For an unusually broad range of Americans, this is surely a time of heightened awareness of what is going on in the rest of the world. There is concern at all levels of society for what is happening abroad to Americans and to American interests – as well as to America’s image. Regular reports of causalities, with names and hometowns specified, intensify that concern. Graphic media coverage provokes a desire for explanations: How did things get this way? These two books by seasoned observers of America’s role in the world offer some thoughtful answers to that question.
Karl Meyer sets the theme for his Dust of Empire in the opening chapter, “Patterns of Mastery, British and American.” Citing Cuban-U.S. relations as an illustrative case history, he remarks that, in a relatively prosperous Cuba, what “made the system unendurable even to its beneficiaries was the rise of Fulgencio Batista’s despotic military dictatorship with the perceived complicity of the United States.” He proposes that a uniquely American form of imperialism has emerged on the world scene and that, significantly, it is indirect in nature. He goes on to draw this conclusion: “In the end, the most hurtful wound inflicted by indirect rule is psychic. Direct foreign control tends to unite a subject people, their resistance forging a sense of nationhood, while indirect rule delegitimizes indigenous leaders and creates a despised class of collaborators” (pp. 26-27).
Keeping this dictum in mind, Meyer considers in separate chapters the recent histories of Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Caucasus, leading us to his ultimate focus on the new nations of Central Asia. Meyer has appropriate credentials, among them a Princeton Ph.D. in politics, a number of years as a writer on foreign affairs and member of the editorial board at The New York Times, a variety of awards for editorial writing and broadcasting, and a recent well-received book, Tournament of Shadows: the Race for Empire in Central Asia, written with his wife, Shareen Brysac. That thick book was enlivened by profiles of individuals, some now largely forgotten, who played significant roles in the making of history in and around Central Asia. He has followed a similar approach here. After a brief treatment of Russia as the imperial context for the emergence of the present-day countries of Central Asia, then as a truncated empire that may face even further shrinkage, he seems to be dismissing Russia by suggesting that Vladimir Putin is no Peter the Great. In any case, the author’s primary interest lies further east.
“Iran: The Agonies of Non-Sovereignty” is Chapter III. Opposite its first page is a poignant photograph of the deposed shah of Iran and former president Richard Nixon, side by side, smiling for the camera during their July 1979 meeting in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Meyer succinctly chronicles the succession of egregious violations of Iranian sovereignty perpetrated by Russia, Britain and the United States, starting with the derailing of the 1905 constitutional movement and culminating in the almost zany ”Operation Ajax,” which ousted Prime Minister Mossadegh and ushered in 25 years of what was seen by Iranians as indirect American rule. Iran and the meaning of its recent history is the exclusive focus of the second book under review, affording more space for useful backgrounding, and more details of the Ajax melodrama, but not differing in essential ways from the conclusions of this chapter.
Meyer makes clear that Pakistan is a ramshackle blend of conflicting interests: “less a country than a jumble of discordant peoples and places.” Urdu, the official language, is the first language of only 8 percent of the population; another 8 percent claim Pashto as their mother tongue, while 48 percent claim Punjabi (p. 98). As events continue to bear out, politics in the country seem divided along a broad spectrum that is heavy at the end where radical Islamists flourish. President Pervez Musharraf, a former general who has chosen to side with American policy in the area, now finds himself mired in some complex variation of the author’s indirect American imperialism, as compounded by the festering problem of Kashmir, the free-ranging Pashtun tribes astride the border with Afghanistan, and the seemingly endless confrontation with India.
The author helps us understand the background of Pakistan by briefly profiling two figures, now seldom mentioned, who played significant roles in the period leading up to the country’s sudden creation. Topping off a career in the Indian Civil Service, Sir Olaf Caroe was appointed governor of the Northwest Frontier Province – the land of the Pashtuns – in 1946, just two years before independence and partition struck the subcontinent. As Meyer points out, Caroe was both administrator and scholar, in the best tradition of the service. He warned against the Soviet threat to the area, and championed the preservation of the rights of the Pashtuns in the maneuvering towards partition. In retirement after partition, Caroe continued as a counselor to the British government. In 1951, he published Wells of Power: The Oilfields of South-Western Asia, and in 1953, a ground-breaking book, Soviet Empire: The Turks of Central Asia and Stalinism. His major work, The Pathans: 550 B.C.-1957 A.D., came out in 1958. It is thorough to the point of exhaustion, and well-illustrated with photographs and, notably, detailed maps of the tribal areas. The book has, for example, a complete chapter analyzing references in the Moghul Emperor Babur’s autobiography to his troubled dealings with the Pashtun tribes he encountered and tried to rule in the early sixteenth century – unmistakable echoes from the lawless mountain areas frequented today by remnants of al-Qaeda and the recrudescent Taliban.
