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In the Mideast, history's not on our side

Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East, Rashid Khalidi, Beacon Press: 224 pp., $23

September 05, 2004|Warren I. Cohen | Warren I. Cohen is distinguished university professor of history at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and senior scholar in the Asia program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Rashid KHALIDI is arguably the foremost U.S. historian of the modern Middle East. The current director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University, he is a superb scholar who has written books on Arab nationalism, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the prize-winning "Palestinian Identity." Son of a Palestinian father and a Lebanese mother, Khalidi is, not surprisingly, especially interested in Palestinian affairs. He served as an advisor to Palestinian officials at the Madrid talks, with which the first President Bush revived the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 1992, and on various occasions since then. But this book is no rant against Israel or a defense of Yasser Arafat's corrupt rule.

Troubled by the invasion of Iraq, Khalidi in "Resurrecting Empire" warns fellow Americans not to attempt to build an empire in the Middle East. The people of the region will not see the U.S. invasion of Iraq as the benign liberation promised by Washington, he writes, because they have heard it all before from the Westerners who dominated them in the 1920s and '30s.

Khalidi reviews the history of British and French colonial expansion into Arab lands, focusing ultimately on the Iraqi experience with British imperialism between world wars. He notes that many Arab -- and Iranian -- intellectuals were attracted to Western ideas of parliamentary democracy only to have their efforts to create democratic governments undermined. He concedes readily that most Arab governments are appalling where democracy and human rights are concerned but argues that the European states that controlled them before decolonization are at least partly responsible. Nor does he spare the U.S. role in the region during the Cold War.

The United States, which became a major force in the area only after World War II, played a key role in stifling democracy in Iran in 1953. When Iran's elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq nationalized oil and flirted with communists, the Eisenhower administration helped orchestrate a coup, enabling the shah to establish his authoritarian rule.

Why should Iraqis believe that America's purpose today is to foster democracy in the region? Even if they did, and Khalidi says that is unlikely, do Americans have any idea what policies a democratic Baghdad would pursue? A popularly elected Iraqi government probably would demand that U.S. forces leave the country, seek the removal of U.S. bases on the Arabian peninsula and throw its support behind the Palestinian cause, to the detriment of Israel's interests. No one in the Arab world can imagine that this future scenario is what the American people have spent billions of dollars and the lives of hundreds of their children to accomplish. Khalidi insists that Americans must realize that the people of the Middle East perceive U.S. actions in terms of their own recent history as victims of British and French imperialism. They have not forgotten their tradition of resistance to foreign intervention and occupation. To them, the United States is reprising the British role in Iraq. Invasion and occupation have not furthered the cause of democracy in the past, and Khalidi is not optimistic about Washington's present effort.

Historically, foreign efforts to control the countries of the Middle East have stimulated nationalism and given rise to regimes in which military officers have played important roles. They and their civilian partners then succeeded in using nationalist rhetoric to mask their denial of human rights and democratic politics, blaming external pressures for their failure to build equitable and successful economic systems. The leaders of the oil-producing states have worked assiduously to remind their people of the days when they were being exploited by Western oil companies. Today's U.S. occupation of the Iraqi oil fields raises that specter anew -- and concern is intensified by rumors there that the Americans intend to use Iraqi oil to undermine the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and keep oil prices down. On the other hand, when Middle Eastern governments nationalized oil, Khalidi notes, most used the proceeds to create a vast network of patronage and corruption.

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