Review by Amb. (ret.) Greta Morris
Imperial Designs: War, Humiliation and the Making of History by Deepak Tripathi, Potomac Books, 2013, ISBN-13: 978-1612346243, 208 pp., $26.96 (list), $15.07 (Amazon hardcover), $14.55 (Kindle).
As policymakers, scholars and citizens seek to understand the increasingly bitter and violent conflicts in the Middles East and the escalating anger and terrorist acts against the West (particularly the U.S.), Deepak Tripathi’s Imperial Designs offers important perspectives and insights. Tripathi’s book is subtitled “War, Humiliation and the Making of History,” and his theme is the role of humiliation in international politics. Specifically, he argues that the humiliation of a state or people by a more powerful state (or states) through political manipulation and military defeat profoundly influences the subsequent actions of the humiliated people, including their desire for revenge. His focus is on the Middle East and events of the 20th and 21st centuries up to the present.
Deepak Tripathi is well equipped to analyze events in Central Asia and the Middle East. A British historian and former journalist, he served as a correspondent, editor and commentator, primarily with the BBC. He set up the BBC’s bureau in Kabul in the early 1990’s and also reported from Syria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India. His previous books were Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan and Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism.
Tripathi’s intent in Imperial Designs is to support the premise that humiliation plays a major role in the subsequent actions of nations and peoples. He buttresses this argument with an excellent summary of developments in relations between western nations and the Middle East. He discusses the strategic rivalry—the “Great Game”— between Britain and Russia in Central Asia in the 19th century, noting that Western nations’ efforts to gain influence and power in the Middle East increased with the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I and the discovery of oil in the region. The Sykes-Picot Agreement signed in 1916, as he notes, essentially divided the region into British and French spheres of influence.
Tripathi recounts how the United States began to play a more significant role in the Middle East after the end of World War II, when the region began to play a role in U.S.-Soviet rivalry. He devotes significant attention to the Western and particularly the U.S. role in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan and in the creation of Israel and how those actions influenced subsequent events. Tripathi describes in detail the 1953 coup in Iran, led by the CIA and British intelligence, to overthrow the elected Prime Minister Mossadeq and replace him with a pro-shah Prime Minister, General Zahedi. Tripathi sees the U.S. role in the coup and its strong support for the autocratic Reza Shah Pahlavi as key antecedents of both the Iranian revolution and the taking of U.S. hostages in 1979.
With regard to Afghanistan, Tripathi notes (as have others) that U.S. support for the Mujahedeen against the Soviets contributed directly to the coming to power of the Taliban and the rise of al Qaeda. Perhaps less generally well known, Tripathi points out that President Carter began providing assistance to the Mujahedeen even before the Soviet invasion. The fact that the U.S. provided the assistance to the Mujahedeen, not directly but through the government of General Zia al-Haq in Pakistan, contributed to the growth of more radical Islamic elements in Pakistan as well.
With the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, Britain became the major Western power in Iraq through a League of Nations mandate (Britain’s dominance ended with the anti-British coup in 1958). The U.S. became the dominant outside power with the first Gulf War following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and then the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 on charges that later proved to be unfounded that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Although the U.S. has withdrawn from Iraq, the internal and anti-Western violence and terrorism have continued unabated.
The Balfour Declaration of 1917 played a pivotal role in the eventual partition of Palestine and creation of the modern state of Israel. In a letter to Baron Walter Rothschild, leader of Britain’s Jewish community, British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour declared that the British Government would view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a homeland for the Jewish people, with the understanding that “…nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” Following the Holocaust and the end of World War II, with strong U.S. support and despite the objections of the Arab community, the state of Israel was established in May 1948. The partition of Palestine and the creation of Israel and subsequent conflicts remain, according to Tripathi, a major source of humiliation and alienation from the U.S., not only among Palestinians but also throughout the Muslim community.
In addition to the focus on the role of humiliation in international relations, Tripathi also maintains that the U.S. has not lived up to its ideals in its conduct of relations with the countries of the region. This includes President Obama, whose election and statements early in his first term, Tripathi argues, generated so much hope in the Middle East. Tripathi supports this argument with several appendices, which include the texts of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, President Obama’s Cairo speech in June 2009 and his acceptance speech at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in December of the same year. Tripathi points out that while President Obama stated in Cairo that he came “ …to seek a new beginning between the U.S. and Muslims around the world,” he has not closed the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center and has escalated the use of drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and a growing list of other countries.
While Tripathi supports his contentions with facts, his pessimistic tone and critical view of the U.S. may strike some readers as lacking in objectivity. A more serious disappointment for this reviewer is the absence of any suggestions of how the U.S. could improve its relations with the Middle East and how the nations of the region— and the U.S.— might improve the situation in those countries. Implied is the need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and end the war in Afghanistan. Although it may be beyond the scope of what Tripathi wanted to accomplish in this book, it might have been useful to look at examples in other parts of the world—specifically the defeated nations of World War II, Germany and Japan—and how the massive U.S. assistance programs turned both nations from devastated, humiliated enemies into modern democratic states and allies of the U.S. (Although a “Marshall Plan” for the Middle East may be neither desirable nor possible in a period of financial crisis, an analysis of that period could provide useful insights.) It would also have been helpful to look at the ongoing conflict in Egypt and the civil war in Syria and what role, if any, the U.S. and other western nations could play there. As the insightful Foreword by Johan Galtung, the Founding Director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, states, “…humiliation arises not only from what is done but also from what is not done.” Galtung also comments: “Maybe the ultimate humiliation is not being defeated or exploited, but being ignored as an unworthy victim.”
These reservations nothwithstanding, Imperial Designs has much to offer to decision-makers, particularly its insights into the causes and devastating impact of humiliation in international relations, including the desire for revenge on the part of the humiliated. Tripathi’s quote from philosopher George Santayana is indeed apt: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Tripathi’s excellent summation of past events in the Middle East and his cogent analysis of their continuing implications should be required reading for all who are dealing directly with this troubled region, as well as those seeking to understand it and its relations with the United States.