June 01, 2015

Welcome to the Post-Imperial Middle East

By Robert D. Kaplan

That would have been the title I picked for my recent Foreign Policy essay that has caused an uproar. In fact, the title the editors used, "It's Time to Bring Imperialism Back to the Middle East," misrepresented what I wrote. Rather than argue for renewed imperialism, I chronicled how imperialism helped stabilize the Middle East for significant periods in the past and analyzed the post-imperial future that now awaits us in the region. The Foreign Policy editors did change the title to "The Ruins of Empire in the Middle East," which more accurately reflects my text. Indeed, in a companion piece appearing now in the June issue of The Atlantic, entitled "The Art of Avoiding War," I argue for a restrained American approach in the Middle East, the very opposite of what critics have accused me of. Furthermore, in the January/February Atlantic, in two recent blogs inThe National Interest, and on the PBS NewsHour, I have supported, among other steps, a better relationship with Iran as a means to reduce America's burden in the region. A brief description of my view involving empire is thus in order:


By any historical standard, the United States since 1945 has found itself in an imperial-like situation globally. Empire, moreover, has been the default means of governance for large swaths of the earth since antiquity. But the history of empire teaches many lessons applicable to America's liberal order: including restraint, caution, and strategic patience. These are the qualities of successful empires that I have drawn upon in recent years in order to argue for a more deft and measured American role in the Middle East - so that our top policymakers can also pay sufficient attention to Europe and Asia. There is much America can do in the Middle East, but boots-on-the-ground except in exceedingly small numbers is not one of them. I have indeed internalized the lessons of the Iraq War - and my writings in recent books and articles demonstrate this. America simply lacks the capacity for an imperial-like role in the Middle East, because, among other reasons, there is too much going on of importance elsewhere. So we are in a post-imperial phase. That is what I believe; that is what I have, in fact, published.