Imperialism is the answer

October 14, 2001

For a few minutes last Sunday, Osama bin Laden was the only 11th century guy with his own CNN gig, and what he had to say was useful and illuminating.

The cave man (literally) warmed up with a remark about ''the tragedy of Andalusia''--a reference to the end of Moorish rule in Spain in 1492.

As he sees it, the roots of Islam's downfall in Andalusia lie in its accommodation with the Christian world and a move toward a pluralistic society.

That's very helpful. Osama's not just anti-Jew or anti-Christian, but objects to the very idea of a society where believers of all faiths and none rub along together. He's at war with, for want of a better word, multiculturalism.

The bonehead left, missing the point as always, march around the cities of the West waving placards against ''the racist war.'' But he's the racist. If Susan Sontag were to swing by his cave, he'd shoot her dead before she'd have time to bleat, ''But I'm on your side.''

By comparison with this big central grievance, the specific ones are easily solved. To be honest, he has a point about the U.S. military presence near Islam's holiest sites in Saudi Arabia: It is a humiliation that one of the richest regimes on Earth is too incompetent, greedy and decadent to provide its own defense 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. Instead, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the Great War, the winners carved up the Arabian peninsula not into colonies but ''spheres of influence,'' a system that continues to this day.

Rather than making Arabia a Crown colony within the Empire, sending out the Marquess of Whatnot as governor, issuing banknotes bearing the likeness of King 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 have his sons educated at Eton or Harrow.

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 Taliban, and fancied Colonel Gadhafi as a better bet than King Idris, just as in the '50s they bolstered the Shah of Iran and then in the '70s took against him, when Jimmy Carter decided the Peacock Throne wasn't progressive enough and wound up with the ayatollahs instead.

This system of cherrypicking from a barrel-load of unsavory potential clients was summed up in the old CIA line: ''He may be a sonofabitch but he's our sonofabitch.'' The inverse is more to the point: He may be our sonofabitch, but he's a sonofabitch.

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 Sept. 11, 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 U.S. 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 United States spends billions subsidizing 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 colonized than it does in those regions it directly administered for centuries.

By comparison with the sonofabitch system, colonialism is progressive and enlightened. Even under its modified, indirect Middle Eastern variation, the average Egyptian earned more under the British than he does today--that's not adjusted for inflation, but in real actual rupees. 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. With the fading of British power in the region in the 1950s, King Zahir let his country fall under the competing baleful influences of Marxism and Islamic fundamentalism.

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 Osama bin Laden's declaration of war on pluralism for what it is? Afghanistan needs not just food parcels, but British courts and Swiss 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 Sept. 11.

For its own security, it needs to do what it did to Tojo's Japan and Hitler's Germany after the war: Systematically dismantle them and rebuild them as functioning members of the civilized world.

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.

Given the billions of dollars of damage done to the world economy by Sept. 11, massive engagement in the region will be cheaper than the alternative.

If neo-colonialism makes you squeamish, give it some wussify ied Clinto-Blairite name like ''global community outreach.'' Tony Blair, to his credit, has already outlined a 10-year British commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan under a kind of UN protectorate. We can do it for compassionate reasons (the starving hordes beggared by incompetent thug regimes) or for selfish ones (our long-term security), but do it we must.

Mark Steyn is senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc.

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