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New York Times
May 11, 2003
book review
'The Dust of Empire:' After the Great Game

The Race for Mastery in the Asian Heartland.
By Karl E. Meyer.
Illustrated. 252 pp. New York: A Century Foundation Book/PublicAffairs. $26.

For other people, the imperious and imperial George Nathaniel Curzon said, Afghanistan, Turkestan, Persia and the other names of Central Asia might breathe only a sense of remoteness and ''moribund romance''; but ''to me, I confess, they are pieces on a chessboard upon which is being played out a game for dominion of the world.'' So they were, when the great British proconsul wrote that in 1892; so they still are, and Karl E. Meyer's new book is not only readable and well informed but timely to an almost painful degree.

A veteran journalist and scholar -- who has been a Washington Post correspondent, an editorial writer for The New York Times and the author of several admired books -- Meyer takes as his subject one of the most troubled and dangerous quarters of the globe, albeit ''an area of the world little known to most Americans: the great swath from the Caucasus to the borders of China that forms the Asian heartland.'' He moves deftly from one square on this chessboard to another: Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia and its former satrapies in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

If these lands are now part of ''the dust of empire'' (Meyer borrows his title from a remark by de Gaulle), it's because this is where great imperial powers, England and Russia, collided as they grew and then withdrew, leaving the detritus behind. In some ways the Russian empire, czarist then Soviet, was the most surprising. Meyer sees the rise of Russia as not only unpredictable but even inexplicable, although he gives an oblique answer to the old questions of whether Russia is inherently expansionist, and whether its growth was aggressive or defensive, in a nice phrase: ''Expansion has been Russia's equivalent of a missile shield.''

Although we have learned the hard way, as he says, that nations are not born but made, only one of all the states he deals with is pure manufactured goods, or at best, Pakistan is a case of ''invented tradition.'' Meyer is very good on its creation, and on the thorny subject of the partition of the old Raj in 1947. He subscribes to the fashionable view that imperial rulers, as well as their diverse subjects, have ''a misbegotten faith in partition,'' and he also unarguably says that the hasty and shabby British departure made a bad outcome worse, just as it's beyond argument that Pakistan has failed as a state. But Meyer shows his fair-mindedness by rejecting the equally fashionable view (reinforced by that lamentable film ''Gandhi'') that Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League were the only culprits. The real villain was Lord Mountbatten, in collusion with Jawaharlal Nehru; Jinnah was nearly blameless by comparison.

In the ''great game'' of the late 19th century, Russia and Britain met and blocked each other in Tibet, Afghanistan and Persia (as Iran was called until the last century). The first two were never conquered, and Afghanistan taught both British and Russians bloody lessons. Persia wasn't formally colonized either, but in 1907 the splendidly cynical Anglo-Russian Convention carved it into spheres of influence, which was particularly humiliating for the Persians just at the moment when something like constitutional government was emerging. Then in 1941 the British and Russians, now allies again, took over the country (later providing one of the most important supply routes of the war, through which American trucks reached Russia and made possible the later advances of the Red Army).

American interest in Persia dates from 1911, when W. Morgan Schuster was sent with President Taft's blessing to help the Tehran government get its financial act together, although Schuster was thrown out at Russian insistence after a matter of months. In 1933, the oil company that became Aramco acquired its concerns in the gulf. And then in 1953 the Americans and the British, acting together in the region not for the last time, covertly engineered a coup against the nationalist leader Mohammed Mossadeq.

Not that much of this registered at home. Meyer repeatedly rubs in his theme of American ignorance of distant countries, not least those over which the United States held sway. As he says, there is an asymmetrical relationship here: ''Americans can travel the world knowing little about the history, culture and language of the countries they visit. Non-Americans do not have that option with respect to the United States.'' At any rate, if more Americans, high as well as low, had known a little more about Iran they would have been less surprised first by the deposition of the shah (who had been ruling over an ''island of stability,'' according to President Carter) and then by the hostage crisis of November 1979, that rehearsal for 9/11, as Meyer grimly calls it.

When Communism collapsed and the Soviet Union imploded, the fringes of its old empire crumbled away. Meyer's chapters on the central Asian states -- Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and others -- and the Caucasus can only be bleak, as their story has given fresh meaning to Evelyn Waugh's saying, which Pat Moynihan liked to quote: ''The foundations of empire are often occasions of woe; their dismemberment, always.''

Even more woeful than the kleptocratic gangsterism that has replaced Soviet rule in ''the Stans'' is the frightful violence in the Caucasus. Here is another asymmetry. While we rightly concern ourselves with the killing of scores of civilians on the West Bank or in Iraq, the Russians have killed scores of thousands in Chechnya. Last month Michael Wines of The Times reported that there were 70 civilians murdered in Chechnya in the first two months of this year, and that ''roughly a dozen to two dozen Russian fighters and an unknown number of antigovernment guerrillas die each week'' in that conflict, a dusty legacy of empire indeed.

As we used to say on the Northwest Frontier, this book is a rattling good yarn, and if I say that it has an old-fashioned flavor, I don't mean that as dispraise. There are many insights, and some splendid vignettes. Maybe the best is from that Iranian coup of 1953, which was not long after ''Guys and Dolls'' opened on Broadway. While the turmoil erupted in the streets of Tehran outside, Kermit Roosevelt of the C.I.A., one of the chief conspirators, sat tight indoors playing ''Luck Be a Lady Tonight'' over and again on his phonograph. Although it doesn't deal with Iraq as such, the topical implications of the book scarcely need dwelling on, and Sky Masterson's song might be a motto for the new rulers of Mesopotamia. They may yet need all the luck they can get.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's most recent book is ''The Controversy of Zion.''

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