Mar 7, 2014
Zachary Karabell on the Middle East
Posted on Aug 8, 2008
That they believed in a larger cause doesn’t excuse the consequences. Men like Lawrence of Arabia, Sykes and of course Wolfowitz may have believed that their actions would serve the interests of progress, stability and the greater good of the region, but they also believed that their societies were more advanced and positioned to teach the peoples of the Middle East a lesson in civilization and democracy. They viewed local rulers, whether Faisal in Iraq in the 1920s, Abdullah in Jordan in the 1920s through the 1940s, the Shah of Iran from the 1940s through the 1970s or Iraqi exiles like Ahmad Chalabi, as well intentioned but underdeveloped wards, teenagers in need of guidance and occasional sternness. That the Arabs and Persians had developed their own cultures and civilizations over the course of 2,000 years, had thrived when the West was mired in chaos and darkness, and had their own sense of the past and the future was largely discounted by these kingmakers and ignored except as interesting academic factoids of days long gone.
One of the wiser comments from the various players in these stories comes from Ja’far al-Askari, an Iraqi notable who led one faction during the tumultuous 1920s, who remarked to Gertrude Bell that the Iraq independence was not something that the British could grant or impose. “My lady, complete independence is never given; it is always taken.”
For Americans especially, heirs to a revolutionary tradition that established the independence of the United States from Great Britain in the late 18th century, that should have been obvious. But somehow, the American past was never used as a guide to American policy in other regions. Americans cherish their streak of stubbornness and independence, and tend to reject foreign ideas and influences. Americans would never accept with open arms a foreign power invading under the guise of liberators, yet many fully expected that the Iraqis of 2003 would do just that. More than a century of history to the contrary was overlooked and discounted.
Meyer and Brysac are perhaps too modest in their approach; they are content to tell the stories, framed by the cautionary lesson they want to impart, but without directly speaking to the issues of today. They are traditional historians, wary of drawing too many simple present-tense conclusions from a past that is complicated and messier. But if they pull their punches, they still manage to offer a panoply of stories with contemporary relevance and resonance. It would be wonderful if future generations of American leaders took some of this history to heart. But while we have been reconsidering the wisdom of U.S. actions in Iraq, it’s not clear that we have begun to examine the limitations of power and the dangers of unrealistic visions of how the world could be. Balancing idealism with realism has never been easy, but it would be refreshing not to continue tilting with windmills in the deserts of the Middle East.
Zachary Karabell is the author of several books, including, most recently, “Peace Be Upon You: Fourteen Centuries of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence in the Middle East,” published by Alfred A. Knopf.
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