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imperialism & war

Collapse of Empires and Iraq

West Asia (the Middle East) is often stable for long periods of time, but only when it is united under one or two great empires. Whenever West Asia breaks up into smaller countries (the way it is right now), there is a lot of fighting. West Asian peace and stability can therefore probably only be achieved by letting them unite into one empire again. The United States is not inclined to allow that, though, because an Arab union would create another superpower that might someday fight us. The United States prefers small, unstable countries. So the United States is really fighting in Iraq to destabilize the region.
What can history tell us about why this war is going on?

West Asia (the Middle East) is often stable for long periods of time, but only when it is united under one or two great empires. Most of the time for the last five thousand years, West Asia has been united into one or a few big empires: the Akkadians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Neo-Babylonians, the Persians, the Hellenistic kingdoms, the Romans and the Parthians, and then the Sassanians, the Arabs, and most recently the Ottoman Empire. Between them these empires account for 3500 of the last five thousand years, or about three-quarters of the time. Most of them have been centered on Iraq.

Whenever West Asia breaks up into smaller countries (the way it is right now), there is a lot of fighting. Think of the Jews fighting the Canaanites, or the Hyksos invasion of Egypt, or the Epic of Gilgamesh. West Asian peace and stability can therefore probably only be achieved by letting them unite into one empire again. That's just what Iran and Iraq were trying to do by fighting each other in the 1980's. And it's what Saddam Hussein has been trying to do, beginning by recapturing Kuwait. The United States is not inclined to allow that, though, because an Arab union would create another superpower that might someday fight us. The United States prefers small, unstable countries to one big powerful country. Thus the United States is really fighting in Iraq to destabilize the region, rather than to stabilize it. (It makes you think about Europe in World War I: was the United States really doing Europe a favor by keeping European countries small and decentralized? Now Europe is centralized under the European Union, with Germany the strongest part of it, and Europe is more powerful and independent and stable than it has been in a long time.)

You could say that the United States is trying to preserve freedom for each of the local groups who might otherwise be forced into an Islamic empire, like Kuwait, Pakistan, Syria or Jordan. But in the past, and in the present, the United States is not interested in local freedom. At home, within the last hundred and fifty years the United States was not interested in local freedom for Texas, or for the southern states of the Confederacy, or for California or Hawaii or New Mexico or Arizona, all of which fought being taken into the Union. The United States likes small weak countries for other people and big empires for itself. And right now, the United States is not interested in local freedom for the Kurds, or for the Shiites or Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq who would prefer to be free of Sunni rule from the north.

In another way of looking at it, this whole crisis is actually the result of the collapse of an empire that was until recently helping to maintain stability in West Asia and around the world: that is, the Soviet Union. While the Soviet Union was powerful, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union could interfere very much with other countries, without the other one stepping in. They called it the balance of power. In the ten years since the Soviet Empire collapsed, the United States has been free to do whatever it wants in the world, and recently it has been taking more and more advantage of the fact.

If the United States did not intervene in other countries, then, and just stayed home, we could expect new empires to spring up here and there. The European Union would get stronger. An Islamic Empire would probably form pretty soon (and wipe out Israel). China would expand its empire and take over Taiwan, and perhaps Korea and Japan and Vietnam and Cambodia. Instead of being the only superpower, the United States would find itself one of four superpowers. No wonder there are people anxious to make sure that doesn't happen!

But being in a large empire is usually good for ordinary people. People in empires eat better food, get better medical care and better educations, have access to better things to buy at cheaper prices, and can allocate water more fairly. They are much less likely to be attacked or killed. So as long as United States policy is to prevent the formation of any empires but our own, no wonder people in other countries will be angry about it!

address: address: c/o Dept. of History Portland State University Portland Oregon