Tuesday, October 20, 2009

American Raj by Eric Margolis

This was a great book to have read but was not quite itself a great book. My peculiar statement derives from the fact that I found the book very informative and accessible but there were no references, some of the writing was poor and there were several typos.
Margolis, who has been bouncing around the Middle East in one way or another for over 20 years, argues that Americans are attempting to follow in the footsteps of the British Raj when they were the dominant empire, but the Americans are focussed on the Middle East. The book is great because Margolis provides about 30 pages each on the Palestinian issue, Osama bin Laden, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Lebanon and about 15-20 pages on Chechnya and the Balkans. These primers wonderfully provide some historical perspective, a brief analysis of who the players are and why they hate each other, and what might result in future struggles. Considering there was genocide in Chechnya and I previously wouldn’t have been able to find it on a map, the book was useful in that regard if no other. But, let me not be too dismissive, the book was very useful in that it helped me understand antagonism towards the West (much was review) and American Raj also ends with prescriptions for resolution (or making the best out of a bad situation) for the issues of the Occupied territories, Iraq, Afghanistan and Western and Middle Eastern hostility towards one another.
Key message: Many Muslims do hate the West (but not entirely as the situation is pretty grey when the most loathed country is also the one people want to move to), but it is more that they hate their governments who mistreat them.
I also finally encoded the basic difference between Shia and Sunni (who make up 85% of Muslims) – the former follow imams while the latter believe there shouldn’t be an intermediary between the believer and God.
American Raj usefully reminded me of how events are linked and how backlash and blowback could almost be predicted. For example, in the early 1950s, Iran was going to nationalize its oil industry but the Brits didn’t like this. In conjunction with the US and others, they overthrew the government and put the Shah in place. Eventually, in 1979, there was a revolution as the people disliked this and then the Ayatollah was the main power player. The US didn’t like this so, during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) the supplied Iraq with intelligence that helped them fight the Iranians. During this tumultuous period, the US convinced the Saudis that it would be useful to have a US military presence in Saudi Arabia to protect the oil (for both the Saudis and the US), so they put 5,000 troops there. Osama bin Laden, who was well respected for rejecting the lavish lifestyle of his family and fighting against Muslim oppression by the communists, would later say that the US presence in Saudi Arabia was one of the reasons for 9-11. (Additionally, supposedly, Osama bin Laden only claimed credit for Al-Queda in 2004, if at all, although he did applaud the attack.
Osama bin Laden also said that one cannot defeat America militarily, but you can attack their economy. The key would be to engage the Americans in a series of protracted wars that would harm their economy… it’s like Cheney et al. were following his playbook.

As you can see, things are very interesting but complicated. This book (plus another I just started on Afghanistan) has made me definitely think that the war will never be won. The Russians had 2-6 times as many troops (including Afghan recruits) and they did not succeed. They did bleed themselves dry while they killed 1-2 million Afghans. To think that this war ravaged country was losing 100,000 fighters a year and in the end they outlasted them. Do we really think they won’t just wait us out?
And yet Afghans suffer, so what is to be done? It does seem like the militarization of engagement should end or be diminished as much as possible that still allows humanitarian work and there should be a negotiated settlement, which would include the Taliban. I'm still exploring, but that seems to be best option in this mess which costs the Canadian taxpayer $2,700,000 a day.


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