The Revenge of Geography – Robert Kaplan – Chapter I

Revenge-of-Geography- Book



Copyright © 2012 by Robert D. Kaplan
Maps copyright © 2012 by David Lindroth, Inc.

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

RANDOM HOUSE and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

The preface contains material from four earlier titles by Robert D. Kaplan:
Soldiers of God (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1990), An Empire Wilderness (New York: Random House, Inc., 1998),
Eastward to Tartary (New York: Random House, Inc., 2000), and
Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts (New York: Random House, Inc., 2007).

Kaplan, Robert D.
The revenge of geography : what the map tells us about coming conflicts and the battle against fate / by Robert D. Kaplan.
p. cm.
eISBN: 978-0-679-60483-9
1. Political geography. I. Title.
JC319.K335   2012
320.1′2—dc23   2012000655

Title-spread image: © iStockphoto

Jacket design: Greg Mollica

Front-jacket illustrations (top to bottom): Gerardus Mercator, double hemisphere world map, 1587 (Bridgeman Art Library); Joan Blaeu, view of antique Thessaly, from the Atlas Maior, 1662 (Bridgeman Art Library); Robert Wilkinson, “A New and Correct Map







But precisely because I expect little of the human condition, man’s periods of felicity, his partial progress, his efforts to begin over again and to continue, all seem to me like so many prodigies which nearly compensate for the monstrous mass of ills and defeats, of indifference and error. Catastrophe and ruin will come; disorder will triumph, but order will too, from time to time.

—Marguerite Yourcenar
Memoirs of Hadrian (1951)





Title Page




Part I











Part II








Part                                                                                                             III





Other Books by This Author

About the Author





A good place to understand the present, and to ask questions about the future, is on the ground, traveling as slowly as possible.

As the first rank of domed hills appeared on the horizon, rippling upward from the desert floor in northern Iraq, to culminate in ten-thousand-foot massifs clothed in oak and mountain ash, my Kurdish driver glanced back at the vast piecrust plain, sucked his tongue in contempt, and said, “Arabistan.” Then, looking toward the hills, he murmured, “Kurdistan,” and his face lit up. It was 1986, the pinnacle of Saddam Hussein’s suffocating reign, and yet as soon as we penetrated further into prisonlike valleys and forbidding chasms, the ubiquitous billboard pictures of Saddam suddenly vanished. So did Iraqi soldiers. Replacing them were Kurdish peshmergas with bandoliers, wearing turbans, baggy trousers, and cummerbunds. According to the political map, we had never left Iraq. But the mountains had declared a limit to Saddam’s rule—a limit overcome by the most extreme of measures.

In the late 1980s, enraged at the freedom that these mountains had over the decades and centuries ultimately granted the Kurds, Saddam launched a full-scale assault on Iraqi Kurdistan—the infamous Al-Anfal campaign—that killed an estimated 100,000 civilians. The mountains were clearly not determinative. But they did serve as the backdrop—the original fact—to this tragic drama. It is because of the mountains that Kurdistan has to a significant extent now effectively seceded from the Iraqi state.

Mountains are a conservative force, often protecting within their defiles indigenous cultures against the fierce modernizing ideologies that have too often plagued the flatlands, even as they have provided refuge for Marxist guerrillas and drug cartels in our own era.1 The Yale anthropologist James C. Scott writes that “hill peoples are best understood as runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys.”2 For it was on the plain where the Stalinist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu really sank its teeth into the population. Ascending the Carpathians several times in the 1980s, I saw few signs of collectivization. These mountains that declare Central Europe’s rear door were defined more by wood and natural stone dwellings than by concrete and scrap iron, favorite material elements of Romanian communism.

The Carpathians that girdle Romania are no less a border than the mountains of Kurdistan. Entering the Carpathians from the west, from the threadbare and majestically vacant Hungarian Puszta, marked by coal-black soil and oceans of lemon-green grass, I began to leave the European world of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and to gradually make my way into the economically more deprived terrain of the former Ottoman Turkish Empire. Ceausescu’s oriental despotism, so much more oppressive than Hungary’s haphazard goulash communism, was, ultimately, made possible by the ramparts of the Carpathians.

And yet the Carpathians were not impenetrable. For centuries traders had thrived in their many passes, the bearers of goods and high culture so that a poignant semblance of Central Europe could take root well beyond them, in cities and towns like Bucharest and Ruse. But the mountains did constitute an undeniable gradation, the first in a series in an easterly direction, that would conclude finally in the Arabian and Kara Kum deserts.

In 1999, I took a freighter overnight from the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, to Krasnovodsk in Turkmenistan, on the eastern shore, the beginning of what the Sassanid Persians in the third century A.D. called Turkestan. I awoke to a spare, abstract shoreline: whitish hutments against cliffs the clay color of death. All the passengers were ordered to line up in single file in the 100-degree temperature before a peeling gate where a lone policeman checked our passports. We then passed into a bare, broiling shed, where another policeman, finding my Pepto-Bismol tablets, accused me of smuggling narcotics. He took my flashlight and emptied the 1.5-volt batteries onto the dirt floor. His expression was as bleak and untamed as the landscape. The town that beckoned beyond the shed was shadeless and depressingly horizontal, with little architectural hint of a material culture. I suddenly felt nostalgia for Baku, with its twelfth-century Persian walls and dream palaces built by the first oil barons, embellished with friezes and gargoyles, a veneer of the West that despite the Carpathians, the Black Sea, and the high Caucasus, refused to completely die out. Traveling eastward, Europe had evaporated in stages before my eyes, and the natural border of the Caspian Sea had indicated the last stage, heralding the Kara Kum Desert.

Of course, geography does not demonstrate Turkmenistan’s hopelessness. Rather, it signifies only the beginning of wisdom in the search for a historical pattern: one of repeated invasions by Parthians, Mongols, Persians, czarist Russians, Soviets, and a plethora of Turkic tribes against a naked and unprotected landscape. There was the barest existence of a civilization because none was allowed to permanently sink deep roots, and this helps explain my first impressions of the place.

The earth heaved upward, and what had moments before seemed like a unitary sandstone mass disintegrated into a labyrinth of scooped-out riverbeds and folds reflecting gray and khaki hues. Topping each hill was a slash of red or ocher as the sun caught a higher, steeper slope at a different angle. Lifts of cooler air penetrated the bus—my first fresh taste of the mountains after the gauzy heat film of Peshawar in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province.3 By themselves, the dimensions of the Khyber Pass are not impressive. The highest peak is under seven thousand feet and the rise is rarely steep. Nevertheless, in under an hour in 1987, I was transported through a confined, volcanic netherworld of crags and winding canyons; from the lush, tropical floor of the Indian Subcontinent to the cool, tonsured wastes of middle Asia; from a world of black soil, bold fabrics, and rich, spicy cuisine to one of sand, coarse wool, and goat meat.

