How Empires Happen

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"How Empires Happen"

One point that I think it’s sometimes easy to overlook is the extent to which a policy of imperialism somewhere or other is compatible with that country remaining nominally sovereign in many respects. You probably know, for example, that Vietnam used to be a French colony. You may not, however, realize what a glance at yesterday’s edition of Robert Farley’s “Deposed Monarch Blogging” will tell you, namely that Vietnam was technically under the control of the Nguyen dynasty whose scion Nguyen Phuc Anh was embroiled in conflict with Tay Son peasant rebellions when he “asked for and received support from France, which helped him unify Vietnam in 1802.” Over the course of the nineteenth century the dependence of the Nguyen regime on French support led to a situation where “by the 20th century, the monarch was seen as little more than a French puppet” but the last emperor didn’t actually abdicate the post until 1945 and even then the French tried to have him installed as Head of State in South Vietnam.

Similarly, the United States effectively controlled Cuban affairs through the Platt Amendment and Dominican affairs through the US-Dominican Treaty for Assistance in Governing. An important part of the psychology of the Middle East is that the monarchies in the region are all successors to Vietnam-style arrangements where noble families secured control of their patches of land thanks to military assistance from Western powers who then allowed the Sauds, Sabahs, Husseins, etc. to sub-contract as local monarchs and the continuing pro-American orientation of those regimes combined with American support for the regimes can be understood as the United States simply taking the place of the British Empire. Along the same lines, Nasser rose to power in Egypt after participating in a coup that deposed a similarly situated monarch, and the decision of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak to make peace with Israel, accept US foreign aid, and adopt a generally America-friendly foreign policy is open to criticism as moving backwards from the anti-colonial tradition of Nasser.

Needless to say, few Americans see things this way, but Americans aren’t well-known for our deep understanding of the history of foreign countries. But once you understand this view of the region’s history, you can see that from this context the idea of the United States coming in to overthrow Iraq’s Baath regime (another country that, like Egypt, once had a semi-colonial monarchy before it was replaced with an anti-colonial dictatorship) and install a new one more sympathetic to American foreign policy goals in the name of democracy wasn’t going to have much credibility.

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