This essay, from The Face Of The Tiger, was written a month after September 11th in the midst of the Afghan campaign. The dispatch of Colonel Gaddafi and, less dramatically, the passing of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Sultan make the remarks on Middle Eastern stability timely. The conclusion - about America's willingness to drain the swamp - I would be less optimistic about today. The civilized world no longer has the stomach for societal transformation in the badlands - and that is something to be regretted:
October 20th 2001
Before the White House decided to lean on the networks and get him off air, Osama bin Laden popped up on the TV in my general store in another rerun of his caveman special. Off he went with his usual shtick about "the tragedy of Andalusia".
"What's he on about?" asked my friend Judy.
"It's a reference to the end of Moorish rule in Spain in 1492," I said.
"That's our fault?" she said. I started to say something about how, as Osama saw it, the roots of Islam's downfall in Andalusia lay in its accommodation with the Christian world and the move towards a pluralistic society, etc, etc, but Judy wasn't in the mood. "You know why this is a great country?" she said. "Because none of us have a clue what he's on about."
This is a common theory. There's a wonderful screed floating around the Internet called "We're more nuts than you and it should scare you shitless", which works up to a grand assurance to al-Qa'eda that, even after we've killed them, our schoolchildren still won't have a clue who they are, where they're from or what was bugging them in the first place. The clichémongers of the global media like to talk about "America's Loss Of Innocence", but that innocence is more properly understood as "ignorance is bliss" – America is where you go to get away from guys hung up on whatever it was that happened in Andalusia in 1492. Pat Buchanan, in his book A Republic Not An Empire, argues that the US has drifted away from its original vision by getting mixed up in all kinds of imperial adventures that are more suited to old-school European powers than the aloof yeoman republic its Founders foresaw.
On the other hand, there are those who think the events of September 11th prove that you can't buck millennia of tradition: a non-imperial superpower is a contradiction in terms and it's time for America to embrace its fate and start colouring the map red-white-and-blue. My neighbour Tom, who's painting my house at the moment and who always carries a copy of the Constitution with him, thinks this is a filthy unAmerican idea. "You Commonwealth guys," he says. "You can't let go of the whole colony thing." He's right, of course: the Founders would be horrified at the idea of the White House appointing chaps in solar topees with ostrich feathers. But, simmering under the talk of immediate war aims in Afghanistan, a Republic-versus-Empire debate is already under way.
Let's start with Osama bin Loser's main beef, about the US military presence near Islam's holiest sites in Saudi Arabia: he's right; it is a humiliation that one of the richest regimes on earth is too incompetent, greedy and decadent to provide its own defence. But it's not America's fault that those layabout Saudi princes, faced with Saddam's troops massing on the border, could think of nothing better to do than turn white as their robes and frantically dial Washington.
In fact, insofar as the Middle East's the victim of anything other than its own failures, it's not western imperialism but western post-imperialism. Unlike Africa, Asia, Australasia and the Americas, Araby has never come under direct European colonial rule. The Ottoman Empire was famously characterised by Tsar Nicholas I as "the sick man of Europe", which would seem to concede admission to the club, but also suggests that its sickness was at least partially due to its lack of Europeanness. These effects linger long: the difference in progress between parts of the former Yugoslavia seems to owe as much to whether the territory was previously Habsburg (Slovenia) or Ottoman (Macedonia) as anything else. The Turks backed the wrong man in the First World War more by bad luck than by anything else, and one can sympathise with the more sophisticated terror-apologists in the west who argue that the Ottoman Empire should never have been broken up. Turkey, for its part, was more European in the 1920s than it ever was under the Sultans: indeed, it remains the only Muslim territory to have successfully embarked upon a redefinition of the relationship between Islam and the state. Turkey gave women the vote before Britain did – the sort of supporting evidence the west's self-loathers might find useful, if they troubled themselves with supporting evidence.
But in the Arabian peninsula the Ottoman vacuum was filled not with dependencies but with "spheres of influence", a system that continues to this day. Rather than making Arabia a Crown colony within the Empire, dispatching Lord Whatnot as Governor, issuing banknotes bearing the likeness of George V, setting up courts presided over by judges in full-bottomed wigs and introducing a professional civil service and a free press, the British instead mulled over which sheikh was likely to prove more pliable, installed him in the capital and suggested he send his sons to Eton and Sandhurst. The French did the same, and so, later, did the Americans.
This was cheaper than colonialism and less politically prickly, but it did a great disservice to the populations of those countries. The alleged mountain of evidence of Yankee culpability is, in fact, evidence only of the Great Satan's deplorable faintheartedness: yes, Washington dealt with Saddam, and helped train the precursors of the Taleban, and fancied Colonel Gadaffi a better bet than King Idris, just as in the Fifties they bolstered the Shah and then in the Seventies took against him, when Jimmy Carter decided the Peacock Throne wasn't progressive enough and wound up with the Ayatollahs instead. As noted earlier, this system of cherrypicking from a barrel-load of unsavoury potential clients was summed up in the old geopolitical realist's line: "He may be a sonofabitch but he's our sonofabitch."
The inverse is more to the point: he may be our sonafabitch, but he's a sonafabitch. Some guys go nuts, some are merely devious and unreliable, some remain charming and pleasant but of little help, but all of them are a bunch of despots utterly sealed off from their peoples. As we now know, it was our so-called "moderate" Arab "friends" who provided all the suicide bombers of September 11th, just as it's in their government-run media – notably the vile Egyptian press – that some of the worst anti-American rhetoric is to be found. The contemptible regime of President Mubarak permits dissent against the US government but not against its own, licensing the former as a safety valve to reduce pressure on the latter. This is a classic example of why the sonofabitch system is ultimately useless to the west: the US spends billions subsidising regimes who have a vested interest in encouraging anti-Americanism as a substitute for more locally focused grievances. As a result, the west gets blamed for far more in a part of the world it never colonised than it does in those regions it directly administered for centuries.
