Journalist Robert D. Kaplan thinks that what is wrong with the Middle East is a lack of imperialism, and he urges that it be brought back. It is how, he says, most of the world has been ruled by “default.” This argument is so ahistorical and wrong-headed that it takes the breath away.
First of all, “imperialism” is an imprecise term. Kaplan is trying to sweep up different kinds of empire under one rubric. Until the early twentieth century, most people in the Middle East admittedly accepted the Ottoman Empire, which was Muslim-ruled and made minimal economic demands on them while offering minimal governance. But it was precisely at that point when the Ottomans began building railroads to deliver garrisons to the provinces and introducing modern, more intrusive bureaucracy that they began facing opposition from local elites like the Hashemite rulers of Mecca in the Hejaz. The rise of nationalism was also fatal to empire, whether Ottoman or any other sort.
Capitalist economic imperialism of the European sort is a new phenomenon in world history, and proved far less welcome in the Middle East than the decentralized Ottoman methods of governance. The European empires in Asia and Africa were not into it for their subjects’ health. Historians estimate that in the early nineteenth century, the colonized territories provided 15 percent of the metropole’s income, a margin that may well have helped technological and economic advances in Europe. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, East Indies (Indonesian) rubber and petroleum provided as much as 25 percent of the Netherlands’ gross national product. That is to say, the Dutch stole billions of dollars from the Indonesians. European imperialism was brutal. European overlords worked plantation laborers to death. Since the foreigners were not liked, it was necessary occasionally to massacre the locals. The German army practiced with machine guns on primitively armed Namibian tribes as a prelude to the slaughter of World War I in Europe itself. Imperial archivists usually destroyed the documents that witnessed the viciousness and genocidal character of European economic imperialism.
The Middle East east of the Suez was not ruled by European capitalist imperialism for any substantial length of time, and locals kicked the imperialists out after World War II where they had not already done so before. Britain only had Iraq from 1917 until 1932; it never really controlled the country, which mounted constant uprisings that the British Royal Air Force was tasked with putting down by aerial bombardment. Bombing raids could temporarily scatter pastoral nomads or even villagers, but it could not make them submit. Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris planned these raids; he was later involved in the firebombing of Germany during World War II. British air force officers were afraid in the 1920s that the British public would find out how Iraq was actually being dominated, and that there would be a wave of revulsion. By 1932 the British were happy enough to let Iraq go, only a decade and a half after they used British Indian troops to take it from the Ottomans. The Italians in Libya and the French in Syria lasted a bit longer, but they demonstrated the same ruthlessness and lack of interest in developing the local population. European colonialism in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq left behind almost no schools or factories.