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Anirudh Deshpande, "Why They Hate America So Much"

"Why they Hate America So Much"

Anirudh Deshpande, H-Asia

Reviewing Karl E Meyer, The Dust of Empire: The Race for Mastery of the Asian Heartland.
New York: Perseus Books, 2003. xvii + 252 pp. Maps, photographs, notes, select bibliography, index. $26.00 (cloth), ISBN 1-58648-048-0; $15.00 (paper), ISBN 1-58648-241-6.

Why Do They Hate America So Much?

This book must be read in the context of Iraq, which is threatening to become not another Vietnam but the Operation Barbarossa of the United States. It is an objective, unrelenting critique of Western imperialism which will equally surprise the communist and capitalist admirers of modern Western civilization. And by Western imperialism, Karl Meyer does not mean only Anglo-Saxon attitudes of superiority but, as a brilliant chapter on Tsarist and Bolshevik Russia proves, also Russia from the period of Ivan the Terrible until the ill-fated Soviet military adventure in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989. This book attributes the widespread opposition to the West in many countries to the exploitative relationship the Western powers have historically imposed on them. It is also a scholarly rejection of the erroneous beliefs entertained and repeated meaninglessly by imperialists like George Bush and Tony Blair in the name of freedom and liberty. The United States, Britain and Russia are under attack today, as Meyer conclusively demonstrates, not because many people dislike liberty, but precisely because these powers have denied freedom to millions across countries in their quest for foreign resources and empire since at least the nineteenth century.
Have you ever wondered why developing countries with the strongest pro-U.S. regimes have not done well, in general? That they fail to evolve democratic institutions, are generally dictatorships, prone to periodic coups and violent revolutions? Are you interested in the history of pro-U.S. client states in Asia like Pakistan and the Shah's Iran (1953–79)? Do you want to know why the adventures of modern imperialism, always initiated with characteristic certitude, usually end in failure as the histories of Afghanistan, Crimea, the Caucasus region and several parts of Africa, Latin America and southeast Asia show? If you doubt the flawed "clash of civilizations" thesis and want to know why the United States and its imperialist forerunner Great Britain, as well as Russia, are locked in combat with jihad today, read this book. Meyer exposes the hiatus between America's self image and the historical facts. He systematically reveals the world of difference between what the American media and political class would have us believe of Washington's objectives and the cruel realities of foreign politics which U.S. administrations have pursued since the nineteenth century. The question why America is both hated and admired abroad should be located in this context.


As Meyer writes in this admirable deconstruction of British and American attempts at dominating the world: "It is a long standing characteristic of American diplomacy to have it both ways: to pride ourselves on our republican virtue, our devotion of human rights, our belief in self-determination and our anti-colonial heritage — while enjoying the prerogatives of our asymmetrical power, pressing others to open their markets while selectively closing our own, entering into secretive security arrangements that mortgage the sovereignty of our partners and, when deemed necessary, using our leverage, overtly and covertly, to alter another country's policies or even its leadership. This is the essence of the informal empire that Schlesinger described, and the pretense that it does not exist constitutes the kind of humbug that exasperates, and occasionally infuriates, even our friends" (p. 24). The choice confronting Washington, given the history of imperialism and its contemporary predicament, is simple. It is Meyer's reasoned assertion that where American interference is minimal, "ordinary people are more liable to view America with sympathetic curiosity or outright admiration. In foreign relations, so history suggests, overbearing dominion breeds neither affection nor respect" (p. 27). Hence in the long run imperialism does not pay. Imperialist arrogance, often based on short-term conventional military superiority of the big powers, has always proved counterproductive from the days of the Boer War until America's ongoing war in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Meyer's book is particularly relevant for a country like post-cold war India, where this reviewer lives and America is generally admired as a land of opportunity. Following his well-researched submissions, Indian policymakers must bear in mind a singularly important fact while drawing up treaties with Washington. The historical record shows that almost all developing countries which have allowed the United States, or the former Soviet Union for that matter, to dominate their economy and politics have undermined their own sovereignty with unfortunate consequences. Democracy has not thrived in a single country which has passed under the indirect rule of Washington or Moscow. In India, where currently Russia seems to be out of fashion, Washington continues to be feted simply because most Indians are either unaware of this fact or ignore it for purely selfish reasons. The Indian middle class, with its diasporic and cross-over connections to America, is prone to overestimating the current economic strength of New Delhi as a bargaining counter in India's international relations. It is also largely unaware of the economic crisis in the United States, produced by policies which have promoted reckless spending, low saving rates and spiraling debt.


