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Book Reviews

The Dust Of Empire:
The Race For Mastery In The Asian Heartland

by Karl E. Meyer
New York: PublicAffairs. 252 pages, $37.50
Reviewed by Philippe Lagassé

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Book Cover “The Dust of Empire”With his ambitious The Dust of Empire, Karl E. Meyer aims to inform readers about two subjects: the troubled history of Central Asia and the perils of empire. The book succeeds with the first, but fails with the second. Relying on an anecdotal approach, Meyer provides lively narrative histories of Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Caucasus and the Central Asian states. Unfortunately, this same anecdotal approach is unconvincing when used to equate the United States at the turn of the 21st century to the British Empire of the late 19th century. While comparing the two nations at the height of their power is a valuable exercise, Meyer’s partisan aversion to the George W. Bush administration leads him to propose exaggerated similarities between Victorian Britain and contemporary America. As a result, The Dust of Empire is a work of uneven scholarly merit.

Save for the few who study or have traveled in the region, Central Asia remains a mystery to most westerners. A territorial mass inhabited by innumerable tribes speaking countless languages, the rugged lands cradled between the Persian Gulf, Russia and South East Asia are characterized by their inaccessibility. Yet, in spite of this fact, the history of Central Asia is one of continuous conquest. Empires, both indigenous and foreign, have sought to emulate Genghis Khan’s seizure of the ground connecting East and West. Inevitably, each attempt to master Central Asia shaped the lives of its inhabitants. The strength of The Dust of Empire is found in its exploration of these local consequences of imperial ambition.

In his case study of Iran, Meyer persuasively argues that the seeds of revolution were planted by the incessant and self-serving interventions of Britain and the United States in the affairs of Tehran throughout the 20th century. Similarly, Meyer shows how the inclinations of Britain’s Indian Viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten, undermined Pakistan and its predominantly Muslim population in the period leading up to partition. Continuing his exposition of imperial opportunism, Meyer then examines the turbulent relationship between Russia and the Caucasus. Having never understood Islam, both Tsarist and Communist Russians are portrayed as hapless occupiers, relying on cruelty and forced deportation to achieve a measure of compliance from their Muslim populations. Alternatively, Meyer speculates that Russia’s warmer relations with Armenia and Georgia grew out of their common Christianity.

Meyer’s most impressive surveys are of Afghanistan and the other ‘stan’ states. As experienced by both the Soviet Union and the British Empire, Afghans are skilled at deflecting imperial intrigues. Indeed, coupled with a treacherous terrain, Afghanistan’s multiple ethnicities and rival chieftains make it an unmanageable country. Hence, when one reads Meyer’s detailed account of the events that prompted the Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan in 1979, the true daring of the decision shines through.

Taking a different tack from the rest of the book, Meyer’s discussions of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan focus on the post-Cold War era. Of interest to Meyer is how these countries coped with their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. According to Meyer, the relative tranquillity the ‘stans’ experienced owed much to the fact that their leaders were former Soviet officials well versed in the art of repression. These overbearing governments effectively contained ingrained ethnic and religious strife. One exception was Tajikistan, where a fierce civil war was fought in 1992 and 1993. In Meyer’s estimation, the same socio-political forces that erupted in Tajikistan have the potential to do so in each of the other ‘stans’. Thus, although these states are relatively calm today, they could well be consumed by violence in the near future.

Had Meyer limited The Dust of Empire to his histories of the states of Central Asia, he would have produced a solid text. Instead, the author chose to include a critique of American foreign policy that is both pedantic and unbefitting. Reduced to its essentials, Meyer’s contention is that the United States risks overextending itself and angering the world if it unilaterally imposes its will on others. In and of itself, this argument has value. Unfortunately, the point has been better articulated by other authors. Furthermore, it is puzzling that Meyer refers to American foreign policy as a whole in a book about Central Asia; though he does makes specific references to American activities in Central Asia, both the introduction and the epilogue are diatribes against Washington’s global grand strategy. Finally, a flaw exists in The Dust of Empire’s central theme. Throughout the book, Meyer illustrates how decisions made by one generation have unintended consequences for those who come after. More precisely, Meyer wishes to impress upon his readers the notion that even well-intentioned foreign policies can bring about unexpected violence and conflict. But this begs the question: Is that not a risk inherent in most key political decisions, foreign or domestic?

In sum, The Dust of Empire is an informative introduction to Central Asian history which is weighed down by a bland assessment of contemporary American foreign policy.

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Philippe Lagassé, a recent graduate of the War Studies Programme at Royal Military College, is a doctoral candidate at Carleton University.