Modern history


CHAPTER ONE: The End of Modern History in the Middle East

ACCORDING TO A CONVENTION commonly agreed upon among historians, the modern history of the Middle East begins at the turn of the nineteenth century, when a French expeditionary force commanded by General Napoleon Bonaparte invaded and conquered Egypt and stayed there until it was forced to leave by a squadron of the Royal Navy commanded by Admiral Horatio Nelson. This was not the first Western advance against the previously dominant power of Islam. But it was the first incursion from the West into the heartlands of the Islamic world.

Bonaparte's arrival and still more his departure demonstrated two important facts: that even a small Western force could conquer, occupy and rule one of these heartlands without serious difficulty and that only another Western force could get them out.

This began a period during which ultimate power over, and with it responsibility for, what happened in this region resided elsewhere; when the basic theme of international relations and of much else in the Middle East was shaped by the rivalries of non–Middle Eastern states. These rivalries went through several successive phases—interference, intervention, penetration, domination and, in the final phase, sometimes reluctant, sometimes relieved departure. From time to time the actors in the drama changed and the script was modified, but until the final phase the basic pattern remained the same. In that final act of this drama, the two external superpowers whose rivalry dominated the Middle East were the Soviet Union and the United States. In their purposes and their methods, they were very different, both from their predecessors and from each other.

Future historians of the region may well agree on a new convention of periodization—that the era in Middle Eastern history that was opened by Napoleon and Nelson was closed by George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev. In the crisis of 1990–91 precipitated by Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, neither of the two superpowers played the imperial role which tradition and popular expectation assigned to it; the one because it could not, the other because it would not.

Moscow, once so great a force in Middle Eastern affairs, could neither restrain nor rescue Saddam Hussein. Washington, having freed Kuwait from occupation and Saudi Arabia from the threat of invasion, had accomplished its war aims and unilaterally declared a cease-fire, leaving Saddam's regime intact and permitting him, with only minor impediments, to crush his domestic opponents and in due course resume his policies.

As long as the Soviet Union existed, and as long as the Cold War was the main theme of foreign policy, American presence in the Middle East was part of a global strategy designed to cope with a global confrontation. With the ending of that confrontation, such a strategy became unnecessary. No discernible strategy has yet emerged to replace it.

The breakup of the Soviet Union brought another important consequence—the emergence of eight new sovereign independent states in Transcaucasia and Central Asia. Two of these, Georgia and Armenia, are Christian; the rest, Azerbaijan, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are predominantly Muslim. All these countries are part of the historic Middle East, linked to it by a thousand ties of culture, language and history. The Tajik language is a form of Persian; the other five Muslim states use languages related to Turkish. The Turks, Persians and Afghans show increasing interest in their newly liberated kinsfolk across the former Soviet frontier. They are also interested in those other Muslim peoples—Tatars, Bashkirs, Chechens, Circassians and others, who remain within the Russian federation. The same interest is beginning to extend to the Muslims of Chinese Central Asia, notably the Uyghurs, a Muslim people speaking a Turkic language.

The emergence of a world of Turkic states, like the Arab world that emerged from the breakup of the British and French empires, will be increasingly important in the decades to come and will have a significant effect on the Middle East to which they are now returning. But there are differences between the two cases. With a few exceptions, notably, Algeria and Aden, British and French rule in the Arab world was indirect and of brief duration. The Transcaucasian and Central Asian territories were annexed by the czars and retained by the Soviets under a thin veneer of federalism. Their experience of imperial rule was in many ways profoundly different from that of the Arabs. Their efforts to disentangle themselves from the embrace of their former masters offer some similarities to the early stages of Arab independence. But they are dealing with Moscow, not with London or Paris; with a land-based power, not a maritime and commercial ascendancy. The course and perhaps the outcome of their struggle for true independence will surely reflect these differences.

In that historical interlude between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the terror attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, Russia was out of the game and likely to remain so for some years to come; America was reluctant to return. This meant that in many significant respects the situation reverted to what it was before. Outside powers had interests in the region, both strategic and economic; they could from time to time interfere in Middle Eastern affairs or even influence their course. But their role was no longer to be one of domination or decision.

Many in the Middle East had difficulty in adjusting themselves to the new situation created by the departure of the imperial powers. For the first time in almost 200 years, the rulers and to some extent the peoples of the Middle East are having to accept final responsibility for their own affairs; to recognize their own mistakes and to accept the consequences. This was difficult to internalize, even to perceive, after so long a period. For the entire lifetimes of those who formulate and conduct policy at the present time and of their predecessors for many generations, the vital decisions were made elsewhere, ultimate control lay elsewhere, and the principal task of statesmanship and diplomacy was as far as possible to avoid or reduce the dangers of this situation and to exploit such opportunities as it might from time to time offer. It is very difficult to forsake the habits not just of a lifetime but of a whole era of history. The difficulty is much greater when alien cultural, social and economic preeminence continues and even increases, despite the ending of alien political and military domination.

Military and to a growing extent political intervention by the West had seemingly come to an end, but the impact of its science and culture, its technology, amenities and institutions was, if anything, on the rise—here as in other parts of the non-Western world.

