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Thursday, May 12, 2011

Imperial Burlesque and Our Great Game in Pakistan

If I were President of the United States, I would have declared victory that Sunday just after midnight and called for an immediate end to the war in Afghanistan the day after Osama bin Laden's death at the hands of Navy SEALs was announced. Afghanistan is not called "The Graveyard of Empires" for naught. It is, eerily, the planetary zone where imperial ambitions literally excede their reach. From Milton Beardon's famous essay from November/December 2001's Foreign Policy:
"Michni Point, Pakistan's last outpost at the western end of the barren, winding Khyber Pass, stands sentinel over Torkham Gate, the deceptively orderly border crossing into Afghanistan. Frontier Scouts in gray shalwar kameezes (traditional tunics and loose pants) and black berets patrol the lonely station commanded by a major of the legendary Khyber Rifles, the militia force that has been guarding the border with Afghanistan since the nineteenth century, first for British India and then for Pakistan. This spot, perhaps more than any other, has witnessed the traverse of the world's great armies on campaigns of conquest to and from South and Central Asia. All eventually ran into trouble in their encounters with the unruly Afghan tribals.

Alexander the Great sent his supply trains through the Khyber, then skirted northward with his army to the Konar Valley on his campaign in 327 bc. There he ran into fierce resistance and, struck by an Afghan archer's arrow, barely made it to the Indus River with his life. Genghis Khan and the great Mughal emperors began passing through the Khyber a millennium later and ultimately established the greatest of empires -- but only after reaching painful accommodations with the Afghans. From Michni Point, a trained eye can still see the ruins of the Mughal signal towers used to relay complex torch-light messages 1,500 miles from Calcutta to Bukhara in less than an hour.

In the nineteenth century the Khyber became the fulcrum of the Great Game, the contest between the United Kingdom and Russia for control of Central Asia and India.

So much for learning from the past. Then again, there is something of an unconscious repetition, of an Eternal Recurrence, in the behavior of Empires when placed alongside one another historically in their final exhausted stage. All overextended Empires are more of less similar, to paraphrase Tolstoy. Energy instability and debt and irrational exuberance are three of the prime common themes that recur in matters of the decline of nations. From Gore Vidal's essay The Day the American Empire Ran Out of Gas:
 After the French Revolution, the world money power shifted from Paris to London. For three generations, the British maintained an old-fashioned colonial empire, as well as a modern empire based on London's supremacy in the money markets. Then, in 1914, New York replaced London as the world's financial capital. Before 1914, the United States had been a developing country, dependent on outside investment. But with the shift of the money power from Old World to New, what had been a debtor nation became a creditor nation and the central motor to the world's economy. All in all, the English were well pleased to have us take their place. They were too few in number for so big a task. As early as the turn of the century, they were eager for us not only to help them out financially, but to continue, on their behalf, the destiny of the Anglo-Saxon race: to bear with courage the white man's burden, as Rudyard Kipling not so tactfully put it. Were we not - English and Americans - all Anglo-Saxons, united by common blood, laws, language? Well, no, we were not. But our differences were not so apparent then. In any case, we took the job. We would supervise and civilize the lesser breeds. We would make money.

Except, of course, when we can not. From Niall Ferguson's Niarchos Lecture:
"Many of the great debt crises of the 19th and 20th centuries were crises caused when foreign investors took fright at unsustainable policies, and that’s been a really important part of the story in Europe. Italy is much less vulnerable than Greece in this respect because most Italian debt, like most Japanese debt, is held by natives; it’s not actually held by foreigners. But the Greek position was really quite extreme where a huge proportion of Greek debt was held overseas. And in the United States, the situation at the moment is about half the federal debt is in foreign hands, including, of course, a very substantial chunk in the hands of the People’s Republic of China.

"Let’s dig a bit deeper: What really causes these crises? Well, part of the cause is economic weakness. When your economy grows slowly or when the returns on private sector investment are low, then you’re much more likely to get in the debt trap; low growth can breed large deficits because tax revenues disappoint. And of course if the GDP doesn’t grow as fast and the debt does, then very quickly you find yourself in trouble. Milton Friedman famously says, and we have at least one of his pupils in the room, that inflation was always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. I want to suggest to you that public debt crises are always and everywhere a political phenomenon.

"They’re consequences of political weakness. Excessive expenditure and insufficient taxation, failures to make decisions about unsustainable fiscal policies are political; they are not the results of profound economic processes.

