The aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) transits the Suez Canal. (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Kameren Guy Hodnett/Released, CC BY 2.0)

Journalist Robert D. Kaplan thinks that what is wrong with the Middle East is a lack of imperialism, and he urges that it be brought back. It is how, he says, most of the world has been ruled by “default.” This argument is so ahistorical and wrong-headed that it takes the breath away.

First of all, “imperialism” is an imprecise term. Kaplan is trying to sweep up different kinds of empire under one rubric. Until the early twentieth century, most people in the Middle East admittedly accepted the Ottoman Empire, which was Muslim-ruled and made minimal economic demands on them while offering minimal governance. But it was precisely at that point when the Ottomans began building railroads to deliver garrisons to the provinces and introducing modern, more intrusive bureaucracy that they began facing opposition from local elites like the Hashemite rulers of Mecca in the Hejaz. The rise of nationalism was also fatal to empire, whether Ottoman or any other sort.

Capitalist economic imperialism of the European sort is a new phenomenon in world history, and proved far less welcome in the Middle East than the decentralized Ottoman methods of governance. The European empires in Asia and Africa were not into it for their subjects’ health. Historians estimate that in the early nineteenth century, the colonized territories provided 15 percent of the metropole’s income, a margin that may well have helped technological and economic advances in Europe. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, East Indies (Indonesian) rubber and petroleum provided as much as 25 percent of the Netherlands’ gross national product. That is to say, the Dutch stole billions of dollars from the Indonesians. European imperialism was brutal. European overlords worked plantation laborers to death. Since the foreigners were not liked, it was necessary occasionally to massacre the locals. The German army practiced with machine guns on primitively armed Namibian tribes as a prelude to the slaughter of World War I in Europe itself. Imperial archivists usually destroyed the documents that witnessed the viciousness and genocidal character of European economic imperialism.

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