Karl Meyer’s excellent book can be read on two levels. Central Asia for many people is a place of both mystery and attraction. Meyer aptly quotes James Elroy Flecker’s lines, “For lust of knowing what should not be known, / We take the Golden Road to Samarkand,” which epitomize this attitude. (Flecker’s play Hassan, from which this comes, is largely forgotten today, but the great Shakespeare critic G. Wilson Knight thought highly of it.)

To those entranced by Central Asia, Meyer offers an abundance of material. Drawing from his thorough familiarity with the history of Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and the Caucasus, he is ever alert for the significant anecdote. One example must here suffice. In 1853, Hadji Murad, the principal lieutenant of Imam Shamil’s guerilla war in the Caucasus against Tsarist Russia, surrendered to the Russian governor, Prince Vorontsov. He offered to change sides and lead a force against his former allies. The Russians left him in suspense; when he realized that they had no intention of accepting his offer, he bolted. He was soon tracked down and killed. Meyer notes that Tolstoy wrote a short story about the incident, but “tactfully unmentioned was the epilogue: Hadji Murad’s corpse was decapitated and his head embalmed, exhibited in a Tbilisi galley by Vorontsov and sent along as a memento mori to the tsar.”

Meyer has given us much more than a collection of gripping stories. He writes to warn America against the dangerous path she appears to be following. Our unprecedented military and economic power allows us to “throw our weight around” in the classic fashion of the great 19th-century empires. Too often we have succumbed to the temptation to do so. Meyer wrote before the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, in defiance of the wishes of nearly every nation in the world, but this exercise of the arrogance of power is a perfect example of what he has in mind.

Our author is among those optimists who think that we can learn from history. By study of imperialist ventures in Central Asia, he hopes, America can escape falling into a fatal error. “In a real sense, America now sits where Britain did in the 1890s, only the old empire is squared. … The thesis of this book is that the moral and diplomatic dilemmas confronting Washington today differ in degree but not in kind from those that confronted Britain before World War I. In truth, Americans are if anything even more certain that their institutions are the envy and exemplar of less fortunate breeds, and that most of the world’s peoples would happily change places with them. Hence the special shock of September 11.”

The confident assertions of Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol et hoc genus omne that the United States can cram American-style democracy down the throats of various foreign regimes exactly parallel remarks of British statesmen that now strike us as more than a little ridiculous. Lord Curzon called the British Empire “under Providence, the greatest instrument for good the world has seen.” Lord Rosebury, a Liberal Prime Minister could not contain himself. Speaking of the Empire, he asked, “Do we not hail in this less the energy and fortune of a race than the supreme direction of the Almighty?”

Meyer has wisely drawn much of his material on this topic from the great work of the Harvard historian William L. Langer, The Diplomacy of Imperialism, 1890-1902. When the book first appeared in 1935, Langer was a leading light among the revisionist historians who questioned America’s participation in World War I. He wished to expose the follies of European power politics and imperialism.

Boasting of the sort to which Meyer has called attention, whether by British or American statesmen, may be foolish; but is it also a crime? Meyer argues that the assumption of superiority leads to action based on ignorance. Those who think themselves above all others are unlikely to pay attention to the essential facts needed to deal with other countries.

Meyer has a definite view about the nature of these essential facts. He thinks that, in Central Asia at any rate, long-established local traditions rigidly constrain action by the great powers. A policy that ignores local history courts disaster. “Strip away the ideological verbiage and au fond one can detect a striking kinship between Lenin’s heirs and the British colossi of empire they otherwise excoriated. … All sought to justify alien rule morally by pointing at improvements in the lives of natives. … Unresolved was the dilemma of what to do when the goals of Russification and modernization conflicted, as they did time and again, with native beliefs and stubborn ethnicity.”

Unfortunately, according to Meyer, the United States has often acted in precisely the condescending, ignorant fashion that has characterized earlier imperialisms. Meyer places great stress on the overthrow of the Mossadeq regime in Iran in 1953. Mossadeq, our author holds, was a liberal nationalist, favorably inclined to the United States. When he dared to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the CIA instigated a coup against him. America charged that Mossadeq was a tool of communism, but in fact the Iranian Communists opposed him. The unpopular Shah returned to power, under American sponsorship. But the attempt of the United States to impose its will culminated in the rise to power of the bitterly anti-American Ayatollah Khomeini.

Much depends on whether Meyer’s account of Mossadeq is correct, and I should have liked a more detailed account of the accusations against him of communist sympathies. One detail that Meyer does not mention, though, strikes me as lending some support to his account. Robin Zaehner, an Oxford don who, Meyer notes, planned much of the anti-Mossadeq agitation, was himself later suspected by British Intelligence of being a communist agent. Like the enigmatic Roger Hollis, though, he never confessed. (Incidentally, Zaehner’s Concordant Discord is one of the neglected masterworks of the 20th century.)

Meyer’s view of Mossadeq is controversial, though based on careful scholarship and analysis; but his criticism of American policy in Afghanistan rests on obvious facts. In an effort to unhinge the Soviets, the United States gave military aid to radical Islamic groups. In doing so, the American government has turned out to be among the principal sponsors of the terrorist organizations that so vex us today.

The policy of the United States in this instance perfectly fits the pattern that Meyer has called to our attention. Zbigniew Brzezinski and his colleagues in the Carter administration decided to channel all aid to the Afghan resistance through the government of Pakistan. “As soon became evident President [of Pakistan] Zia’s military intelligence service had its own agenda … once a friendly fundamentalist regime took root in Afghanistan the sword of Islam could be directed at Soviet Central Asia. … The prime beneficiary of American aid among the seven resistance groups based in Peshawar was the faction led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Islamic extremist belonging to a new cohort, modern in knowledge, medieval in faith, known generically as the ‘bearded engineer.’”

Blinded by their ideological preoccupations, the American policymakers neglected to study the forces that they provided with aid. Brzezinski himself, amazingly, continues to defend his assistance to the Islamic extremists. “For his part, and with enviable sangfroid, Brzezinski proffered this response to a French political weekly when asked if he regretted favoring extremist Muslims or training future terrorists: ‘What was more important in world history? The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet empire? A few over-excited Islamists, or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?’”

The argument Brzezinski here deploys may be viewed as a direct response to Meyer’s central contention. Even if I did not study the history of Central Asia, we may paraphrase him as saying, this does not matter. The results I achieved outweigh whatever bad effects you attribute to my ignorance. And perhaps I was not ignorant at all. I willingly took the risk of encouraging Islamic fanatics in order to bring down communism.

Does not this defense display that very arrogance Meyer is concerned to combat? Brzezinski concentrates only on the goal that interests him, resistance to Russia’s armed forces. Even after the disastrous results of aid to the Islamic extremists are everywhere apparent, he never thinks to ask whether the aid could have been distributed more carefully. Surely the policy that Meyer recommends, one of moderation, careful study, and action in conjunction with other nations, is likely to lead to better results than the bellicosity of Brzezinski and his successors in the Bush administration. Better still would be a return to a noninterventionist foreign policy, but that is another story.  

David Gordon is a Senior Fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and editor of The Mises Review.