But like the Carpathians, whose passes were penetrated by traders, geography on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border has different lessons to offer: for what the British were the first to call the “North-West Frontier” was “historically no frontier at all,” according to Harvard professor Sugata Bose, “but the ‘heart’ ” of an “Indo-Persian” and “Indo-Islamic” continuum, the reason why Afghanistan and Pakistan form an organic whole, contributing to their geographical incoherence as separate states.4

Then there were borders more artificial still:

I crossed the Berlin Wall into East Berlin twice, in 1973 and in 1981. The twelve-foot-high concrete curtain, topped by a broad pipe, cut through a filmy black-and-white landscape of poor Turkish and Yugoslav immigrant neighborhoods on the West German side, and deserted and World War II–scarred buildings on the East German one. You could walk up and touch the Wall almost anywhere on the western side, where the graffiti was; the minefields and guard towers all lay to the east.

As surreal as this prison yard of an urban terrain appeared at the time, one didn’t question it except in moral terms, for the paramount assumption of the age was that the Cold War had no end. Particularly for those like myself, who had grown up during the Cold War but had no memory whatsoever of World War II, the Wall, however brutal and arbitrary, seemed as permanent as a mountain range. The truth only emerged from books and historical maps of Germany that I had, entirely by coincidence, begun to consult during the first months of 1989, while in Bonn on a magazine assignment. The books and maps told a story:

Occupying the heart of Europe between the North and Baltic seas and the Alps, the Germans, according to the historian Golo Mann, have always been a dynamic force locked up in a “big prison,” wanting to break out. But with the north and south blocked by water and mountains, outward meant east and west, where there was no geographical impediment. “What has characterized the German nature for a hundred years is its lack of form, its unreliability,” writes Mann, referring to the turbulent period from the 1860s to the 1960s, marked by Otto von Bismarck’s expansion and the two world wars.5 But the same could also be said for Germany’s size and shape on the map throughout its history.

Indeed, the First Reich, founded by Charlemagne in 800, was a great shifting blob of territory that, at one time or another, encompassed Austria and parts of Switzerland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Italy, and Yugoslavia. Europe seemed destined to be ruled from what now corresponds with Germany. But then came Martin Luther, who split Western Christianity with the Reformation, which, in turn, ignited the Thirty Years’ War, fought primarily on German soil. Hence, Central Europe was ravished. The more I read—about the eighteenth-century dualism between Prussia and Habsburg Austria, about the early-nineteenth-century tariff union between the various German states, and Bismarck’s late-nineteenth-century Prussian-based unification—the more it became apparent that the Berlin Wall was just another stage in this continuing process of territorial transformation.

The regimes that had fallen soon after the Berlin Wall did—in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and elsewhere—were ones I had known intimately through work and travel. Up close they had seemed so impregnable, so fear-inducing. Their abrupt unraveling was a signal lesson for me, not only about the underlying instability of all dictatorships, but about how the present, as permanent and overwhelming as it can seem, is fleeting. The only thing enduring is a people’s position on the map. Thus, in times of upheaval maps rise in importance. With the political ground shifting rapidly under one’s feet, the map, though not determinitive, is the beginning of discerning a historical logic about what might come next.

Violence was the reigning impression of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas. In 2006, I saw South Korean soldiers standing frozen in tae kwon do–ready positions, their fists and forearms clenched, staring into the faces of their North Korean counterparts. Each side picked its tallest, most intimidating soldiers for the task. But the formalized hatred on display in the midst of barbed wire and minefields will probably be consigned to history on some foreseeable morrow. When you look at other divided-country scenarios in the twentieth century—Germany, Vietnam, Yemen—it is apparent that however long the division persisted, the forces of unity ultimately triumph, in an unplanned, sometimes violent and fast-moving fashion. The DMZ, like the Berlin Wall, is an arbitrary border of no geographical logic that divides an ethnic nation at the spot where two opposing armies happened to come to rest. Just as Germany was reunited, we might expect, or at least should plan for, a united Greater Korea. Again, the forces of culture and geography are likely to prevail at some point. A man-made border that does not match a natural frontier zone is particularly vulnerable.

I crossed, too, the land borders from Jordan to Israel and from Mexico to the United States: more on those borders and others later. For I now wish to take another journey—of a radically different sort—through selected pages of history and political science that have survived across the chasm of the decades and, in some cases, the centuries, and on account of their emphasis on geography allow us to read the relief map better, and with that, help us glimpse, however vaguely, the contours of future politics. For it was the very act of crossing so many frontiers that made me intensely curious about the fate of the places through which I had passed.

My reporting over three decades has convinced me that we all need to recover a sensibility about time and space that has been lost in the jet and information ages, when elite molders of public opinion dash across oceans and continents in hours, something which allows them to talk glibly about what the distinguished New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman has labeled a flat world. Instead, I will introduce readers to a group of decidedly unfashionable thinkers, who push up hard against the notion that geography no longer matters. I will lay out their thinking in some depth in the first half of this journey in order to apply their wisdom in the second half, as to what has happened and is likely to happen across Eurasia—from Europe to China, including the Greater Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent. To find out what it is exactly that has been lost in our view of physical reality, to discover how we lost it, and then to restore it by slowing down our pace of travel and of observation itself—by way of the rich erudition of now deceased scholars: that is the goal of this journey.

Geography, from a Greek word that means essentially a “description of the earth,” has often been associated with fatalism and therefore stigmatized: for to think geographically is to limit human choice, it is said. But in engaging with such tools as relief maps and population studies I merely want to add another layer of complexity to conventional foreign policy analyses, and thus find a deeper and more powerful way to look at the world. You do not have to be a geographical determinist to realize that geography is vitally important. The more we remain preoccupied with current events, the more that individuals and their choices matter; but the more we look out over the span of the centuries, the more that geography plays a role.

The Middle East is a case in point.

As I write, the region from Morocco to Afghanistan is in the midst of a crisis of central authority. The old order of autocracies has become untenable, even as the path toward stable democratization is tortuous. The first phase of this great upheaval has featured the defeat of geography through the power of new communications technologies. Satellite television and social networking Internet sites have created a single community of protesters throughout the Arab world: so that democracy advocates in such disparate places as Egypt and Yemen and Bahrain are inspired by what has begun in Tunisia. Thus, there exists a commonality in the political situations of all these countries. But as the revolt has gone on, it has become clear that each country has developed its own narrative, which, in turn, is influenced by its own deep history and geography. The more one knows about the history and geography of any particular Middle Eastern country, therefore, the less surprised one will be about events there.

