20 OCTOBER 2001, Page 22


Bring back colonialism, says Mark Steyn.

The hands-off approach never works

New Hampshire BEFORE the White House decided to lean on the networks and get him off air, Osama bin Laden popped up on the TV in my general store in another rerun of his caveman special. Off he went with his usual shtick about 'the tragedy of Andalusia'.

'What's he on about?' asked my friend, Judy.

'It's a reference to the end of Moorish rule in Spain in 1492,' I said.

'That's our fault?' she said. I started to say something about how, as Osama saw it, the roots of Islam's downfall in Andalusia lay in its accommodation with the Christian world and the move towards a pluralistic society, but Judy wasn't in the mood. 'You know why this is a great country?' she said. 'Because none of us have a clue what he's on about.'

This is a common theory. There's a wonderful screed floating around the Internet called 'We're more nuts than you and it should scare you shitless', which works up to a grand assurance to al-Qa'eda that, even after we've killed them, our schoolchildren still won't have a clue who they are, where they're from or what was bugging them in the first place. The clichemongers of the global media like to talk about 'America's loss of innocence', but that innocence is more properly understood as 'ignorance is bliss' — America is where you go to get away from guys hung up on whatever it was that happened in Andalusia in 1492. Pat Buchanan, in his book A Republic Not an Empire, argues that the US has drifted away from its original vision by getting mixed up in all kinds of imperial adventures that are more suited to old-school European powers than to the aloof yeoman republic its founders foresaw.

On the other hand, there are those who think the events of 11 September prove that you can't buck millennia of tradition: a non-imperial superpower is a contradiction in terms, and it's time for America to embrace its fate and start colouring the map red, white and blue. My neighbour Tom, who's painting my house at present and who always carries a copy of the Constitution with him, thinks this is a filthy unAmerican idea. 'You Commonwealth guys,' he says. 'You can't let go of the whole colony thing.' He's right, of course: the founders would be horrified at the idea of the White House appointing chaps in sola topis with ostrich feathers. But, simmering under the talk of immediate war aims in Afghanistan, a republic-versusempire debate is already under way.

Let's start with Osama bin Loser's main beef, about the US military presence near Islam's holiest sites in Saudi Arabia. He's right; it is a humiliation that one of the richest regimes on earth is too incompetent, greedy and decadent to provide its own defence. But it's not America's fault that those layabout Saudi princes, faced with Saddam's troops massing on the border, could think of nothing better to do than turn as white as their robes and frantically dial Washington.

In fact, in so far as the Middle East is the victim of anything other than its own failures, it's not Western imperialism but Western post-imperialism. Unlike Africa, Asia. Australasia and the Americas, Araby has never come under direct European colonial rule. (The Ottoman empire was famously characterised by Tsar Nicholas I as 'the sick man of Europe', which would seem to concede admission to the club, but also suggests that its sickness was at least partly due to its lack of Europeanness.) After the first world war the Ottoman vacuum was filled not with colonies proper but with League of Nations mandates and then 'spheres of influence'. Rather than making Arabia a Crown colony within the empire, sending out Lord Whatnot as governor, issuing banknotes bearing the likeness of George V, setting up courts presided over by judges in full-bottomed wigs, and introducing a professional civil service and a free press, the British instead mulled over which sheikh was likely to prove more pliable, installed him in the capital and invited his sons to Eton and Sandhurst. The French did the same, and so, later, did the Americans.

This was cheaper than colonialism and less politically prickly, but it did a great disservice to the populations of those countries. The alleged mountain of evidence of Yankee culpability is, in fact, evidence only of the Great Satan's deplorable faintheartedness: yes, Washington dealt with Saddam, and helped train the precursors of the Taleban, and fancied Colonel Gaddafi as a better bet than King Idris, just as in the Fifties they bolstered the Shah and then in the Seventies took against him, when Jimmy Carter decided that the Peacock Throne wasn't progressive enough and wound up with the ayatollahs instead. This system of cherrypicking from a barrel-load of unsavoury potential clients was summed up in the old CIA line: 'He may be a sonofabitch but he's our sonofabitch.'

The inverse is more to the point: he may be our sonofabitch, but he's a sonofabitch. Some guys go nuts, some are merely devious and unreliable, some remain charming and pleasant but of little help, but all of them are a bunch of despots utterly sealed off from their peoples. As we now know, it was our so-called 'moderate' Arab 'friends' who provided all the suicide bombers of 11 September, just as it's in their governmentrun media — notably the vile Egyptian press — that some of the worst anti-American rhetoric is to be found. The contemptible regime of President Mubarak permits dissent against the US government but not against its own, licensing the former as a safety-valve to reduce pressure on the latter. This is a classic example of why the sonofabitch system is ultimately useless to the West: the US spends billions subsidising regimes which have a vested interest in encouraging anti-Americanism as a substitute for more locally focused grievances. As a result, the West gets blamed for far more in a part of the world it never colonised than it does in those regions it directly administered for centuries.

