim Europe would have as little compunction about taking their oil along with Mecca and Medina as the Ottoman Empire did.
The cons of empire rarely occur to people who believe that they are born to rule the world. They just naturally assume that things will fall into place if they follow the true path, whether it's Islamism, Marxism or the Democracyism. It helps to assume that most people are just like you and want what you want. Americans assume that what Muslims really want is to live like them and Muslims assume that what Americans really want is to live like them. Both are dangerously wrong.
Americans will make bad Muslims and Muslims will make bad Americans. The only restraint on the use of American power is a cultural tolerance that Islam would sweep away. And the only limit on the abuses of the Arab Street are its tyrants. The fate of Coptic Christians and women in Tahrir Square should be adequate reminders that importing democracy will unleash the worst instincts of the mob without any of the cultural tolerance that prevents Americans from behaving like Egyptian Muslims.
The Muslim conquest of the West is senseless as success would only lead to a new Ottoman Empire and a new Mongol horde carving up the dysfunctional Arab world. In a very literal sense, the efforts of the Arab Muslim world to export Islamic violence and theology is bound to lead to their conquest and destruction one way or another.
But the Western attempts to integrate Islam on any terms are equally senseless. The British Empire began the import of Islam into Britain with its imperialism in the Middle East. H. St. John Philby, Lawrence of Arabia's successor on the imperial front, converted to Islam (while his son converted to Communism) followed by a number of prominent upper class personalities who had spent time in the Muslim world.
The British succeeded in breaking up the Ottoman Empire but replaced it for only a few decades and left behind chaos. The same sort of chaos that our own democracy projects have left behind. But the British at least had clear political and economic objectives. They knew that they had an empire and knew what they wanted to do with it. The Pax Americana however is a much more unfocused brand of empire. It is an empire that seeks some greater good that is no longer fixed to the good of the nation. It is a good that is expressed in such abstract terms as to be meaningless.
The great fallacy of the Pax Americana is to think of the Middle East as a problem to be solved. In the Cold War, American Middle Eastern policy picked up where the British had left off, finding rulers we could work with and propping them up to keep the Commies out of the oil wells. But the Commies are gone now. There are commercial empires in Russia and China looking to dip their trade tentacles everywhere without regard to ideology. And there are developing Islamist empires looking to export their ideology the way that the Commies used to.
It might make a certain amount of practical sense to stomp on those, but instead we have been aiding and abetting them on the theory that they will bring stability to the region. Because Islam is nothing if not a great stabilizer, as the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq could tell you if they weren't busy shooting each other.
The tempting illusion that the American policymakers fell into after September 11 was the belief that our practical and moral goals would be one and the same. That we would act as liberators bringing freedom and stability, overthrowing dictators and leaving behind countries that would aligned our way because they were democracies with human rights and fast food franchises. Instead our interests have taken a back seat to the romance of liberation. Like Lawrence of Arabia, we have fallen in love with a myth of liberation while ignoring its tawdry reality.
Very little of what we have done since September 11 has served American interests. And all that we have really been doing is cleaning up old messes by creating new messes. It hasn't been entirely ineffective.
There is a reason that no major terrorist attack has hit the United States since 9/11 and it isn't because of our security alerts or our random airline groping programs. The opportunities we created diverted the resources of the terrorists, but not so they couldn't plan and carry out major terrorist attacks elsewhere. What we did, flawed as it was, did frighten the hell out of our enemies, with its sheer scale. The Saudis aren't willing to put up the money for a major attack that might lead us to do something damaging to their interests. Neither will any of the other Gulf states. And that just leaves smaller attacks outsourced to third parties who recruit terrorists without proper training or experience.
After ten years of chaos and destruction, the Muslim world still hates us, but they also hate Al Qaeda, for giving us an opening and for the massacres of Muslims that the more vicious incarnations of Al Qaeda created by the conflict carried out. The conflict that Bin Laden began has spun out of control and its chaos is creating its own ripple effects. Muslim leaders understand this better than our own leaders do. The Arab Spring is their attempt to turn the chaos in their favor, but the chaos may not go where they expect it to.
While we expect Muslims to think like us, to want nothing more than peace and prosperity through democracy and freedom, they expect us to think like them. And they know what they would do if they had our power. So they assume that we are doing it to them. We assume that the Muslim world is much less subtle than it is and the Muslim world assumes that we are much more subtle than we are.
Both the Pax Americana and the Pax Islamica are behaving in ways contrary to their interests for ideological reasons. We think that it is in our interest to turn Muslims into Americans. The Arab Spring should have dissuaded us of that. They think that it is in their interest to turn us into Muslims; the Mongols, the Ottoman Empire and Persia should have dissuaded them of that. But neither of us is very good at learning from history.
There is no sense in trying to impose a global order on a billion Muslims for their own good. Their own good is their problem. Our own good is our problem. We are not an empire, nor do we need to act like one except in temporary emergencies. Our interests lie not with a global order, but with our own domestic security.
Empire is the surest path to Islamization. It isn't an empire that we need, certainly not an ideological crusade to liberate Arab Muslims from the cultural consequences of being Arab Muslims. What we need is to return our focus to the nation, to the fundamentally unilateral prerogatives of putting ourselves, our borders, our freedoms and our security first. When we can do that, then we can meet the Islamic empire, as we have met all the other empires, on the right side of a secure border that we can protect and defend against Islamization and the armies of Islam.
Daniel Greenfield is a blogger, columnist and freelance photographer born in Israel, who maintains his own blog, Sultan Knish.