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To Hell in His Handbasket | The Nation

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To Hell in His Handbasket

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Travel writing is a dismal art. From Herodotus, wide-eyed (and perhaps more than a little disoriented) in an India of man-eating ants and black sperm; to Ibn Batuta, the fourteenth-century Arab wanderer who endured the thirst and marauding tribesmen of the Sahara; to Graham Greene in lawless Mexico and Redmond O'Hanlon on the untamable Amazon: The classics of the genre are journeys into the night, tales of loneliness and hardship and danger. As Ian Jack puts it, no traveler has written a better--or more exemplary--sentence than Captain Scott, who stood at the South Pole in January 1912 and wrote in his diary, "Dear God, this is an awful place."

Certainly, one would be hard pressed to find many finer sentences in Eastward to Tartary, Robert Kaplan's latest installment of gloom and hopelessness, an account of his travels in the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucasus. Kaplan likes to quote Shakespeare and Gogol, and he has elsewhere extolled the usefulness of Conrad's writing in political analysis, but his own prose chokes on stilted aphorisms and anodyne observations. "Relative change, more than absolute change, is what history is often about," he concludes at a Romanian border post. Traveling by train between Bulgaria and Turkey, Kaplan comes to the realization that "the idea that the Internet and other new technologies annihilate distance is a half-truth." "You see, Robert," one of his informants tells him, "Hungarian nationalism, Romanian nationalism--they're all bad."

Perhaps the best that can be said about Kaplan's writing is that what it lacks in elegance, it makes up for in earnestness: As V.S. Naipaul--another traveler with a dyspeptic view of the world--has written of Conrad, his vision is flawed and unremittingly "dismal, but deeply felt." As in his earlier books--cataclysmic travelogues with titles like The Coming Anarchy, The Ends of the Earth and An Empire Wilderness--Kaplan shrouds the world in darkness, lamenting the "imprisoning desolation" and "Brezhnevian gloom" of the lands he visits. In the former Yugoslavia, in Africa, even in his own United States, whose decline he predicted in An Empire Wilderness, Kaplan has never met a society that wasn't falling apart. This dogged credo has earned him much notoriety and a considerable degree of influence: A correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, his essays are circulated in the White House and National Security Council, and his portrait of intractable "ancient hatreds" in Bosnia famously led President Clinton to conclude that intervening in the Yugoslav war would result in a quagmire (a dubious achievement that Kaplan has himself disowned). Over the course of two decades, Kaplan has established himself as the leading chronicler of the post-Communist Pax Americana, a grim reaper whose seamy version of globalization contrasts sharply with so many of the sunny--and often flippant--promises of global culture and prosperity.

Like those of many doom-mongering travelers--and like Conrad, memorably called a "bloody racist" by Chinua Achebe--Kaplan's jeremiads against the rot of the non-Western world have drawn charges of ill-informed prejudice. The Somali writer Nuruddin Farah has even suggested that Kaplan's forlorn vision of Africa was the result of a mefloquine-induced hallucination. But while it is true that Kaplan sometimes slips into mortifying disquisitions on "Asiatic" despotism and "the exotic confusion of the Orient," he deserves to be taken more seriously. In retrospect, what's striking about his books is not so much their bleakness as their prescience. Balkan Ghosts, written in 1989 and rejected by fourteen publishers before it was finally published at the start of the Yugoslav war, was an unheeded warning of the disintegration to come. In 1997, as the West was only beginning to awaken from its "end of history" delirium, Kaplan published a provocative essay in which he asked if "democracy was just a moment." (The essay coincided with an influential article by Fareed Zakaria, then the editor of Foreign Affairs, in which he similarly lamented the rise of "illiberal democracy.") The Coming Anarchy, whose eponymous essay has earned Kaplan the greatest opprobrium, was less pessimistic than downright hysterical. But it, too, evinced a remarkable ability to pierce the self-serving delusions of an African revival being bandied about by Western policy-makers. Today, as Central Africa burns amid what Madeleine Albright has called "Africa's first world war," Kaplan's portrait of civil war and disease and institutional meltdown is sadly accurate.