In fact, as the growing literature on the subject indicates, Washington's failing attempts at world domination by military means has pushed the United States into its worst economic crisis since the depression of the 1930s. It is time that Indians, like Americans, awake to the legacy of imperialism and study world history afresh. Only then, as Meyer suggests, can better sense be made of the conflict which threatens the very survival of humanity since September 11. Although the target readership of the book under review is American, its international appeal in the context of liberalization, globalization and jihadi terrorism should not be missed. Meyer's research is crucial to understanding the history of all those societies which have suffered, and continue to suffer, the ill effects of foreign domination and superpower interventions. His book provides answers to commonly asked questions, such as why America is waging war in Iraq today and why its eventual defeat there is virtually guaranteed by the tragic and farcical repeat of colonial history. In this connection the book's chapter on Afghanistan, which was gleefully called the Vietnam of the Soviet Union by the CIA and other agencies engaged in building up the mujahideen during the 1980s, is of particular significance. The history of Afghanistan, called the hub of central Asia by Meyer, only proves the adage that fools rush in where angels fear to tread. From Meyer's overall argument it becomes evident that Washington seems not only to have inherited the burden of the British Empire in the Middle East, but also the expansionist ambitions of Tsarist and Bolshevik Russia combined. A daunting task for any superpower, indeed, and more so for a paranoid country embarked on a path of political and military unilateralism led by men who believe in the mandate of heaven like their imperialist ancestors.


The prevalence of modern imperialism, and the numerous crises caused by it, has produced a corpus of relevant writing in the form of literature and academic studies since the nineteenth century. Much of this written work comprises a valuable historical critique of imperialism indispensable to our understanding of a complex modern phenomenon impinging directly or indirectly on our everyday lives. In the 1960s and 1970s the disastrous American involvement in Vietnam and later the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, with its unfortunate consequences in the 1980s and 1990s, generated much criticism of cold war politics and a great deal of introspection among Western intellectuals in general. How much of this introspection translated into foreign policy changes in the West will remain debatable for a long time to come. Following earlier trends, America's war in Iraq and other events after September 11 have spawned a number of works which deepen our understanding of how modern imperialism functions. Meyer's meticulously researched, humane and lucid volume should be read as part of a tradition of anti-imperialist consciousness in many Western circles. It complements the scathing criticism of American capitalism and imperialism presented by the insightful articles and books penned by academic radicals like Noam Chomsky. It will surprise those who continue to believe that the United States is God's own country and an exporter of democracy, freedom and prosperity. It will shock those who do not consider Washington imperialist enough in the same way as Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany and Japan once were.


Meyer's book is guided by some sensible assumptions based on a dispassionate examination of historical facts. It asserts that the United States has inherited the mantle of Anglo-Saxon imperialism from its poor cousin Great Britain and faces consequences which the British faced in the early twentieth century. It militates against the way history and geography are taught in American schools and universities. As it appears from this book, and several personal experiences of this reviewer, Americans and Europeans remain ignorant of Asian countries and societies despite the flows of information characterizing our internet age. Undoubtedly this ignorance colors the racial and cultural arrogance underlining many everyday encounters between the West and Asia. Such behavior ends up reinforcing the memory of past colonial excesses in developing countries. In most cases these memories stretch all the way back to the early nineteenth century. Many of these excesses — massacres, mass deportations, discrimination, deforestation — committed in the Caucasus, Crimea, Afghanistan, Philippines and Africa are recounted in great detail in this scintillating indictment of Western imperialism.


