Empire of Straw

Akhilesh Pillalamarri, writing in The Diplomat, offers an unusually balanced response to a recent post by Robert Kaplan at Foreign Policy which now appears under the title “The Ruins of Empire in the Middle East,” but whose original click-baity title is still visible within its URL: “its-time-to-bring-imperialism-back-to-the-middle-east…” Yet even like those peremptorily denouncing Kaplan – voices from across the entire foreign policy spectrum from neo-isolationist to liberal-internationalist to ultra-left (and anarchist, too) – Pillalamarri frames his response as a response to a straw man argument.

With creditable dispassion, but little Lenin, Pillalamarri asserts that “[t]he phenomenon of imperialism itself is amoral, as opposed to the actions of individual empires, which can be good or bad,” but he begins with a version of the same claim that appears at the beginning of Juan Cole’s “What’s Wrong With Robert Kaplan’s Nostalgia for Empire.” Pillalamari characterizes “The Ruins of Empire” as a “defense of imperialism.” Cole goes further: “[Kaplan] thinks that what is wrong with the Middle East is a lack of imperialism, and he urges that it be brought back.”

Kaplan does provide a relatively brief appraisal of the reigns of various historical empires, contrasting episodes of imperial order with current conditions in the Middle East, but neither in this piece, nor even in earlier, more openly provocative writing on the virtues of “imperial-like” policy (see, e.g., “In Defense of Empire” (2014)), does he ever call for restoration. Instead, he specifically declares the old ways obsolete – or, as per his title, ruined. He writes, rather clumsily but all the more emphatically, of the “final end” of imperialism. He isolates major impediments to a revival of American or Western “imperial influence.” He does not hesitate to describe the implication of the old imperialism or of those finally-ended imperial policies in new or seemingly new burnt, blasted, and blood-drenched problems. His conclusion puts forward an argument for “order” as pre-conditional for “freedom” and “democracy,” but pointedly not in a “retrograde” form. He describes a “challenge,” and the most that he advocates – here, at least – is a realistic and non-prejudicial confrontation with that challenge. He never proposes even the outlines of a new imperial project.

I won’t attempt to characterize the diverse – or one might say combined and uneven – motivations of Kaplan’s critics, but I doubt that their approach does as much to advance the discussion, or the potential of any interesting and useful discussion at all, as his does, or as it might in some other intellectual world under a different ideological regime.

2 comments on “Empire of Straw

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    • Was just going to tweet that I’d linked you.

      I can’t answer your question. I don’t think he’d presume that order being “imposed” by “outsiders” would necessarily be worse than the current situation in the ME, which some might characterize as disorder being aggravated by outsiders, but I’m not sure how one meaningfully defines “outsider,” or for that matter “influence” or “impose” or even “order,” in the world today or ever.

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