Eastward to Tartary returns to many of Kaplan's pet themes--indeed, one of the troublesome aspects of the book is that it sometimes seems like a not-altogether-comfortable imposition of old ideas on new geography. Traveling through some fourteen countries, Kaplan finds the familiar "erosion of [the] nation-state," pull of "blood loyalties" and evidence that "democracy was leading to separation, not reconciliation." It's hard to discern an overarching argument within the book's peripatetic structure, but the general thrust of Eastward to Tartary appears to be a return to the inferno. "Anarchy in some form or other, as I had seen, was almost everywhere," Kaplan writes near the end of the book, foreseeing "revolutionary upheaval" and "disintegrated" nations in a region where institutions are weak and ethnic strife is filling the vacuum left by the Soviet Union's collapse. The book is also a restatement of Kaplan's philosophy of political realism, a cynical faith--with intellectual roots in the writing of Thucydides and Machiavelli, both of whom Kaplan cites repeatedly--that politics is the exercise of self-interest. "What had I learned?" Kaplan asks as he ponders 4,000 miles of travel. The answer: "That power and self-interest would shape the immediate future, at least in this part of the world."

These aren't cheerful thoughts, but I fear that Kaplan's Hobbesian vision will once again prove prophetic--although, as in those earlier books, only partly so. The problem with Kaplan's bleakness is that it tends to overreach, as though driven as much by a craving for attention as by the urge to report faithfully. Kaplan's gloom is narcissistic; in love with itself, it can't get enough of its own darkness, always grasping beyond the limits of reasonable skepticism toward apocalypticism. The result is a certain misalignment of vision: Taken with the momentum of his own morose logic, he misses the real story. This tendency was notoriously pronounced in The Coming Anarchy, in which Kaplan not only foresaw (quite reasonably) a "bifurcated world"--one populated by comfortable citizens of the West, the other by the deprived denizens of the Third World--but went on to argue that, gradually, the boundaries between the two worlds would blur. "West Africa's future," he wrote, "will also be that of most of the rest of the world." What's more, Kaplan suggested, casting the shadow of his pessimism even wider, Africa (and the rest of the Third World, where Kaplan saw similar anarchy) would be responsible for the West's collapse. Like insidious viruses, the shantytowns, civil wars and tribal hatreds would slip through the borders of disintegrating nation-states, infecting the West with a "terrifying array of problems that will define a new threat to our security."

The irony, of course, is that the tragedy of the earth's wretched is in many respects precisely the opposite: that they will never escape the centrifugal pull of their collapsing societies, that today's electrified fences and immigration counters keep misery in its place more effectively than the mountains and deserts and icescapes that separated nations in an earlier age of travel. Kaplan's ambition is large: He claims allegiance to "the lay of the land" and the stories of "individuals," but, setting himself alongside Herodotus and Gibbon (to whose contemporary relevance The Coming Anarchy includes a paean), his real master is the grand sweep of History.

Under such tutelage, Kaplan becomes an incorrigible didact, turning every anecdote into an occasion for explication and instruction. The "extortionist cost" ($45) of a Turkish visa, he writes, was "part of a larger political story...that had not quite made it through the world media filter." While getting his shoes polished on the street in Turkey, he reflects that "commonplace but elaborate traditions such as baking bread and shoe maintenance...[allow] Turks to enjoy the benefits of global materialism without losing their identity." Apart from making him sound like the quintessential American tourist, Kaplan's determination to squeeze meaning out of every incident strains credibility. Just outside a decrepit train station in Bulgaria, Kaplan sees "a city of homeless youth and impoverished gypsies." This innocuous scene of poverty surrounding a railway station--ubiquitous in transport centers throughout the Third World, or indeed, visible in New York's Port Authority terminal--is proof for Kaplan that "tyranny creates a social vacuum," evidence that "social anarchy was never far from the surface here." Such moments verge on the incomprehensible: Kaplan's barren moonscapes are so devoid of redemption, so overflowing with suffering, that they appear as from a different reality.