Roughly contemporary with Caroe is the appealing figure of Abdul Ghaffar Khan:
Forgotten is the paradoxical fact that the foremost Pashtun leader in the struggle against British rule was a dedicated pacifist, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, once famous as the “frontier Gandhi”. His followers, nicknamed the Red Shirts, had first to swear, “I shall never use violence. I shall not retaliate or take revenge, and shall forgive anyone who indulges in oppression and excesses against me.” For upwards of two decades, Ghaffar Khan [and his followers] fought alongside Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress party for a united, democratic and secular India.
One author quoted by Meyer attributes Ghaffar Khan’s pacifism to his concept of jihad, or holy war: “Nonviolent civil disobedience offered the chance of martyrdom in its purest form, since putting one’s life conspicuously in one’s enemy’s hands was itself the key act, and death incurred in the process was not a defeat or a tragedy: rather the act of witness to an enemy’s injustice . . . (p.103).”
Turning his attention to the Afghans, Meyer writes: “. . . on this infectiously likable people, the facts of geography intrude like a primal curse. Fifteen percent bigger than France and totally landlocked, Afghanistan inhabits an exceptionally difficult neighborhood. . . . [It] occupies the strategic hub of Central Asia.” And, unlike the case of Switzerland in Europe, Afghanistan’s neighbors and more distant powers “have pursued their own ends, suborning ethnic, religious or ideological allies, cultivating the fringes at the expense of the center, while professing the profoundest respect for Afghan territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence. . . ” (p.121).
There follows a well-sourced review of the wider events surrounding the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, with useful attention to individuals prominently involved, from Zbigniew Brzezinski and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to the likes of former U.S. Representative Charles Wilson of Texas. A review of those times deserves rereading whenever the question of American intervention abroad, direct or indirect, arises.
The author’s focus moves north to the Caucasus and Central Asia. The Caucasus is indeed “A Bedlam of Identity” and warrants the lively treatment Meyer gives its colorful history. No solutions are offered, and the conclusion is bleak: “. . . Caucasia is the repository, even the boneyard, for the failures of two empires and for their servants, who were left out in the cold when the rickety structures collapsed” (p.168).
Central Asia, with its five gerrymandered republics, is perhaps less exotic than the Caucasus – but with an even greater potential for causing trouble in the world. Meyer opens this seventh chapter, subtitled “Invented States, Real Godfathers,” with a nice rendering of the dismay of the five Communist leaders, meeting in Ashgabat in 1991, on being suddenly confronted with the realization that they were now rulers of independent states. An analogous dismay, he points out, existed in academia, where “all the West’s academic and strategic experts on the region could, circa 1991, barely fill a single lecture hall,” and specialists in Soviet affairs had to recycle themselves as analysts of this “new” area. Their efforts were spotty at the outset, and, even now, academic attention to Central Asia suffers from having too few scholars who come to study of the area from the south, with a background in Middle Eastern history, culture and religion.
Meyer draws freely on an array of journalists and scholars now writing on the countries of Central Asia – notably Ahmed Rashid, Olivier Roy, Martha Olcott, Frederick Starr and Robert Kaiser – to augment his own analysis of the problems and prospects of the limited, recycled Soviet-era leaders of the five republics and their apparently docile citizens. Unfavorable topography and geographic location, inadequate water supply, shortsighted internal and external policies, unhelpful neighbors, and, above all perhaps, prodigious corruption have held the five republics in a kind of dismal stasis. (A factual error should be noted: Kazakhstan has barely half the population cited on p. 197 and is the biggest but not the most populous Central Asian state; Uzbekistan is by a wide margin). The wild-card presence of an American base here and there has not been an unalloyed blessing, casting a harsh light on the ambiguous nature of U.S. relations with autocratic regimes. In just 30 pages, this chapter gives the reader a good overview of the problematic “heartland” and leads nicely to the final chapter, and the inescapable question: “What is to Be Done?”
With this rhetorical echo of Lenin, there is a change of pace in the book. Meyer continues to exercise his talent for citing relevant historical examples and quotes from unexpected sources, such as Giambattista Vico and Gen. Wesley Clark, but he also offers recommendations of his own:
“If ever a region called out for a multilateral approach, in which America’s presence would be one among many, it is Central Eurasia. If military bases are needed, let them be NATO bases . . . .”
By the same token he urges increased support of the multinational OSCE in the area, and he specifically endorses cultural programs, “the most benign, least appreciated and most financially challenged of American diplomatic implements,” singling out for praise the Muskie Scholarship Program which, he notes, has brought some 2,600 Central Asians to study in the United States in the decade since their countries received independence.
Finally, Meyer, who is widely read and traveled himself, is most critical of Americans’ lack of curiosity about the rest of the world and America’s role in it. He faults Americans, for example, for not seeing the causal relationship between their country’s policies and the rise of arch-reactionaries: the Taliban in Afghanistan and the mullahs in Iran – and for not drawing the obvious lessons for America’s policy today.