For it may be only partly accidental that the upheaval started in Tunisia. A map of classical antiquity shows a concentration of settlements where Tunisia is today, juxtaposed with the relative emptiness that characterizes modern-day Algeria and Libya. Jutting out into the Mediterranean close to Sicily, Tunisia was the demographic hub of North Africa not only under the Carthaginians and Romans, but under the Vandals, Byzantines, medieval Arabs, and Turks. Whereas Algeria to the west and Libya to the east were but vague geographical expressions, Tunisia is an age-old cluster of civilization. (As for Libya, its western region of Tripolitania was throughout history oriented toward Tunisia, while its eastern region of Cyrenaica—Benghazi—was always oriented toward Egypt.)

For two thousand years, the closer to Carthage (roughly the site of modern-day Tunis) the greater the level of development. Because urbanization in Tunisia started two millennia ago, tribal identity based on nomadism—which the medieval historian Ibn Khaldun said disrupted political stability—is correspondingly weak. Indeed, after the Roman general Scipio defeated Hannibal in 202 B.C. outside Tunis, he dug a demarcation ditch, or fossa regia, that marked the extent of civilized territory. The fossa regia remains relevant to the current Middle East crisis. Still visible in places, it runs from Tabarka on Tunisia’s northwestern coast southward, and turns directly eastward to Sfax, another Mediterranean port. The towns beyond that line have fewer Roman remains, and today tend to be poorer and less developed, with historically higher rates of unemployment. The town of Sidi Bouzid, where the Arab revolt started in December 2010, when a vendor of fruit and vegetables set himself on fire as an act of protest, lies just beyond Scipio’s line.

This is not fatalism. I am merely providing geographical and historical context to current events: the Arab revolt for democracy began in what in historical terms was the most advanced society in the Arab world—the one physically closest to Europe—yet it also began specifically in a part of that country which since antiquity had been ignored and suffered consequent underdevelopment.

Such knowledge can add depth to what has been transpiring elsewhere: whether it be in Egypt, another age-old cluster of civilization with a long history as a state just like Tunisia; or Yemen, the demographic core of the Arabian Peninsula, whose attempts at unity have been bedeviled by a sprawling and mountainous topography that has worked to weaken central government and consequently raise the importance of tribal structures and separatist groups; or Syria, whose truncated shape on the map harbors divisions within it based on ethnicity and sectarian identity. Geography testifies that Tunisia and Egypt are naturally cohesive; Libya, Yemen, and Syria less so. It follows, therefore, that Tunisia and Egypt required relatively moderate forms of autocracy to hold them together, while Libya and Syria required more extreme varieties. Meanwhile, geography has always made Yemen hard to govern at all. Yemen has been what the twentieth-century European scholars Ernest Gellner and Robert Montagne call a “segmentary” society, the upshot of a Middle Eastern landscape riven by mountains and desert. Hovering between centralization and anarchy, such a society in Montagne’s words is typified by a regime that “drains the life from a region,” even though “because of its own fragility,” it fails to establish lasting institutions. Here tribes are strong and the central government comparatively weak.6 The struggle to construct liberal orders in such places cannot be divorced from such realities.

As political upheavals accumulate and the world becomes seemingly more unmanageable, with incessant questions as to how the United States and its allies should respond, geography offers a way to make at least some sense of it all. By engaging with old maps, and with geographers and geopolitical thinkers from earlier eras, I want to ground-truth the globe in the twenty-first century much as I did at these frontiers beginning in the late twentieth. For even if we can send satellites into the outer solar system—and even as financial markets and cyberspace know no boundaries—the Hindu Kush still constitutes a formidable barrier.


Part I





Chapter I



To recover our sense of geography, we first must fix the moment in recent history when we most profoundly lost it, explain why we lost it, and elucidate how that affected our assumptions about the world. Of course, such a loss is gradual. But the moment I have isolated, when that loss seemed most acute, was immediately after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Though an artificial border whose crumbling should have enhanced our respect for geography and the relief map—and what that map might have foreshadowed in the adjacent Balkans and the Middle East—the Berlin Wall’s erasure made us blind to the real geographical impediments that still divided us, and still awaited us.

For suddenly we were in a world in which the dismantling of a man-made boundary in Germany had led to the assumption that all human divisions were surmountable; that democracy would conquer Africa and the Middle East as easily as it had Eastern Europe; that globalization—soon to become a buzzword—was nothing less than a moral direction of history and a system of international security, rather than what it actually was, merely an economic and cultural stage of development. Consider: a totalitarian ideology had just been vanquished, even as domestic security in the United States and Western Europe was being taken for granted. The semblance of peace reigned generally. Presciently capturing the zeitgeist, a former deputy director of the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, Francis Fukuyama, published an article a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, “The End of History,” proclaiming that while wars and rebellions would continue, history in a Hegelian sense was over now, since the success of capitalist liberal democracies had ended the argument over which system of government was best for humankind.1 Thus, it was just a matter of shaping the world more in our own image, sometimes through the deployment of American troops; deployments that in the 1990s would exact relatively little penalty. This, the first intellectual cycle of the Post Cold War, was an era of illusions. It was a time when the words “realist” and “pragmatist” were considered pejoratives, signifying an aversion to humanitarian intervention in places where the national interest, as conventionally and narrowly defined, seemed elusive. Better in those days to be a neoconservative or liberal internationalist, who were thought of as good, smart people who simply wanted to stop genocide in the Balkans.

Such a burst of idealism in the United States was not unprecedented. Victory in World War I had unfurled the banner of “Wilsonianism,” a notion associated with President Woodrow Wilson that, as it would turn out, took little account of the real goals of America’s European allies and even less account of the realities of the Balkans and the Near East, where, as events in the 1920s would show, democracy and freedom from the imperial overlordship of the Ottoman Turks meant mainly heightened ethnic awareness of a narrow sort in the individual parts of the old sultanate. It was a similar phenomenon that followed the West’s victory in the Cold War, which many believed would simply bring freedom and prosperity under the banners of “democracy” and “free markets.” Many suggested that even Africa, the poorest and least stable continent, further burdened with the world’s most artificial and illogical borders, might also be on the brink of a democratic revolution; as if the collapse of the Soviet Empire in the heart of Europe held supreme meaning for the world’s least developed nations, separated by sea and desert thousands of miles away, but connected by television.2 Yet, just as after World War I and World War II, our victory in the Cold War would usher in less democracy and global peace than the next struggle for survival, in which evil would wear new masks.