To be fair, Eastward to Tartary's prognosis is, overall, more reasonable than The Coming Anarchy's, but it displays the same propensity for exaggeration. Kaplan is probably right that the countries he visits--the Caucasus in particular--are a caldron of ethnic hatred and political instability. He may be right, too, that a democratic free-for-all could exacerbate that instability (which is not an argument against democracy but against demagogic practitioners of democracy). But Kaplan is not satisfied with these insights. Donning his soothsayer's mantle, he prophesies Yugoslavia Round Two. "In the Caucasus, tribe and clan--not formal institutions--have always been the key to politics," he argues, apparently resurrecting the "ancient hatreds" that got him into such trouble in Balkan Ghosts. And, in fact, close on the heels of his recycled tribalism come predictions of Bosnia-style implosion. Eastward to Tartary, billed as a sequel to Balkan Ghosts, is overflowing with analogies and references to another war, in another part of the world. Indeed, part of Kaplan's purpose in writing this book is to "introduce Tartary (known today as Central Asia) as a place that has more in common with the Western Balkan countries than with the Oriental images conjured up by its exotic name." Thus, in Jordan, Prince Hassan shares with Kaplan his fears of a "balkanized Middle East with ethnic-sectarian conflict"; in Georgia, Kaplan hypothesizes that "the West would have to prove as muscular...as in the Balkans if it chose to keep these states alive"; and the Caucasus in general, for which Kaplan reserves his most ominous warnings, is destined to slide into chaos, abandoned and ignored by the West, "the Balkans of the future."

This is too dire, and sits uncomfortably with some of Kaplan's own observations. Although he pays less attention to it than might be expected, Kaplan discusses what the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, referring to the nineteenth-century quest for empire in Central Asia known as "the great game," has called "the new great game" of pipeline politics. In Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, Kaplan discovers the scramble for oil wealth that has transformed what would no doubt be another neglected corner of the world into a game of "geostrategic poker." At times, discussing this game of stakes, Kaplan seems to backtrack on his grim predictions that the West will abandon Central Asia to its fate. But the clouds never lift completely, and he is soon back on song, remarking skeptically that "remaking this part of the world...would take both the resolve of a missionary and a sheer appetite for power that the West could probably never muster." This is a curious--not to mention naïve--position for someone so wedded to the belief that states act in their self-interest. Surely the lesson of the Gulf War is that the West is quite prepared to go to battle over oil? Bosnia is a poor prism for this part of the world. Despite all the pieties about the West's fundamental interests--motivated in no small part by memories of Sarajevo's ignition of World War I and a questionable faith in the cyclical nature of history--the greatest threat posed by the implosion of Yugoslavia to its powerful neighbors was never more than a wave of refugees (and a certain aesthetic discomfort). There was no oil to defend in Bosnia; as David Rieff and Michael Ignatieff, among others, have consistently argued, the case for intervention was always based on an idealistic commitment to the alleviation of misery, and that commitment--as evidenced by Boutros Boutros-Ghali's infamous assertion to the citizens of Sarajevo that he could list at least ten places in the world worse off than they were--never ranked very high in Western priorities.

So why, despite his own apparent misgivings, is Kaplan so stubbornly attached to his trope of the Balkans? Ego may have something to do with it, as may, ironically, a certain sentimentalism. Tucked between the lines of his hard-nosed realism, Kaplan often displays a certain missionary zeal to save the miserable societies he visits. "Travel writing is only a vehicle to do something else," he has said. But a vehicle for what? Read enough of Kaplan and you start thinking that he protests too much--that all the sound and fury could well be partly an attempt to frighten the West into action. Perhaps this explains the poignant sense of loss, the almost elegiac quality, that sometimes infuses his descriptions of political and social breakdown. In Turkmenistan, in a vacant lot "filled with rusty metal and the omnipresent smell of oil," Kaplan meets his friend Anna, part Armenian, part Azeri Turk. Anna admires a rose; Kaplan reflects that, in this dismal landscape, "you must learn to extract pleasure from small things." Anna tells him--"in anguish"--about the loss of her cosmopolitan world and the rise of ethnic politics that has followed the Soviet Union's collapse. Kaplan sums it up in a line: "An empire had collapsed," he writes, "and all that remained were blood loyalties."

