- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2003

The Dust of Empire

Karl Ernest Meyer

PublicAffairs, 252 pages

Karl Meyer has followed up his “Tournament of Shadows,” a book that explored the Great Game — a term he now eschews — played between England and Russia in the 19th century. The Russians were intent on expanding their empire eastward to the Pacific and beyond, and the British were equally intent on protecting India.

They both succeeded in their time, although the Russian empire is much diminished and Britain’s vanished. In “The Dust of Empire,” the author picks up a number of themes, the largest one being the fate of empires, suggesting that Americans might well pay heed to their rise, decline and fall.

The rest of the book, however, is something different. Mr. Meyer, a seasoned journalist turned academic who has an eye for exotic detail, offers opinions on various matters, like the reason Wakhan corridor, the finger of Afghan territory that joins China, was created. It was formed, he writes, so that Russia and British India would never touch. (Later the corridor would come in handy as a funnel for Chinese arms to Afghanistan’santi-Soviet rebels.)

As such, “The Dust of Empire” serves as an introduction to the vast Eurasian heartland. There is a particularly good chapter on Pakistan, which dwells in detail on the breakup of the subcontinent. In part, the author also rescues the reputation of Pakistan’s founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah but has fewer good things to say about Mohandas Gandhi, and even fewer about his much-acclaimed film biography for which, of course, Gandhi bears no responsibility.

According to Mr. Meyer, the real villains of the piece were the British and Earl Mountbatten of Burma, who divided India from Pakistan and then left as soon as possible, to the advantage of India. Ali Jinnah may have been arguing for a separate country so Islam could survive protected by a nation-state, but he was no fundamentalist. Gandhi was no Hindu nationalist either — indeed, one who believed India’s liberator was too secular assassinated him.

Does any of this matter? Of course it does. Britain’s imperial glory may have faded, but the United States, for one, is left with the legacy of two nuclear armed nations that are at deep odds over insoluble problems like Kashmir — another legacy of the subcontinent’s careless partition 56 years ago.

The core of the book is Mr. Meyer’s chapters on the Caucasus and the five Central Asian -stans that became independent after the sudden collapse (as George Kennan predicted in his long-ago Foreign Affairs article) of the Soviet Union. The Caucasus is vividly described as a Babel of languages, ethnic groups and hatred that make the old Yugoslavia seem like Asbury Park on a Sunday afternoon.

Russia’s century-old drive into the region that embraced both tsarist and Bolshevik Russia only added to the general misery. Moreover, the author notes that Moscow’s tactics of clearing the oak forests of Chechnya in the 19th century make America’s defoliation of Vietnam look tame by comparison.

The balance of this survey is devoted to Central Asia, once obscure and thus romantic. The five ex-Soviet republics, however, are as different as they are alike and present varying challenges to American policymakers.

Kazakhstan, the largest, is a central concern of the United States since the Soviet demise. First,Kazakhstan,like Ukraine, counts. Without them, Joseph Stalin’s empire cannot be revived. Second, this vast Central Asian republic was only recently a nuclear power persuaded, at great expense, by the first Bush administration to disarm unilaterally. Finally, Kazakhstan is likely to be the repository of a vast reservoir of oil that both Washington and Moscow would like to get their hands on.

As for the others, a good deal less can be said about them. Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country that boasts a more or less free market and a president, Askar Akayev, who is not a former Soviet apparatchik. But Kyrgyzstan is no Turkmenistan, whose ruler, apparently, for life Saparmurad Niyazov has created a bizarre cult of personality rule that rivals North Korea’s Kim Jong-il’s. Tajikistan’s problem is the opposite: It has been wracked by civil war and remains one of the poorest nations on earth. To top it off, it provides haven to a large assortment of drug traffickers.

And on it goes. Out of this unlikely material, the United States is hoping some of these Central Asian states will be allies in our war against terrorism. Karl Meyer rightly warns us of the consequences of good intentions.

Roger Fontaine was a member of the National Security Council staff during the first Reagan administration.

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