Democracy and better government would, in fact, begin to emerge in Africa of all places. But it would be a long and difficult struggle, with anarchy (in the cases of several West African countries), insurrection, and outright wickedness (in the case of Rwanda) rearing their heads for considerable periods in between. Africa would go a long way toward defining the long decade between November 9, 1989, and September 11, 2001—between the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the al Qaeda attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center: a twelve-year period that saw mass murder and belated humanitarian interventions frustrate idealist intellectuals, even as the ultimate success of those interventions raised idealist triumphalism to heights that were to prove catastrophic in the decade that began after 9/11.

In that new decade following 9/11, geography, a factor certainly in the Balkans and Africa in the 1990s, would go on to wreak unmitigated havoc on America’s good intentions in the Near East. The journey from Bosnia to Baghdad, from a limited air and land campaign in the western, most developed part of the former Turkish Empire in the Balkans to a mass infantry invasion in the eastern, least developed part in Mesopotamia, would expose the limits of liberal universalism, and in the process concede new respect to the relief map.

The Post Cold War actually began in the 1980s, before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, with the revival of the term “Central Europe,” later defined by the journalist and Oxford scholar Timothy Garton Ash as “a political-cultural distinction against the Soviet ‘East.’ ”3 Central Europe, Mitteleuropa, was more of an idea than a fact of geography. It constituted a declaration of memory: that of an intense, deliciously cluttered, and romantic European civilization, suggestive of cobblestone streets and gabled roofs, of rich wine, Viennese cafés, and classical music, of a gentle, humanist tradition infused with edgy and disturbing modernist art and thought. It conjured up the Austro-Hungarian Empire and such names as Gustav Mahler, Gustav Klimt, and Sigmund Freud, leavened with a deep appreciation of the likes of Immanuel Kant and the Dutch-Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Indeed, “Central Europe,” among so many other things, meant the endangered intellectual world of Jewry before the ravages of Nazism and communism; it meant economic development, with a sturdy recall of Bohemia, prior to World War II, as having enjoyed a higher level of industrialization than Belgium. It meant, with all of its decadence and moral imperfections, a zone of relative multiethnic tolerance under the umbrella of a benign if increasingly dysfunctional Habsburg Empire. In the last phase of the Cold War, Central Europe was succinctly captured by Princeton professor Carl E. Schorske in his troubling, icy-eyed classic Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture, and by the Italian writer Claudio Magris in his sumptuous travelogue Danube. For Magris, Mitteleuropa is a sensibility that “means the defence of the particular against any totalitarian programme.” For the Hungarian writer György Konrád and the Czech writer Milan Kundera, Mitteleuropa is something “noble,” a “master-key” for liberalizing political aspirations.4

To speak of “Central Europe” in the 1980s and 1990s was to say that a culture in and of itself comprised a geography every bit as much as a mountain range did, or every bit as much as Soviet tanks did. For the idea of Central Europe was a rebuke to the geography of the Cold War, which had thrown up the term “Eastern Europe” to denote the half of Europe that was communist and controlled from Moscow. East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary had all been part of Central Europe, it was rightly argued, and therefore should not have been consigned to the prison of nations that was communism and the Warsaw Pact. A few years later, ironically, when ethnic war broke out in Yugoslavia, “Central Europe,” rather than a term of unification, would also become one of division; with “the Balkans” dismembered in people’s minds from Central Europe, and becoming, in effect, part of the new/old Near East.

The Balkans were synonymous with the old Turkish and Byzantine empires, with unruly mountain ranges that had hindered development, and with a generally lower standard of living going back decades and centuries compared to the lands of the former Habsburg and Prussian empires in the heart of Europe. During the monochrome decades of communist domination, Balkan countries such as Romania and Bulgaria did, in fact, suffer a degree of poverty and repression unknown to the northern, “Central European” half of the Soviet Empire. The situation was complicated, of course. East Germany was the most truly occupied of the satellite states, and consequently its communist system was among the most rigid, even as Yugoslavia—not formally a member of the Warsaw Pact—allowed a degree of freedom, particularly in its cities, that was unknown in Czechoslovakia, for example. And yet, overall, the nations of former Turkish and Byzantine southeastern Europe suffered in their communist regimes nothing less than a version of oriental despotism, as though a second Mongol invasion, whereas those nations of former Catholic Habsburg Europe mainly suffered something less malignant: a dreary mix in varying degrees of radical socialist populism. In this regard traveling from relatively liberal, albeit communist, Hungary under János Kádár to Romania under the totalitarianism of Nicolae Ceausescu was typical in this regard. I made the trip often in the 1980s: as my train passed into Romania from Hungary, the quality of the building materials suddenly worsened; officials ravaged my luggage and made me pay a bribe for my typewriter; the toilet paper in the lavatory disappeared and lights went dim. True, the Balkans were deeply influenced by Central Europe, but they were just as influenced by the equally proximate Middle East. The dusty steppe with its bleak public spaces—imports both from Anatolia—were a feature of life in Kosovo and Macedonia, where the cultured conviviality of Prague and Budapest was harder to find. Thus, it was not altogether an accident, or completely the work of evil individuals, that violence broke out in the ethnic mélange of Yugoslavia rather than, say, in the uniethnic Central European states of Hungary and Poland. History and geography also had something to do with it.

Yet by holding up Central Europe as a moral and political cynosure, rather than as a geographical one, liberal intellectuals like Garton Ash—one of the most eloquent voices of the decade—propounded a vision not only of Europe, but of the world that was inclusive rather than discriminatory. In this view, not only should the Balkans not be consigned to underdevelopment and barbarism, but neither should any place: Africa, for example. The fall of the Berlin Wall should affect not only Germany, but, rather, should unleash the dream of Central Europe writ large across the globe. This humanist approach was the essence of a cosmopolitanism that liberal internationalists and neoconservatives both subscribed to in the 1990s. Recall that before he became known for his support of the Iraq War, Paul Wolfowitz was a proponent of military intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, in effect, joining hands with liberals like Garton Ash at the left-leaning New York Review of Books. The road to Baghdad had roots in the Balkan interventions of the 1990s, which were opposed by realists and pragmatists, even as these military deployments in the former Yugoslavia were to prove undeniably successful.

The yearning to save the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo cannot be divorced from the yearning for the restoration of Central Europe, both as a real and poignantly imagined place, that would demonstrate how, ultimately, it is morality and humanism that sanctify beauty. (Though Garton Ash himself was skeptical of the effort to idealize Central Europe, he did see the positive moral use to which such an idealization might be applied.)