It's an evocative and perhaps even profound sentence--but it also suggests what seems to be the real reason for Kaplan's attachment to Bosnia. His repeated invocations of collapsing empires and orphaned states are indications of his lingering fascination with the death of what the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski has called the Soviet "imperium." Kaplan is a man of his times: He sees the world as a chessboard of competing empires, and his sepulchral vision is filtered through the lens of that era's paradigmatic political disasters. "What Vietnam was to the 1960s and 1970s, what Lebanon and Afghanistan were to the 1980s, and what the Balkans were to the 1990s, the Caspian region might be to the first decade of the new century," he writes. This is formulaic and, eleven years after the collapse of the Berlin wall, anachronistic. The world has moved on, new political forces are emerging--forces that Kaplan, ever with one eye on History, overlooks.

There is an important piece of the puzzle missing in Kaplan's descriptions of Islamic revivalism and Central Asian ferment. Although it does contain a few cameo appearances, Eastward to Tartary has surprisingly little to say about the clerical warriors of the Taliban, whose revolution in Afghanistan is sending tremors across South and Central Asia and reshaping the area Kaplan explores. As Ahmed Rashid argues in Taliban, his excellent insider's account of the continental upheaval, Afghanistan has "held Central Asia in a tight embrace for centuries," and now the rise of Taliban-sponsored fundamentalism is "sending shock waves" throughout the region. Kaplan encounters the pan-Islamic sentiments sweeping the region, but he hardly mentions the movement from which those sentiments are drawing inspiration, and in many cases material support. He describes some of the strange bedfellows emerging in Central Asia, but he only scratches the surface of the geopolitical transformations. From Russia (struggling with Islamic rebellion in Chechnya) to India (bearing the brunt of Taliban-trained militancy in Kashmir) to Shiite Iran (determined to limit the influence of the Taliban's Sunni revolution) to the United States (which has already sent its missiles in search of Afghanistan-sheltered Osama bin Laden), the world's powers are suddenly finding that they have a stake in Central Asia. Russia, which recently bullied its former Central Asian colonies into a security alliance to combat Islamic terrorism, just signed a similar agreement with India. The United States, too, has signed a counterterrorism memorandum with India, and--as Rashid recently told me--it has been conducting talks with Iran on a common strategy to handle the Taliban. China (with a nervous eye on its separatist Muslim province of Xinjiang), Pakistan and the Arab monarchies (confronted with a genie they unleashed but can no longer control), and even Indonesia and Malaysia (where the economic crisis has led to a resurgence of Islamic sentiment) are being drawn into a complex and treacherous struggle for influence in South and Central Asia.

None of this suggests that the region will be spared the mayhem envisioned by Kaplan--in fact, the mosaic of outside interests may only make matters worse. But it does suggest that far from being an orphaned corner of the post-Communist world--another Bosnia--Central Asia is emerging as the fault line in a new ideological conflict. Kaplan's view of the impending chaos is resolutely local: In his version of the post-Soviet vacuum, there is no room for such transnational alliances and interests, only for primeval ethnic and tribal ties, countries tearing themselves apart from within. Indeed, in a recent article on Pakistan, Kaplan discounts the role of the Taliban in South Asian instability, blaming instead the "bewildering complexity of ethnic and religious divisions" in Pakistan. In the process, he ignores the extent to which those divisions are being exacerbated by the fundamentalist influence of the Taliban.

Given his penchant for grand narratives, it's a little strange that Kaplan misses the larger picture, the broad canvas upon which the events he describes are unfolding. But that's the danger of serving history too faithfully. In Georgia, a man named Alexander Rondeli warns Kaplan about this. "All of us," he says, speaking of the stubbornness of ethnic animosity, "have this heavy weight from the past attached to our legs. We can only move forward while looking back." Kaplan is like Rondeli: Standing at ground zero of an emerging geopolitical order, he remains haunted by his Balkan ghosts, predicting the future while staring at the past.

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