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by Curt Jones

Mankind habitually prays for peace, but over and over resorts to war. Seizure of alien territory is imperialism. Not all invasions are wrong. The Nazi conquests in Europe and Africa were clear cases of genocidal aggression, but the Allied conquest of Germany was acclaimed as self-defense.

Every military venture is a prediction that its advocates will like the results. Some schemes pay off. Most fail. The worst miseries are inflicted by governments that can’t tell the difference.

The purpose of this discussion is to examine three case studies for clues in framing realistic objectives.

First Case Study: The British Empire

In this protean universe, the relative power of nations is in constant flux. From 1600 to 1900 Europe was in the ascendancy. Britannia ruled the waves. What were its aims?

Objective 1 – Profit

In 1600, Elizabeth I chartered the East India Company to trade for the exotic commodities of tropical lands. Then, peaceful trade gave way to conquest. British imperialism concentrated on the importation of sugar, tea, tobacco, and coffee, and the development of plantations to grow them. The stoop labor was assigned in India to indentured workers, in the Caribbean to slaves. In the words of Simon Schama, Britain created an “empire of soldiers and slaves”.

Objective 2 – Military Advantage

Economic prosperity requires political stability. Afro-Asian divisions by class, caste, dynasty, sect, and language group enabled ten million Britons to dominate 100 million Indians and untold numbers of Arabs and Africans. In India, fifteen hundred British officials and 50,000 soldiers (many of them Indians themselves) were normally adequate for the job.

In British eyes, the military benefits of the garrison in India were threefold: Keeping the peace in India; providing a base for the defense of the empire in southeast Asia and the Pacific; and serving the delusion – long held by all the Europeans – that the acquisition of overseas dependencies was advantageous in Europe’s 1000-year civil war.

Objective 3 – Hubris

Genghis Khan was not the first ruler to succumb to the fantasy of world conquest. The British, complacent in their empire on which the sun never set, were not the last. By 1900, the Empire controlled a fourth of the planet. Winston Churchill said in 1942 “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” On July 26, 1945 – seven weeks after the end of World War II – Clement Attlee replaced Churchill as Prime Minister of a war-torn United Kingdom. In 1947 India and Pakistan were granted independence. By 1971, the British Empire was no more.

Net Assessment

No empire has won a Nobel Peace Prize. However, Kipling’s “white man’s burden” was not all hot air. Many British officers in “the colonies” – as they were called – were dedicated to the welfare of their charges. Britain gave India a subcontinental rail system and – most important of all – a common language. The Raj challenged enormities like caste, female infanticide, and suttee (the obligation of a widow to throw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre). In the Caribbean, The British Anti-Slavery Society achieved in 1833 the first organized emancipation of slaves. In Egypt, Lord Cromer injected an element of law and order into the corrupt system of government that had flourished under Khedivial rule.

Nevertheless, the record on the adverse side was more compelling:

– In the 1800’s, under the dynamic leadership of Muhammad ‘Ali, Egypt rose as the logical successor to the enfeebled Ottoman Empire. This prospect was swept aside by Britain and its allies, in the belief that a weak Sultan would be easier to manipulate than a strong Muhammad ‘Ali. Result: a 150-year extension of the sanguinary process of filling the power vacuum in the Middle East – a process which is still underway.
– The arbitrary takeover of Egypt in 1882 enabled Britain to suppress Egyptian industry, reducing Egypt to supplying cheap cotton and sugar to processors in England. Addicts of Jane Austen and Downton Abbey can appreciate how many British fortunes were made on the backs of Indian serfs, Egyptian peasants, and Caribbean slaves.
– The Empire traded in duplicity. During World War I, it promised the Arabs a postwar superstate – even as Britain and France were secretly planning to chop up the Arab center between themselves. They invented an Iraq hobbled by Turkish control of the vital Tigris and Euphrates headwaters; also hobbled by an invented Kuwait, which obstructed Iraqi access to the Gulf, while facilitating British access to Kuwaiti oil.
– The dreams of the landlocked Kurds were shattered. The Allies welched on their wartime promise of a Kurdish state.
– Endless trauma resulted from Britain’s betrayal of its mandatory responsibilities in Palestine – creating an Arab-Israeli conflict of interest so intense that the British cravenly gave up and walked out, leaving a shambles for others to contend with. The last British High Commissioner left Palestine on May 14, 1948.
– The Jewel in the Crown entered the imperialist era with per capita income roughly equal to that of Britain. It emerged in abject poverty. The Indian Mutiny of 1857 had taken the British forces fourteen months to put down. Their final reaction to the mutiny was a cautionary line of corpses of dead mutineers along a main road to Delhi.
Worse yet, Britain failed to preserve the subcontinental unity it itself had created. British capitulation to Muslim fanaticism left the subcontinent divided into two states consumed by lasting hostility.
– In 1956 Anthony Eden participated in a bizarre conspiracy designed to award Gaza and Sinai to Israel, return the Canal Zone to the UK, and restore Franco-British ownership of the Suez Canal Company that Nasir had just nationalized. This last gasp of British imperialism was quashed by Eisenhower.