The Dust of Empire cannot be dismissed as mere anti-American rhetoric by "evil versus good" theorists. Take for instance the question of Islamic opposition to Western domination in Iran, the Caucasus region or Afghanistan. A penetrating historical dissection of Iran squarely blames American policy and the Shah's stupidity for the revolution of 1979 and the subsequent hostage crisis. A rare gem on the Caucasus, perhaps a region least known to scholars everywhere, locates the genesis of Chechen resistance in the crucible of Tsarist ambitions for a greater Russia. Russians were particularly ruthless when it came to dealing with the hardy Caucasian Muslims or the remnants of the Golden Horde in the Crimea. Faced with a "dilemma of what to do when the goals of Russification and modernization conflicted, as they did time and again, with native beliefs and stubborn ethnicity" (p. 163), the Russians followed a policy of war, annihilation, deforestation and deportation thus alienating successive generations in the area. The Christian civilizing mission, since the days of Catherine the Great and Potemkin, was executed with characteristic imperialistic zeal and disdain for local feeling by the Anglophile "patrician libral" (p. 158), and Tsar Alexander's favorite, Count Mikhail S. Vorontsov until his death in 1856. After the Great War, imperialist history continued. Following the Bolshevik victories over the White armies, Stalin and his henchman Molotov "were guided by traditional tsarist perspectives on territorial expansion and imperialism" (p. 162). Finally, "even seven decades of scientific socialism failed to narrow the abyss of distrust between Muslims and Christians. Nor did the Soviets ever manage, with all their sacred texts by Marx and Lenin, to master the mysteries of Islam" (p. 167).


The story of Afghanistan, where no less than four imperialist powers — Britain, Tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union and finally the United States — have played a high risk military game from the early nineteenth century to the present, is similar. Unlike most Americans, who could not even locate Afghanistan on the world map until September 11 shook them out of complacency, Indians generally know Afghan history better. To the American public, the chapter on this tribal dominated mountain country narrates a history marked by well-known interference, invasions, occupation, coups, proxy rule and general devastation. There is a saying in India that a snake nurtured in your sleeve will certainly bite you one day. This more or less sums up America's relationship with today's Islamic fundamentalists, who were funded and armed through Pakistan by the CIA, under the influence of Russia baiters like Zbigniew Brzezinski (p. 132). Ultimately the mujahideen turned against America because of what Meyer calls "the Buchanan syndrome in American foreign policy," i.e., the tendency to destroy regions, use people and then one day leave them without alternatives (p. 135). Today the world, especially countries like United States, Britain, Pakistan and India, is paying a heavy price for modern imperialist myopia in Afghanistan. Yesterday's "discarded mercenaries" have become "easy converts for Islamic jihadists" (p. 135).


Meyer presents an unremitting criticism of all Western imperialism — British, French, German, Russian and American. I am sure, given a chance, he might well write a book on Japanese imperialism which does not differ greatly from its Western counterparts in essence. Insofar as imperialism is viewed as a by-product of nationalism, numerous stories of smaller regional imperialisms can also be written. Many "civilizing" missions have emanated from Western countries bent upon "liberating" and dominating Asia and Africa. Notions of modernity, liberalism and progress always seem to guide Western imperialism, but have seldom been practiced by the imperialists. The human rights record of Western imperialism continues to remain grim enough on this account. The strength of this book lies in Meyer's ability to locate the history of Western imperialism in a matrix of philosophical questions concerning modernity which goes beyond differing ideological affiliations of Western imperialists.


In the scheme of history which guides the author's research, modern imperialism emanates from a mix of Western notions of liberalism, historical progress, the nation-state, colonial paternalism, racial superiority and religious self-righteousness. All these notions of Western civilization are brought to bear on the subject in such a way that the reader is stimulated to examine the problem of modernity afresh (see the introduction and chapter 1). The greatest weakness of imperialism which emerges from this survey is the steadfast refusal of all imperialists to allow subject peoples the power to decide their own future. This creates the difference between liberalism and democracy — to pursue a liberal agenda disguising exploitation of regional resources either in the form of capitalist progress or communist utopia is rarely the same thing as democracy. For instance, the feudal Count Vorontsov was a liberal as far as modernization drives were concerned, but his methods were authoritarian. In this context the similarities between British, Russian and American attempts at dominating the Eurasian land mass are striking and commendably narrated by Meyer. The absence of democracy renders countries like the Central Asian Republics bereft of stabilizing institutions and popular freedom. Without a democracy which enforces accountability upon the ruling elite, a country is more likely to drain away its national wealth to its imperialist master. This is what happened in Iran between 1953 and 1979, and might possibly happen in the relatively new central Asian states. History shows why and how the imposition of foreign rule, even if it is guided by the purest of philanthropic intentions, is ultimately opposed by the dominated and exploited people.


