May 25, 2015

The Ruins of Empire in the Middle East

By Robert D. Kaplan

Editors’ note: The original headline of Robert Kaplan’s article, chosen by the editors, generated some controversy and was subsequently changed to better reflect the argument of the text. Below, Kaplan responds to the criticism regarding the original headline:

“Welcome to the Post-Imperial Middle East.” That would have been the title I would have picked for my recent Foreign Policy essay that has caused an uproar. 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 later changed 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 recentblogs at The National Interest, on the PBS NewsHour in January, and in a short policy brief for The Center for a New American Security, 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 views involving imperialism 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. — Robert D. Kaplan

Opinion: The Ruins of Empire in the Middle East
Though imperialism is now held in disrepute, empire has been the default means of governance for most of recorded history, and the collapse of empires has always been messy business, whether in China and India from antiquity through the early 20th century or in Europe following World War I.

The meltdown we see in the Arab world today, with chaos in parts of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Levant, is really about the final end of imperialism. The Islamic State’s capture of Palmyra, an ancient caravan city and one of the most visually stunning archaeological sites in the Near East, only punctuates this point. Palmyra represents how the region historically has been determined by trade routes rather than fixed borders. Its seizure by the barbarians only manifests how the world is returning to that fluid reality.

Read the full article in Foreign Policy.

Mr. Kaplan provides clarification for the article's original title.