Conclusion: Negative

It’s a subjective call. I take the drastic position that the world would have been better off if the British Empire had never existed – that its actions, though infinitely less iniquitous than those of the Nazi Empire, were invidious, and equally ephemeral – above all, in the Middle East. (This judgment draws a sharp distinction between British imperialism and British colonialism – in America, Australia, and New Zealand – which left a permanent constructive imprint on history.)

Second Case Study: America’s Global Empire (1945 – ?)

World War I left America disenchanted with foreign entanglements. Merchants of Death, a denunciation of arms manufacturers, was a bestseller. The National Firearms Act of 1934 contained language that would never get by the NRA today.

Then came Hitler, World War II, the Holocaust, the Cold War, and a whole new America – pathologically responsive to the pressures exerted by the special-interest groups: the Anti-Communists, the China Lobby, the Zionist Lobby, the Oil Lobby, the NRA, the Military-Industrial Complex, and the Hawks. As minority organizations, the China and Zionist lobbies felt compelled to publicize their accomplishments – like the ouster of Charles Percy from the Senate. The Military-Industrial Complex does better with a low profile, because it is a powerful demographic force in every state of the Union.

The overall result was a national obsession with military remedies for political ailments. Starting with Southeast Asian policy, it metastasized to Middle Eastern policy.

Iraq – Washington had trouble making up its mind about Saddam. In 1963, the CIA consulted amiably with the Baathists on their upcoming takeover of Iraq, and supplied the names of Communists (mostly Kurds) for elimination. In the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war, Washington took Iraq’s side, and ended up sinking half of Iran’s fleet in the Gulf. In 1991 Saddam, overestimating Washington’s affection for him, invaded Kuwait, losing America’s support and, ultimately, his life. The occupation of Iraq, 12 years later, for no plausible reason, was one of the greatest blunders in American history. It is impossible to know which American action caused Iraq more damage – the invasion, by devastating the infrastructure, or the 13 vindictive years of pre-invasion sanctions, by disintegrating Iraqi society. We know for sure that America’s ruination of the state of Iraq, a catastrophe for the Middle East, was relished by devout Zionists.

Gulf – The five privileged Arab shaykhdoms came to independence under British protection. When the British left, the Americans were happy to take over. At that time, Washington thought oil was something to fight over, and its naval base in Bahrain, air base in Qatar, and military facilities elsewhere were convenient – particularly during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Carter Doctrine of 1980 had warned that any state contemplating takeover of the Gulf would learn that Gulf oil was a vital American interest.

Jordan – As an unavowed protectorate of Israel, Jordan was the second Arab state to sign a peace treaty, and receive an annual subsidy from Washington.

Saudi Arabia – A strong Islamist faction forced the Kingdom to close the American air base, but the Saudis backed the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait, and have reportedly allowed establishment of an American base for drone operations. In 1981 Reagan topped Carter with implausible promises to prevent the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy, or closure of the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran – In 1953, Washington conspired with London in the coup that ousted Prime Minister Mossadeq, whose offense was his attempt to nationalize the exploitive Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The ouster of Mossadeq and the reinstatement of the reviled Shah were the main causes of the shocking takeover by a bitterly anti-Western theocracy in 1979 – just after Carter had hailed Iran as an invaluable ally.

Turkey – As a member of NATO, a valued participant in the defense of South Korea, and an ally of Israel, Turkey used to be a solid member of the American camp. That was undermined by America’s mindless invasion of Iraq, and by Israel’s persecution of the stateless Palestinians.