Finally, given peculiar circumstances, as in the Caucasus, Iran and Afghanistan, this opposition assumes specific ideological, religious and identitarian dimensions. In this connection, this book highlights the social contradictions produced in many countries by violent imperialist intervention. The destabilizing of traditional orders by either the modernizing zeal or violent reprisals of the imperialists, as in the case of the Caucasus, reinforces suppressed identities and equally violent retaliatory movements. Problems also arise when imperialists divide and carve out new countries in a hurry while often supporting irresponsible local actors. Such areas, like Pakistan, continue to pay for the sins of partition even today in terms of a complicated identity crisis. Referring to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, Meyer does not mince words: "At the heart of the region's disorder is Pakistan, whose rise arguably constitutes the most grievous failure of Britain's colonial unraveling. Pakistan is the archetypal imagined community, an offspring of precipitate partition" (p. 88). Pakistan and some post-Communist states show how and why dividing "the body politic has repeatedly served as a fatal means of obtaining short-term relief" and this is in stark contrast with the United States which "fought a civil war to preserve a federal union that remains a beacon for others" (p. 89). In this context the rise of violent Islamic fundamentalism in the relatively new and so far non-sectarian, but undemocratic, central Asian countries cannot be ruled out in the near future.


Meyer's analysis of modern Western imperialism inspires not only further historical inquiry but ends on an optimistic note. Our hope lies in a newfound seriousness with which his book should be read in the United States before more disasters like Iraq are forced upon the world, not to speak of the Americans themselves, by an irresponsible military-industrial complex and its conservative leadership. "What is to be done?" asks Meyer before coming up with practicable solutions to America's self-inflicted problems. The book ends with a quote from a speech by John F. Kennedy, made in 1961, which states that "there cannot be an American solution to every world problem" (p. 214). In Meyer's view this position vindicates the "decent respect for the opinion of mankind promised in America's birth certificate" (p. 214).


Americans need to develop a new curiosity and knowledge about a world their current leaders want to subjugate. They must invoke their rich anti-colonial legacy to discover and assert the freedoms and liberties nurtured by their forefathers. They should listen to others. Only when Washington respects the fact that a similar democracy is also desired by countless millions across the globe will peace have a chance. The policy implications of this realization are mentioned in the book. First, Washington should help the United Nations, instead of undermining it as some imperialist powers did to the League of Nations before 1939. Second, and here the volume's references to Franklin Roosevelt's transformation from an imperialist into a responsible statesman come to mind, no harm will result from accepting mistakes and learning from them. The alternative to this was exemplified in Iran where America practiced an arrogant indirect rule (1953–79). Why did this rule end in a violent religious revolution? "The underlying blame rests on the tendency of successive administrations, Democratic and Republican, to treat an ancient and resentful country as if it were a satrapy, employing the methods of indirect rule long practiced in the Caribbean and Central America. The relationship found its galling symbol in the virtual cantonments inhabited by U.S. military and civilian personnel, who were immune to local laws. In Iranian eyes, for over a generation, Americans exercised power without responsibility, in the process dissipating a heritage of goodwill by seeming to prove that Washington was little different from London or Moscow" (p. 82). It is difficult to find fault with a work as true as this. The conviction of the author's argument and the common sense pervading his descriptions of numerous inhuman imperialist blunders makes it impossible for you to put down the book once you have started reading it. Mostly racy, at times terse, devoid of jargon and lucid — in sum a feast of carefully marshaled facts and interpretation to be relished equally by the historian and lay reader alike. Hopefully the American public will be influenced in ever increasing numbers by such theses on imperialism and correct the course of Washington's domestic, foreign and military policies before it is too late for all of us.


[Anirudh Deshpande, Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, New Delhi.]