The humanist writings of Isaiah Berlin captured the intellectual spirit of the 1990s. “‘Ich bin ein Berliner,’ I used to say, meaning an Isaiah Berliner,” Garton Ash wrote in a haunting memoir of his time in East Germany.5 Now that communism had been routed and Marxist utopias exposed as false, Isaiah Berlin was the perfect antidote to the trendy monistic theories that had ravished academic life for the previous four decades. Berlin, who taught at Oxford and whose life was coeval with the twentieth century, had always defended bourgeois pragmatism and “temporizing compromises” over political experimentation.6 He loathed geographical, cultural, and all other forms of determinism, refusing to consign anyone and anybody to their fate. His views, articulated in articles and lectures over a lifetime, often as a lone academic voice in the wilderness, comprised the perfect synthesis of a measured idealism that was employed both against communism and the notion that freedom and security were only for some peoples and not for others. His philosophy and the ideal of Central Europe were perfect fits.

But though Central Europe writ large, as expounded by these wise and eloquent intellectuals, was indeed a noble cause, one which should perennially play a role in the foreign policies of all Western nations as I will demonstrate, it does face a hurdle with which I am also forced to deal.

For there remains a problem with this exalted vision, an ugly fact that throughout history has often turned the concept of Central Europe into something tragic. Central Europe simply has no reality on the relief map. (Garton Ash intuited this with the title of his own article, “Does Central Europe Exist?”)7 Enter the geographical determinists, so harsh and lowering compared to the gentle voice of Isaiah Berlin: particularly the Edwardian era voice of Sir Halford J. Mackinder and his disciple James Fairgrieve, for whom the idea of Central Europe has a “fatal geographical flaw.” Central Europe, Mackinder and Fairgrieve tell us, belongs to the “crush zone” that lays athwart Maritime Europe, with its “oceanic interests,” and the “Eurasian Heartland with its continental outlook.” In short, strategically speaking, there is “no space” for Central Europe in the view of Mackinder and Fairgrieve.8 The celebration of Central Europe, the justifiable indulgence of it by the liberal intellectuals, the writings of Mackinder and Fairgrieve suggest, indicates a respite from geopolitics—or at least the desire for one. Yet the fall of the Berlin Wall did not—could not—end geopolitics, but merely brought it into a new phase. You cannot simply wish away the struggle of states and empires across the map.

I will explore Mackinder’s work, particularly his “Heartland” thesis, later at great length. Suffice it to say now that, expounded well over a hundred years ago, it proved remarkably relevant to the dynamics of World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. Stripped down to their most austere logic, the two world wars were about whether or not Germany would dominate the Heartland of Eurasia that lay to its east, while the Cold War centered on the Soviet Union’s domination of Eastern Europe—the western edge of Mackinder’s Heartland. This Soviet Eastern Europe, by the way, included in its domain East Germany, historic Prussia that is, which had traditionally been territorially motivated with an eastward, Heartland orientation; while inside NATO’s oceanic alliance was West Germany, historically Catholic, and industrially and commercially minded, oriented toward the North Sea and the Atlantic. A renowned American geographer of the Cold War period, Saul B. Cohen, argues that “the boundary zone that divides the East from West Germany … is one of the oldest in history,” the one which separated Frankish and Slavonic tribes in the Middle Ages. In other words, there was little artificial about the frontier between West and East Germany. West Germany, according to Cohen, was a “remarkable reflection of Maritime Europe,” whereas East Germany belonged to the “Continental Land-power Realm.” Cohen supported a divided Germany as “geopolitically sound and strategically necessary,” because it stabilized the perennial battle between Maritime and Heartland Europe.9 Mackinder, too, wrote presciently in 1919 that “the line through Germany … is the very line which we have on other grounds taken as demarking the Heartland in a strategical sense from the Coastland.”10 So while the division of Berlin itself was artificial, the division of Germany was less so.

Cohen called Central Europe a “mere geographical expression that lacks geopolitical substance.”11 The reunification of Germany, according to this logic, rather than lead to the rebirth of Central Europe, would simply lead to a renewed battle for Europe and, by inference, for the Heartland of Eurasia: Which way, in other words, would Germany swing, to the east and toward Russia, with great consequences for Poland, Hungary, and the other former satellite countries; or to the west and toward the United Kingdom and the United States, providing a victory for the Maritime realm? We still do not know the answer to this because the Post Cold War is still in its early stages. Cohen and others could not have foreseen accurately the “debellicized” nature of today’s united Germany, with its “aversion to military solutions” existing at a deep cultural level, something which in the future may help stabilize or destabilize the continent, depending upon the circumstances.12 Precisely because they have occupied the center of Europe as a land power, Germans have always demonstrated a keen awareness of geography and strategy as a survival mechanism. This is something which Germans may yet recover, allowing them to move beyond the quasi-pacifism of the moment. Indeed, might a reunited and liberal Germany become a balancing power in its own right—between the Atlantic Ocean and the Eurasian Heartland—permitting a new and daring interpretation of Central European culture to take root, and thus providing the concept of Central Europe with geopolitical ballast? That would give those like Garton Ash credence over Mackinder and Cohen.

In sum, will Central Europe, as an ideal of tolerance and high civilization, survive the onslaught of new great power struggles? For such struggles in the heart of Europe there will be. The vibrant culture of late-nineteenth-century Central Europe that looked so inviting from the vantage point of the late twentieth century was itself the upshot of an unsentimental and specific imperial and geopolitical reality, namely Habsburg Austria. Liberalism ultimately rests on power: a benign power, perhaps, but power nevertheless.

But humanitarian interventionists in the 1990s were not blind to power struggles; nor in their eyes did Central Europe constitute a utopian vision. Rather, the restoration of Central Europe through the stoppage of mass killing in the Balkans was a quiet and erudite rallying cry for the proper employment of Western military force, in order to safeguard the meaning of victory in the Cold War. After all, what was the Cold War ultimately about, except to make the world safe for individual freedom? “For liberal internationalists Bosnia has become the Spanish Civil War of our era,” wrote Michael Ignatieff, the intellectual historian and biographer of Isaiah Berlin, referring to the passion with which intellectuals like himself approached the Balkans.13

The call for human agency—and the defeat of determinism—was urgent in their minds. One recalls the passage from Joyce’s Ulysses, when Leopold Bloom laments the “generic conditions imposed by natural” law: the “decimating epidemics,” the “catastrophic cataclysms,” and “seismic upheavals.” To which Stephen Dedalus responds by simply, poignantly affirming “his significance as a conscious rational animal.”14 Yes, atrocities happen, it is the way of the world. But it doesn’t have to be accepted thus. Because man is rational, he ultimately has the ability to struggle against suffering and injustice.