The worst example of this is Saudi Arabia, the source of many — if not all — of our present woes. It's remarkable how, for all the surface flim-flam about Afghanistan, Israel, Iraq, Palestine and Pakistan, everything specific about this crisis circles back to Saudi Arabia: some of the suicide bombers were Saudi, Osama is a Saudi, the Taleban were trained in Islamic terror schools in Pakistan funded by the Saudis, etc., etc. American defence of Saudi Arabia gave Osama bin Laden his cause; American investment in Saudi Arabia gave him the money to bankroll it. If we're looking for 'root causes' of this current situation, American support for Israel is a mere distraction next to its creation and maintenance of modern Saudi Arabia.

The Beltway guys may talk about realpolitik, but they're pikers compared with the House of Saud. After all, as this last month has proved, you can be one of only three states with diplomatic relations with the Taleban, you can be militarily unco-operative, you can refuse to freeze Osama's assets, you can decline even to meet with Tony Blair, you can do whatever you like, and Washington will still insist you're a 'staunch friend'.

The joke in all this is that Saudi Arabia as a functioning state is an American invention: in 1933, just a year after founding his kingdom, Ibn Saud signed his first oil contract with the US and eventually gave them a monopoly on leases. Saudi Arabia was the prototype of latter-day hands-off post-imperialism and a shining example of why it's ultimately a waste of time. A century ago, Ibn Saud was a desert warrior of no fixed abode. Today the House of Saud has approximately 7,000 members and produces about 40 new princes a month. Chances are, while you're reading this, some hapless female member of the House of Saud is having contractions, because if there's one thing Saudi Arabia can always use, it's another prince. The family hogs all the cabinet posts, big ambassadorships and key government agencies, and owns all the important corporations: that takes a lot of princes. Public service in Saudi Arabia is an expensive business because salary is commensurate with royal status: cabinet ministers can earn over $6 million (base).

This isn't some quaint ancient culture that the US was forced to go along with, but rather one largely of its own creation. American know-how fuelled Saudi Arabia's rapid transformation from reactionary feudal backwater into the world's most technologically advanced and spectacularly wealthy reactionary feudal backwater. They've still got beheadings every Friday, but the schedule is computerised. As Ibn Saud told Colonel William Eddy, the first US minister to Saudi Arabia in 1946, 'We will use your iron, but you will leave our faith alone.'

It's possible to foresee (admittedly some way down the road) Jordan evolving into a modern constitutional monarchy, but not the decadent, bloated, corrupt House of Saud. It's not a question of if the royal family will fall, but when. Even if they really were the 'good friends' Washington insists they are, their treatment of women, the restrictiveness of the state religion and their ludicrous reliance on government by clan make it impossible for the Saudi monarchy to evolve into anything with a long-term chance of success. By backing and enriching Ibn Saud's swollen progeny, the US has put all its eggs into one basketcase. If Washington wasn't thinking about these things before 11 September, it ought to be now. America may be the engine of the global economy, but Saudi Arabia is the gas tank, producing more oil more easily than anywhere else on earth. No one could seriously argue that Washington's Frankensaud monster is the best way to guarantee long-term access to that oil.

By comparison with the sonofabitch system, colonialism is progressive and enlightened. If, as the bonehead peaceniks parrot, poverty breeds instability, then what's the best way to tackle poverty? The rule of law, a market economy, emancipation of women — all the things you're never going to get under most present Middle East regimes or any of the ones likely to overthrow them. Even in Afghanistan, the savagery of whose menfolk has been much exaggerated by the Left's nervous nellies, such progress as was made in the country came when it fell under the watchful eye of British India, as a kind of informal protectorate. With the fading of British power in the region in the 1950s, King Zahir let his country' fall under the competing baleful influences of Marxism and Islamic fundamentalism.

What will we do this time round? Will we stick Zahir Shah back on his throne to preside over a ramshackle coalition of mutually hostile commies, theocrats and gangsters, and hope the poor old gentleman hangs in there till we've cleared Afghan airspace? Or will we understand that only the West can make his kingdom a functioning state once more? Afghanistan needs not just food parcels, but British courts and Canadian police and Indian civil servants and American town clerks and Australian newspapers. So does much of the rest of the region.

The viability of America's non-imperial strategy was demolished on 11 September. For its own security, it needs to do what it did to Japan and Germany after the war: civilise them. Kipling called it 'the white man's burden' — the 'white man' bit will have to be modified in the age of Colin Powell and Condi Rice, and it's no longer really a 'burden', not in cost-benefit terms. Given the billions of dollars of damage done to the world economy by 11 September, massive engagement in the region will be cheaper than the alternative. If neocolonialism makes you squeamish, give it some wussified Clinto-Blairite name like 'global community outreach'. Tony Blair, to his credit, has already outlined a tenyear British commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan under a kind of UN protectorate. But, given the appalling waste and corruption that attend any UN peacekeeping mission, it would be better to do it directly under a select group of Western powers. We can do it for compassionate reasons (the starving hordes) or for selfish ones (our long-term security), but either way the time has come to turn 'American imperialism' from a cheap leftie slur to a formal ideology.