Stephen Kinzer, author of “All the Shah’s Men,” is a veteran New York Times correspondent who has written on and from many parts of the world, including Guatemala, Nicaragua and Turkey. His book is a straightforward, well-written account of “An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror” – that is, of the notorious Operation Ajax and what we may now recognize as its epiphenomena. For Meyer’s incurious Americans, this book can serve as a kind of template for evaluating how America now carries out its role in the world.
There are two stories being told in the book. In a sense, the most important is Kinzer’s careful treatment of Iranian history in the period of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is the story of a people trying to organize themselves out from under a feckless medieval monarchy and ruthless exploitation by foreign powers in order to join the modern world with all its appurtenances of constitutions, parliaments, a free press and inviolable political and economic sovereignty. Iran is not, he is saying, just another recently named territory but rather a serious country with a long history and a questing political class.
As the story of the fateful coup begins to take shape, what emerges most forcefully is the intransigent adherence of the British – in effect, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company backed by British intelligence services – to the colonial way things used to be, to the old order that Iranians led by Mossadegh were trying to escape. Telling this story, the book makes the case that Mossadegh, for all his eccentricities that the world press made so much of at the time, was an incorruptible politician and a dedicated Iranian nationalist. This meant, among other things, that he thought Iran should enjoy the major benefits from the oil under its land. To the British, on the other hand, cheap oil simply meant preservation of the fleet, recently converted from coal, and the empire.
The second story is, of course, the coup itself. The plotters were motivated by, in addition to the British navy’s thirst for oil, the rise of the Tudeh party and behind it the looming threat of the Soviet Union. Early on, they realized they would have to contain their enthusiasm for action until a prudent president, Harry Truman, and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, had left the scene in January of 1953. With President Eisenhower in office, but not paying too close attention, and the brothers Foster and Allen Dulles in place at the top of State and CIA, the plans drawn up by CIA and Britain’s MI6 were moved forward and activated for an August coup, with CIA operative Kermit Roosevelt as its leader on the ground. The story of the coup unfolds like the plot of a B movie, avoiding disaster at a dramatic juncture in the night and then, at least in its own terms, ending in triumph. Critical support in the streets had been provided by CIA-hired performers from the city’s zurkhaneh (house of strength) with the massive Shaban the Brainless in the starring role. After the dust settles, the ardent nationalist Mossadegh is off to jail and the shady Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi, chosen by the American and British plotters, is installed in his place.
A while after it was all over,
Roosevelt concluded his White House briefing by warning that the CIA should not take his success in Iran to mean that it could now overthrow governments at will. The Dulles brothers, however, took it to mean exactly that. They were already plotting to strike against the left-leaning regime in Guatemala and asked Roosevelt to lead their coup. He declined . . . . He died in 2000, still considering August 1953 to have been the highlight of his life. Until his dying day, he believed fervently that the coup he had engineered was right and necessary (p. 202).
“Was it?,” Kinzer follows up. “(F)ew would deny that the 1953 coup set off a series of unintended consequences. Its most direct result was to give Mohammad Reza Shah the chance to become a dictator.” Another consequence was the storming of the American embassy in 1979 and the holding of the hostages for more than fourteen months. Americans, he writes, “found this crime not only barbaric but inexplicable . . . because almost none of them had any idea of the responsibility the United States bore for imposing the royalist regime that Iranians came to hate so passionately” (p. 202).
Kinzer then amplifies the answer to “right and necessary?” by quoting at some length six prominent historians (Bill, Cottam, Gasiorowski, Heiss, Keddie and Louis) who have addressed the issue. And he adds: “These views come close to consensus. They eerily vindicate those who opposed the use of force against Mossadegh” (pp. 212-215). Kinzer then sums up his own judgment:
A fair case can be made that Iran was not ready for democracy in 1953. It might well have fallen into disarray if the United States had not intervened, although if American and British intelligence officers had not meddled so shamelessly in its domestic politics, it might also have returned to relative calm. It is difficult to imagine, however, an outcome that would have produced as much pain and horror over the next half-century as that produced by Operation Ajax. Only a Soviet takeover followed by war between the superpowers would have been worse.
In retrospect, it is reasonable to assume that an Iran without Ajax might have evolved into a modernizing country with some form of representative government. The twentieth century political history of Iran that Kinzer describes, and the democratic forms that survive in Iran today, argue for that possibility. Iran might even have become, in President Jimmy Carter’s misapplied phrase, an “island of stability” in the Middle East.
What is most important to recognize is that whatever polity Iranians devised for their ancient land, it would have been their future for their country. This seems to be the general, and persuasive, lesson that both these books want us to draw. What we reap from intervention is most often the whirlwind of chaos – and in the twenty-first century, terror.
It is a vivid reminder of the melodramatic and sometimes absurd aspects of the whole Ajax episode that the reinstalled shah rewarded the efforts of Shaban the Brainless with a yellow Cadillac convertible in which Shaban was often seen riding around Tehran, with a pistol on each hip. He later retired to Los Angeles (p. 200).