"Finally, we need to remember, to invoke a previous lecturer in this series, irrational exuberance. Investors keep forgetting to learn from history, no matter how hard I try to teach it."

The financial crisis presently affecting the West has a lot to do with the thumotic excess -- irrational exuberance -- that comes, at least initially, from global Empire. Nations veer towards becoming abstract concepts approximating infinity when they become Empires. From Margaret Atwood in the New York Times writes about increasing abstraction in that relationship in the run-up to the crisis:
"Debt — who owes what to whom, or to what, and how that debt gets paid — is a subject much larger than money. It has to do with our basic sense of fairness, a sense that is embedded in all of our exchanges with our fellow human beings.

But at some point we stopped seeing debt as a simple personal relationship. The human factor became diminished. Maybe it had something to do with the sheer volume of transactions that computers have enabled. But what we seem to have forgotten is that the debtor is only one twin in a joined-at-the-hip pair, the other twin being the creditor. The whole edifice rests on a few fundamental principles that are inherent in us.

We are social creatures who must interact for mutual benefit, and — the negative version — who harbor grudges when we feel we’ve been treated unfairly. Without a sense of fairness and also a level of trust, without a system of reciprocal altruism and tit-for-tat — one good turn deserves another, and so does one bad turn — no one would ever lend anything, as there would be no expectation of being paid back. And people would lie, cheat and steal with abandon, as there would be no punishments for such behavior.

Empire, Debt and excess

There is in the thumotic excess of Empire the hyper-aggresive impulse to impose the character of a nation upon the planet -- "Greekness" in the case of the Athenian Empire, "The Roman Way" with the Roman Empire and the "Americanness" of the neoconservatives. But the world doesn't work that way. When individuals approximate infitity, we call them mad. The same thing goes for idealists seeking to impose their particular, organic ways upon the entire planet. History is littered with such idealist nations that run up massive debt in such foolish ways. Indebtedness, you might say, is to Empires what madness is to individuals.

The Horror Genre and Debt

From the madness of national indebtedness comes the metaphor of horror. And financial crises borrow from the metaphors of horror ("zombie bank" anyone?). It is a strange reciprocal relationship. Just as the irrational exuberance run-up to financial crisis is a hothouse for testosteronal action flicks, eras of great crisis become hothouses for the development of horror films, the representation of the reality of a crisis. The Exorcist -- arguably the second best horror film ever -- was incubated in the era of Watergate, during a period of great national stress. One could make the argument that that entire film was, in fact, an amazingly successful collective exorcism. The Reagan era -- a time of massive deficits -- was the Golden Age of horror, siring excessive sequels to such franchises as Friday the Thirteenth, the Halloweens and the various nightmares on Elm Street. Steven King and Clive Barker prospered during that time, presenting sanguinary spectacles from out of our collective unconscious. And speaking of horror and indebtedness, it is no accident that Osama bin Laden was obsessed with bankrupting America in ways similar to how the mujahadeen bankrupted the Soviet Empire in Afghanistan.


The countries that border Pakistan -- Iran and China, particularly -- could use some of the headaches of our imperial burden. Geographically speaking -- one of the major focuses of foreign policy realism -- the stability of Pakistan matters more to China than it does to the United States. Islamabad does not border Chicago. But Pakistan shares an eastern border with India and China, whose western region, Xinjiang, also borders Pakistan. Iran makes up Pakistan's south-west border, and Afghanistan runs along its western and northern edge.

One of the best articles I've read in a while is Patrick C. Doherty's fantastic piece for Foreign Policy titled "Dear China: Help Us Fix Pakistan." The unfortunate title however probably guarantees that its ideas will never be implemented at the highest levels of government, there foreign policy is made. Our Empire around the world is too far along in its imperial burlesque to ever ask or even subtly imply that China ever pull its weight. We are too macho. America, even a broke America, refuses to entertain the idea that a wealthy China apply some pressure on the Generals and the ISI in robustly restraining terrorism. Such a move would be perceived as weak, not unlike a guy pulling over and asking for direction when he is clearly lost. Russia also has more skin in the Pakistan game than America with regards to Pakistan. But Russia, unlike China, is actually dealing with the common threat of terrorism that they share -- alleviating an exhausted America of some of the burden.

The window of opportunity for getting out of dodge, alas, may have already come and gone and we may be just another global empire about to involuntarily discover its outer limits limits. I hope not.

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