And so, with Central Europe as the lodestar, the road led southeastward, first to Bosnia, then to Kosovo, and onward to Baghdad. Of course, many of the intellectuals who supported intervention in Bosnia would oppose it in Iraq—or at least be skeptical of it; but neoconservatives and others would not be deterred. For as we shall see, the Balkans showed us a vision of interventionism, delayed though it was, that cost little in soldiers’ lives, leaving many with the illusion that painless victory was now the future of war. The 1990s, with their belated interventions were, as Garton Ash wrote searingly, reminiscent of W. H. Auden’s “low, dishonest decade” of the 1930s.15 True, but in another sense they were much too easy.

At the time, in the 1990s, it did seem that history and geography had indeed reared their implacable heads. Less than two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with all of the ahistorical and universalist stirrings that had followed that event, the world media suddenly found themselves immersed in the smoky ruins, mountains of rubble, and twisted metal of towns with difficult to pronounce names, in frontier regions of the old Austrian and Turkish empires, namely Slavonia and Krajina, which had just witnessed atrocities not experienced in Europe since the Nazis. From airy contemplations of global unity, the conversation among elites now turned to unraveling complex local histories only a few hours’ drive across the Pannonian Plain from Vienna, very much inside Central Europe. The relief map showed southern and eastern Croatia, close to the Sava River, as the southern terminus of the broad European flatland, which here heralded, beyond the Sava’s banks, the tangle of mountain ranges collectively known as the Balkans: the relief map, which shows a vast and flat green splash from France all the way to Russia (from the Pyrenees to the Urals), abruptly, on the southern bank of the Sava, turns to yellow and then to brown, signifying higher, more rugged terrain that will continue thus southeastward into Asia Minor. This region, near to where the mountains begin, was the overlapping, back-and-forth marchlands of the Habsburg Austrian and Ottoman Turkish armies: here Western Christianity ends and the world of Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam begins; here Croatia jams up against Serbia.

The Krajina, which means “frontier” in Serbo-Croatian, was a military zone that the Austrians in the late sixteenth century established against Turkish expansion, luring to their side of the frontier both Croats and Serbs as refugees from the despotism of the Ottoman Sultanate. Consequently, this became a mixed-ethnic region that, once the imperial embrace of Austria vanished following World War I, experienced the further evolution of uniethnic identities. Though Serbs and Croats were united in the interwar years under the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, they were divided and at each other’s throats during the Nazi occupation, when a fascist Croatian puppet state of the Nazis murdered tens of thousands of Serbs in death camps. United once more under the carapace of Tito’s authoritarian communist rule, Yugoslavia’s collapse in 1991 saw Serb troops storm just over the Serbian border into Slavonia and Krajina, ethnically cleansing the region of Croats. Later, when the Croats retook the region, the ethnic Serbs here would take flight back to Serbia. From Croatia’s borderlands with Serbia, the war would next spread to Bosnia, where hundreds of thousands would perish in grisly fashion.

There was history and geography aplenty here, but committed journalists and intellectuals would have relatively little of it. And they certainly had a point, much more than a point. First came the sheer horror and revulsion. Again, there was Garton Ash:

What have we learned from this terrible decade in former Yugoslavia? … We have learned that human nature has not changed. That Europe at the end of the twentieth century is quite as capable of barbarism as it was in the Holocaust of mid-century.… Our Western political mantras at the end of the twentieth century have been “integration,” “multiculturalism,” or, if we are a little more old-fashioned, “the melting pot.” Former Yugoslavia has been the opposite. It has been like a giant version of the machine called a “separator”: a sort of spinning tub which separates out cream and butter.… Here it is peoples who were separated out as the giant tub spun furiously round … while blood dripped steadily from a filter at the bottom.16

Following from this revulsion came charges of “appeasement” by the West, appeasement of Slobodan Milosevic: an evil communist politician who, in order for himself and his party to survive politically following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and retain their villas and and hunting lodges and other perks of office, rebranded himself as a rabid Serbian nationalist, igniting a second Holocaust of sorts. The appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938 quickly became the reigning analogy of the 1990s.

In fact, the fear of another Munich was not altogether new. It had been an underlying element in the decision to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s aggression in 1991. If we didn’t stop Saddam in Kuwait, he would have next invaded Saudi Arabia, thereby controlling the world’s oil supply and taking human rights in the region to an unutterable level of darkness. But it was the Serb onslaught on Croatia and then Bosnia, between 1991 and 1993—and the West’s failure to respond—that really made Munich a charged word in the international vocabulary.

The Munich analogy tends to flourish after a lengthy and prosperous peace, when the burdens of war are far enough removed to appear abstract: the case in the 1990s, by which time America’s memories of a dirty land war in Asia, then more than two decades old, had sufficiently dimmed. Munich is about universalism, about taking care of the world and the lives of others. It would be heard often in reaction to the failure to stop genocide in Rwanda in 1994. But Munich reached a fever pitch in the buildup to NATO’s tardy yet effective military interventions in Bosnia in 1995 and in Kosovo in 1999. Those opposed to our Balkan interventions tried to raise the competing Vietnam analogy, but because quagmire never resulted, it was in the Balkans in the 1990s where the phantoms of Vietnam were once and for all exorcised—or so it was thought and written at the time.17

Military force, so hated during the Vietnam years, now became synonymous with humanitarianism itself. “A war against genocide must be fought with a fury, because a fury is what it is fighting,” wrote Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic. “For the purpose of stopping genocide, the use of force is not a last resort: it is a first resort.” Wieseltier went on to rail against the need for exit strategies in humanitarian interventions:

In 1996, Anthony Lake, his [President Bill Clinton’s] tortured and timid national security adviser, went so far as to codify an “exit strategy doctrine”: “Before we send our troops into a foreign country, we should know how and when we’re going to get them out.” Lake was making omniscience into a condition of the use of American force. The doctrine of “exit strategy” fundamentally misunderstands the nature of war and, more generally, the nature of historical action. In the name of caution, it denies the contingency of human affairs. For the knowledge of the end is not given to us at the beginning.18

As an example, Wieseltier cited Rwanda, where a million Tutsis perished in a holocaust in 1994: a Western military quagmire, had we intervened to stop the killing, he wrote, would surely have been preferable to what happened. Wieseltier, who, like Garton Ash, was one of the most formidable and morally persuasive voices of the decade, was writing in regards to the frustration he felt over the limited and belated NATO air war to liberate Muslim Albanians in Kosovo from Milosevic’s policies of expulsion and extermination. The air war targeted Serbian towns and cities, where what was required, according to humanitarian interventionists, was to liberate Kosovar towns with ground troops. Clinton’s hesitant way of waging war was complicit in large-scale suffering. “The work of idealism,” Wieseltier wrote, “has been reduced to relief and rescue, to the aftermath of catastrophe. Where we should have rushed bullets we are now rushing blankets.” Clinton, he said, had discovered a kind of warfare “in which Americans do not die, a … cowardly war with precision technology that leaves polls and consciences unperturbed.” He predicted that “this age of immunity will not last forever. Sooner or later the United States will have to send its soldiers to … a place where they will suffer injury or death. What will matter is whether the cause is just, not whether the cause is dangerous.”19

Indeed, an invasion of Iraq began to emerge as a cause in the 1990s, when the U.S. military was seen as invincible against the forces of history and geography, if only it would be unleashed in time, and to its full extent, which meant boots on the ground. It was idealists who loudly and passionately urged military force in Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo, even as realists like Brent Scowcroft and Henry Kissinger, increasingly pilloried as heartless, urged restraint.