The worst example of this is Saudi Arabia, the source of many – if not all – of our present woes. It's remarkable how, for all the surface flim-flam about Afghanistan, Israel, Iraq and Pakistan, everything specific about this crisis circles back to Saudi Arabia: most of the suicide bombers were Saudi, Osama's a Saudi, the Taleban were trained in Islamic terror schools in Pakistan funded by the Saudis. American defence of Saudi Arabia gave Osama bin Laden his cause, American investment in Saudi Arabia gave him the money to bankroll it. If we're looking for "root causes" to this current situation, American support for Israel is a mere distraction next to its creation and maintenance of modern Saudi Arabia.
The Beltway guys may talk about realpolitik, but they're pikers compared to the House of Saud. After all, as this last month has proved, you can be one of only three states with diplomatic relations with the Taleban, you can be militarily uncooperative, you can refuse to freeze Osama's assets, you can decline even to meet with Tony Blair, you can do whatever you like, and Washington will still insist you're a "staunch friend".
The joke in all this is that Saudi Arabia as a functioning state is an American invention: In 1933, just a year after founding his kingdom, Ibn Saud signed his first oil contract with the US and eventually gave them a monopoly on leases. Saudi Arabia was the prototype of latter-day hands-off post-imperialism and a shining example of why it's ultimately a waste of time. A century ago, Ibn Saud was a desert warrior of no fixed abode. Today the House of Saud has approximately 7,000 members and produces about 40 new princes a month. Chances are, while you're reading this, some hapless female member of the Royal House is having contractions. Because if there's one thing Saudi Arabia can always use, it's another prince. The family hogs all the cabinet posts, big ambassadorships and key government agencies and owns all the important corporations: that takes a lot of princes. Public service in Saudi Arabia is an expensive business because salary is commensurate with Royal status: cabinet ministers can earn over $6 million (base).
This isn't some quaint ancient culture that the US was forced to go along with, but rather one largely of its own creation. American know-how fuelled Saudi Arabia's rapid transformation from reactionary feudal backwater into the world's most technologically advanced and spectacularly wealthy reactionary feudal backwater. They've still got beheadings every Friday but the schedule is computerised. As Ibn Saud told Colonel William Eddy, the first US minister to Saudi Arabia in 1946, "We will use your iron, but you will leave our faith alone."
It's possible to foresee (admittedly some way down the road) Jordan evolving into a modern constitutional monarchy, but not the decadent, bloated, corrupt House of Saud. It's not a question of if the Royal Family will fall, but when. Even if they were really the "good friend" Washington insists they are, their treatment of women, the restrictiveness of the state religion and their ludicrous reliance on government by clan make it impossible for the Saudi monarchy to evolve into anything with a long-term chance of success. By backing and enriching Ibn Saud's swollen progeny, the US has put all its eggs into one basket-case. If Washington wasn't thinking about these things before September 11th, it ought to be now. America may be the engine of the global economy, but Saudi Arabia is the gas tank, producing more oil more easily than anywhere else on earth. No one could seriously argue that Washington's Frankensaud monster is the best way to guarantee long-term access to that oil.
By comparison with the sonofabitch system, colonialism is progressive and enlightened. If, as the bonehead peaceniks parrot, poverty breeds instability, then what's the best way to tackle poverty? The rule of law, a market economy, emancipation of women – all the things you're never going to get under most present Middle East regimes or any of the ones likely to overthrow them. Osama bin Laden may disagree on the third point, but he should appreciate the first two. His real grievance is with his fellow Muslims. In the Nineties, when he was living in the Sudan, the thug regime in Khartoum persuaded him to invest heavily in the country, in various enterprises of one kind or another. Doing business in such an environment involves an awful lot of palm-greasing. Osama's bookkeepers figured out his business interests in the Sudan had lost $150 million, at which point the great humanitarian cut his losses and moved on to the Hindu Kush. If he wasn't so consumed by his own psychopathology, he could have learned far more about the Arab world from this experience than from any number of books about who did what in 1492 or 1187. Even in Afghanistan, the savagery of whose menfolk has been much exaggerated by the left's nervous nellies, such progress as was made in the country came when it fell under the watchful eye of British India, as a kind of informal protectorate.
What will we do this time round? Will we stick Zahir Shah back on his throne to preside over a ramshackle coalition of mutually hostile Commies, theocrats and gangsters, and hope the poor old gentleman hangs in there till we've cleared Afghan airspace? Or will we understand that only the west can make his kingdom a functioning state once more? Afghanistan needs not just food parcels, but British courts and Canadian police and Indian civil servants and American town clerks and Australian newspapers. So does much of the rest of the region.
America has prided itself on being the first non-imperial superpower, but the viability of that strategy was demolished on September 11th. For its own security, it needs to do what it did to Japan and Germany after the war: civilise them. Kipling called it "the white man's burden" – the "white man" bit will have to be modified in the age of Colin Powell and Condi Rice, and it's no longer really a "burden", not in cost-benefit terms. If neo-colonialism makes you squeamish, give it some wussified Clinto-Blairite name like "global community outreach". Tony Blair, to his credit, has already outlined a ten-year British commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan under a kind of UN protectorate. But, given the appalling waste and corruption that attends any UN peacekeeping mission, it would be better to do it directly under a select group of western powers. We can do it for compassionate reasons (the starving hordes beggared by incompetent thug regimes) or for selfish ones (our long-term security) but either way the time has come to turn "American imperialism" from a cheap leftie slur to a formal ideology.