In these circumstances, it is natural that Middle Easterners should continue to assume—and proceed on the assumption—that real responsibility and decisions still lie elsewhere. In its crudest form, this belief leads to wild and strange conspiracy theories directed against those whom they regard as their enemies—Israel, and more generally the Jews, the United States, and more generally the West. No theory is too absurd to be asserted or too preposterous to be widely and instantly believed. Even among more responsible statesmen and analysts, a similar belief in alien power, albeit in a less crude form, often seems to guide both analysis and policy. Some even go so far as to invite outside intervention, presumably in the belief that only outside powers have the capacity to make and enforce decisions. A case in point is the constant appeal to the United States to involve itself in the Arab-Israel conflict, oddly coupled with the repeated accusation of "American imperialism." This particular charge reveals a misunderstanding of either America or imperialism or, more probably, both. The term imperialism might not unjustly be applied to some of the processes by which the original 13 states were increased to the present-day 50, but as a description of American policy in the Middle East at the present day, it is absurdly wrong. When the Romans went to Britain 2,000 years ago, or when the British went to India 300 years ago, an "exit strategy" did not figure prominently among their concerns.

This strategic landscape was altered by the terror attack on American soil on September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of that terrible day, American forces were dispatched to Afghanistan, and before long, to Iraq. The American policy of benign neglect of this region was brought to a swift end. American home security was at stake. A war on terror had begun, and the United States was pulled into hitherto unimaginable obligations and dangers. There had previously been no great debate about this new burden in Muslim lands. The shock of the attacks of 9/11 convinced American policy makers that a more ambitious policy was in order. In time, the thought would emerge that it was urgent to push for a wholesale reform in Arab and Islamic lands. Reform was not easy, but the risks of the status quo—repressive political orders, cultures of unreason and scape-goating—inspired this push into the Islamic world with a new sense of both urgency and legitimacy.

This was not what those who had perpetrated the terror attacks had in mind. Their leader, the Saudi financier and jihadist Osama bin Laden, was sure of the weakness of American resolve. Three years before he dispatched the death pilots of 9/11, in an interview with John Miller of ABC News on May 28, 1998, he gave voice to this sentiment. "We have seen in the last decade the decline of the American government and the weakness of the American soldier, who is ready to wage cold wars and unprepared to fight long wars," he said. "This was proven in Beirut when the Marines fled after two explosions. It also proves they can run in less than 24 hours and this was also repeated in Somalia. . . . [Our] youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers. . . . After a few blows, they ran in defeat. . . . They forgot about being the world leader and the leader of the new world order. They left, dragging their corpses in their shameful defeat."

As he saw it, the Islamic fighters in Afghanistan had defeated and destroyed the mighty Soviet Union. Dealing with the Untied States would be a much easier task. This was his belief and the source of his resolve. The same message appears in several other statements—that Americans had become soft and pampered, unable or unwilling to stand up and fight. It was a lesson bin Laden extracted from American responses to previous attacks: he expected more of the same. There would be fierce words and perhaps the United States would launch a missile or two to some remote places, but there would be little else in terms of retaliation.

It was a natural error. Nothing in his background or his experience would enable him to understand that a major policy change could result from an election. As we now know, it was also a deadly error. What in fact followed—the campaign in Afghanistan, the declaration of war against the "axis of evil," and the war against the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein—must have come as a shock to him and to his various sponsors and helpers. The assault of 9/11 was surely intended as the opening salvo of a war of terror that would continue until its objectives were obtained—that is, the eviction of the United States from the world of Islam and, most important, the overthrow of the Arab regimes seen by the West as friendly and by al-Qaeda and many of their own subjects as renegades from Islam and puppets of America.

The logic of the jihadists had backfired. Rather than head for the exits, America was to dig in for a deeper presence in Arab and Islamic lands. If this was imperialism, it was imperialism of a defensive kind.

Those who accuse the West and more particularly the United States of "imperialist designs" on the Middle East are tilting against shadows from the past. There is however another charge with more substance—that of cultural penetration.

American culture differs from all its predecessors in two important respects. First, it is independent of political control and extends far beyond the areas of American political dominance or even influence, as for example in Islamic Iran or Communist China. Second, it is in a profound sense popular. Previous cultural expansions were limited to political and intellectual elites. American popular culture appeals to every element of the population and especially to the young. It also brings a special message to elements disempowered in the traditional order, notably women. Not surprisingly, therefore, it is perceived as a mortal threat both by the defenders of tradition and by the exponents of fundamentalist ideologies. How that threat is perceived is clear from the Ayatollah Khomeini's repeated characterization of the United States as "the Great Satan." No intelligence service is needed to interpret this epithet—just a copy of the Qur'ān. The last verses, the best known along with the first, talk about Satan, describing him as "the insidious tempter who whispers in the hearts of men." Satan is neither a conqueror nor an exploiter. He is a seducer, most dangerous when he smiles.

The challenge of Western culture has been a major theme in Middle Eastern debate for almost two centuries. American popular culture presents this challenge in its most recent and also its most pervasive form. Middle Eastern rulers, leaders and thinkers have offered and will no doubt continue to offer various responses to this challenge—imitate, adopt, adapt, absorb, or complain, denounce, reject.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!