Yet, in fact, the 1990s was less a decade of military power overall than it was specifically a decade of air power. Air power had been crucial to ousting Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991: though geography, in this case, made high-tech war easy, as operations were conducted over a featureless desert where it rarely rained. Air power was also a factor in ending the war in Bosnia four years later, and with all its demonstrated limitations, carried the day against Milosevic in Kosovo four years after that. The ethnic Albanian refugees ultimately returned to their homes, even as Milosevic was weakened to the extent that he fell from power the following year in 2000. We Don’t Do Mountains, went the phrase summarizing the U.S. Army’s initial resistance to sending troops to Bosnia and Kosovo. But it turned out that as long as we owned the air, the Army did mountains rather well. Geography had reared its head all right in the Balkans, but air power quickly overcame it. Then there were the Air Force and Navy fighter jets patrolling the Iraqi no-fly zones, keeping Saddam in his box throughout the decade and beyond. Consequently, segments of the elite, awestruck at the American military’s might, became infused with a sense of moral indignation against the George H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations for not using the military in time to save a quarter of a million people from genocide in the Balkans (not to mention the million in Rwanda). It was a mind-set that at least for some could lead to adventurism, which it did. That, in turn, would lead in the next decade to the partial undoing of the Munich analogy, and restore to geography some of the respect that it had lost in the 1990s. The 1990s saw the map reduced to two dimensions because of air power. But soon after the three-dimensional map would be restored: in the mountains of Afghanistan and in the treacherous alleyways of Iraq.

In 1999, articulating a sentiment increasingly common among liberal intellectuals, Wieseltier wrote:

The really remarkable thing about Clinton’s refusal to include the removal of this villain [Slobodan Milosevic] among his war aims is that he himself inherited the consequences of his predecessor’s refusal to include the removal of another villain among his war aims. In 1991, half a million American soldiers were a few hundred kilometers away from Saddam Hussein, and George Bush did not order them to Baghdad. His generals feared casualties, and they had just concluded a zero-defects war of their own. They, too, adverted to the “territorial integrity” of Iraq, as if the misery that would result from the collapse of the state would be commensurate with the misery that had already resulted, to the Kurds in the north and to the Shia in the south, from the survival of the state.20

It was as if the imaginary borders of Central Europe were limitless, extending unto Mesopotamia. Things would turn out differently, of course. But in 2006, during the worst of Iraq’s sectarian carnage, following the collapse of the state, which may have rivaled the violence that Saddam had inflicted on the country, Wieseltier had the grace to confess an “anxiety about arrogance.” He admitted to having nothing useful to say despite his support of the war. He would not be among those supporters of the invasion who were toiling strenuously in print to vindicate themselves.21

I, too, supported the Iraq War, in print and as part of a group that urged the Bush administration to invade.22 I had been impressed by the power of the American military in the Balkans, and given that Saddam had murdered directly or indirectly more people than had Milosevic, and was a strategic menace believed to possess weapons of mass destruction, it seemed to me at the time that intervention was warranted. I was also a journalist who had gotten too close to my story: reporting from Iraq in the 1980s, observing how much more oppressive Saddam’s Iraq was than Hafez al-Assad’s Syria, I became intent on Saddam’s removal. It would later be alleged that a concern for Israel and a championing of its territorial aggrandizement had motivated many of those in support of the war.23 But my experience in dealing with neoconservatives and some liberals, too, during this time period was that Bosnia and Kosovo mattered more than Israel did in their thinking.24 The Balkan interventions, because they paid strategic dividends, appeared to justify the idealistic approach to foreign policy. The 1995 intervention in Bosnia changed the debate from “Should NATO Exist?” to “Should NATO Expand?” The 1999 war in Kosovo, as much as 9/11, allowed for the eventual expansion of NATO to the Black Sea.

For quite a few idealists, Iraq was a continuation of the passions of the 1990s. It represented, however subconsciously, either the defeat of geography or the utter disregard of it, dazzled as so many were with the power of the American military. The 1990s was a time when West African countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone, despite their violence, and despite being institutionally far less developed than Iraq, were considered credible candidates for democracy. But it was the power of the military, and in particular that of the Air Force, which was the hidden hand that allowed universalist ideas to matter so much more than terrain and the historical experience of people living on it.

Munich, too, was at work in approaching the dilemma of Saddam Hussein after 9/11. Though the United States had just suffered an attack on its soil comparable to Pearl Harbor, the country’s experience with ground war had been, for a quarter-century, minimal, or at least not unpleasant. Moreover, Saddam was not just another dictator, but a tyrant straight out of Mesopotamian antiquity, comparable in many eyes to Hitler or Stalin, who harbored, so it was believed, weapons of mass destruction. In light of 9/11—in light of Munich—history would never forgive us if we did not take action.

When Munich led to overreach, the upshot was that other analogy, thought earlier to have been vanquished: Vietnam. Thus began the next intellectual cycle of the Post Cold War.

In this next cycle, which roughly corresponded with the first decade of the twenty-first century and the difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the terms “realist” and “pragmatist” became marks of respect, signifying those who were skeptical from the start of America’s adventure in Mesopotamia, while “neoconservative” became a mark of derision. Whereas in the 1990s, ethnic and sectarian differences in far-off corners of the world were seen as obstacles that good men should strive to overcome—or risk being branded as “fatalists” or “determinists”—in the following decade such hatreds were seen as factors that might have warned us away from military action; or should have. If one had to pick a moment when it became undeniable that the Vietnam analogy had superseded the one of Munich, it was February 22, 2006, when the Shiite al-Askariyah Mosque at Samarra was blown up by Sunni al Qaeda extremists, unleashing a fury of inter-communal atrocities in Iraq, which the American military was unable to stop. Suddenly, our land forces were seen to be powerless amid the forces of primordial hatreds and chaos. The myth of the omnipotent new United States military, born in Panama and the First Gulf War, battered a bit in Somalia, then repaired and burnished in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, was for a time shattered, along with the idealism that went with it.