Islamists (activist Muslims) – Most politicians evade dilemma by waffling. Obama seems to prefer confusing the crowd with outright self-contradiction. His adoption of Republican militarism by his use of drones for “targeted killings” stands in sharp contrast to his periodic assurances of American dedication to Middle East peace. In Afghanistan, he orders a surge in troop deployment, and then nullifies it by declaring an unconditional date for withdrawal. On the Iranian effort to refine uranium, he rejects containment (living with a nuclear-capable Iran), and then seems to tell The Atlantic that he recognizes the folly of trying to dissuade Iran by force. On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he persists in his plea for a two-state solution – notably in his Cairo speech of June 9, 2009 – but undermines it by dropping his call on Israel to freeze its expansion of settlements. Conversely, he hails the “sanctity” of American support for Israel, but chooses for Secretary of Defense a man Zionists condemn.

Washington seems oblivious that its effort to impose a colonial Israel on the Middle East challenges the ancient reality that – excepting the Caliphate – indigenous hegemony in the region has always been determined by interaction among its three power brokers: Egypt, Anatolia, and Iran.

Hubris – America is not immune. In 2002, George W. Bush issued a “National Security Strategy” which advised that “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from . . . hopes of surpassing . . . the power of the United States.”

Net Assessment on American Neo-imperialism – Negative

For the past seventy years, Washington has sacrificed the national interest in Middle Eastern progress to domestic insistence on Middle Eastern stagnation. The primary obstacle to progress is ethnic division. In most states of the region, political stability is still undermined by a culture in which loyalty to the nation is subordinate to loyalty to tribe, sect, or language group. Instead of promoting secularism, Washington has centered its policy on the survival of Israel, a country whose political system enshrines ethnic separation. It is the antithesis of democracy.

In a region dominated by 200 million Sunni Muslims and 100 million Shiite Muslims, an autonomous minority of 6 million – regardless of ethnicity – can hold out only by constant application of armed force. Israel and the United States have supplied that force on the false assumption that some fine day their adversaries will give up.

Washington’s delusions actually went so far as expectation that invasion of Iraq would produce a pro-Israel regime in Baghdad. The emergence of a pro-Iranian regime should be evidence enough that the scaffolding of Israeli and American policy for the Middle East is a fantasy. Americans and Zionist Israelis are aliens – unqualified to determine the future of the region.

Many Israelis sense this. That’s why they carry two passports. But as inhabitants of the region, the Israelis don’t have to be aliens. What’s required is their metamorphosis from residents of an American colony to citizens of a secular state. That may take another 100 years, but when it happens, there should be no more need for America’s stationing troops in the Middle East. China, which imports as much oil as we do, has not so much as a gunboat in the region.

Third Case Study: Manifest Destiny

From 1607 to 1900, the European immigrants to America – originally as colonists, later as Americans – practiced an inexorable form of continental imperialism. It was stained by atrocity, starting in 1637 with the Pequot War, in which hundreds of Native Americans were shot or burned to death near the present site of Mystic, Connecticut. However, after the independence of the Thirteen Colonies, the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the annexation of Florida in 1819, the ethnic cleansing of the Deep South in the 1830’s (our hero, Andrew Jackson), the statehood of Texas in 1845, the conquest of 500,000 square miles in the Mexican War of 1846-8, the Civil War of 1861-5, The Emancipation, the Alaska Purchase of 1867, the annexation of Hawaii in 1898, and the annexation of Puerto Rico in 1900, the end product was the United States of America – however flawed, still the finest example of democracy the world has yet seen.

Moral: Assimilate

Imperialism is transitory, unless consolidated by cultural assimilation. America is well on its way. The Constitution is so rigorously secular that, while rejecting any established religion, it makes no reference to a divinity. Europe seems to have made a start. The current explosion in the Middle East is appalling evidence that mankind still doesn’t have all the answers.

The UN is too primitive to intervene in Syria. What is America’s responsibility? To intervene, as in Kosovo, against the threat of endemic chaos? Or to let the people of the Middle East fight it out, as the Europeans had to in a 1000-year conflict that ended by drawing America into two world wars?End.


  • Middle East Policy Council: Symposium, 1/16/13.

Chas Freeman:
US has 2 contradictory objective in ME:

  • 1) Strategic advantage.
  • 2) Support “The Jewish Settler State” (which rests on “religious and emotional bonds”). [Believe this effort to euphemize political malfeasance is overly generous. Suspect pro-Israel stance of most Congress members is driven by POL opportunism.]
  • 3) Peace process is “running on fumes”.
  • 4) “Israel’s ill repute corrodes US credibility.”

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy


Curt Jones

Curt Jones, a member of this journal’s Board of Directors, has contributed frequent commentaries to American Diplomacy. He retired from the Foreign Service in 1975 after more than thirty years of service, including assignments to seven posts abroad.


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