While Munich is about universalism, about taking care of the world and the lives of distant others, Vietnam is domestic in spirit. It is about taking care of one’s own, following the 58,000 dead from that war. Vietnam counsels that tragedy is avoided by thinking tragically. It decries incessant fervor, for it suggests how wrong things can go. Indeed, it was an idealistic sense of mission that had embroiled the United States in that conflict in Southeast Asia in the first place. The nation had been at peace, at the apex of its post–World War II prosperity, even as the Vietnamese communists—as ruthless and determined a group of people as the twentieth century produced—had murdered more than ten thousand of their own citizens before the arrival of the first regular American troops. What war could be more just? Geography, distance, our own horrendous experience in the jungles of the Philippines in another irregular war six decades previously at the turn of the twentieth century were the last things in people’s minds when we entered Vietnam.

Vietnam is an analogy that thrives following national trauma. For realism is not exciting. It is respected only after the seeming lack of it has made a situation demonstrably worse. Indeed, just look at Iraq, with almost five thousand American dead (and with over thirty thousand seriously wounded) and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, at a cost of over a trillion dollars. Even were Iraq to evolve into a semi-stable democracy and an implicit ally of the United States, the cost has been so excessive that, as others have noted, it is candidly difficult to see the ethical value in the achievement. Iraq undermined a key element in the mind-set of some: that the projection of American power always had a moral result. But others understood that the untamed use of power by any state, even a freedom-loving democratic one like America, was not necessarily virtuous.

Concomitant with a new respect for realism came renewed interest in the seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who extols the moral benefits of fear and sees violent anarchy as the chief threat to society. For Hobbes, fear of violent death is the cornerstone of enlightened self-interest. By establishing a state, men replace the fear of violent death—an all-encompassing, mutual fear—with the fear that only those who break the law need face. Such concepts are difficult to grasp for the urban middle class, who have long since lost any contact with man’s natural condition.25 But the horrific violence of a disintegrating Iraq, which, unlike Rwanda and Bosnia in some respects, was not the result of a singularly organized death machine, but of the very breakdown of order, allowed many of us to imagine man’s original state. Hobbes thus became the philosopher of this second cycle of the Post Cold War, just as Berlin had been of the first.26

And so this is where the Post Cold War has brought us: to the recognition that the very totalitarianism that we fought against in the decades following World War II might, in quite a few circumstances, be preferable to a situation where nobody is in charge. There are things worse than communism, it turned out, and in Iraq we brought them about ourselves. I say this as someone who supported regime change.

In March 2004, I found myself in Camp Udari in the midst of the Kuwait desert. I had embedded with a Marine battalion that, along with the rest of the 1st Marine Division, was about to begin the overland journey to Baghdad and western Iraq, replacing the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division there. It was a world of tents, pallets, shipping containers, and chow halls. Vast lines of seven-ton trucks and Humvees stretched across the horizon, all headed north. The epic scale of America’s involvement in Iraq quickly became apparent. A sandstorm had erupted. There was an icy wind. Rain threatened. Vehicles broke down. And we hadn’t even begun the several-hundred-kilometer journey to Baghdad that a few short years before, those who thought of toppling Saddam Hussein as merely an extension of toppling Slobodan Milosevic, had dismissed as easily done. Vast gravel mazes that smelled of oil and gasoline heralded the first contractor-built truck stop, one of several constructed along the way to service the many hundreds of vehicles headed north, and to feed the thousands of Marines. Engines and generators whined in the dark. It took days of the most complex logistics—storing and transporting everything from mineral water bottles to Meals Ready to Eat to tool kits—to cross the hostile desert till we arrived in Fallujah west of Baghdad. A mere several hundred kilometers.27 And this was the easy, nonviolent part of an American military occupation across the whole country. It was surely wrong to suggest that physical terrain no longer mattered.


Preface: Frontiers

1. Jeremy Black, Maps and History: Constructing Images of the Past (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), p. 85.

2. James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), p. ix.

3. The province was later renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

4. Sugata Bose, A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), p. 56.

5. Golo Mann, The History of Germany Since 1789, translated by Marian Jackson (London: Chatto & Windus, 1968), pp. 525 and 880, 1987 Peregrine edition.

6. Ernest Gellner, Muslim Society (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 38, 41, 180, 187.



Chapter I: From Bosnia to Baghdad

1. Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History,” The National Interest, Washington, Summer 1989. Book version: The End of History and the Last Man (New York: The Free Press, 1992).

2. Jonathan C. Randal, “In Africa, Unrest in One-Party States,” International Herald Tribune, Paris, March 27, 1990.

3. Timothy Garton Ash, “Bosnia in Our Future,” New York Review of Books, December 21, 1995.

4. Carl E. Schorske, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (New York: Knopf, 1980); Claudio Magris, Danube (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986, 1989), p. 268.

5. Timothy Garton Ash, The File: A Personal History (New York: Random House, 1997), p. 51.

6. Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life (New York: Holt, 1998), p. 24.

7. Timothy Garton Ash, “Does Central Europe Exist?,” New York Review of Books, October 9, 1986.

8. W. H. Parker, Mackinder: Geography as an Aid to Statecraft (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), p. 201; K. A. Sinnhuber, “Central Europe–Mitteleuropa–Europe Centrale: An Analysis of a Geographical Term,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol. 20, 1954; Arthur Butler Dugan, “Mackinder and His Critics Reconsidered,” The Journal of Politics, May 1962, p. 250.

9. Saul B. Cohen, Geography and Politics in a World Divided (New York: Random House, 1963), pp. 79–83.

10. Halford J. Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction (Washington: National Defense University, 1919, 1942), p. 90.

11. Cohen, Geography and Politics in a World Divided, p. 222.

12. Colin S. Gray, Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005), pp. 37, 95, 176–77.

13. Michael Ignatieff, “Homage to Bosnia,” New York Review of Books, April 21, 1994.

14. James Joyce, Ulysses (New York: Modern Library, 1922, 1934), p. 697, 1990 Vintage edition.

15. Timothy Garton Ash, “Kosovo and Beyond,” New York Review of Books, June 24, 1999. He was referring to a line in Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939,” published in 1940.

16. Timothy Garton Ash, “Cry, the Dismembered Country,” New York Review of Books, January 14, 1999.

17. I have my own history regarding the story of these delayed interventions. My book Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History (New York: St. Martin’s) was reportedly a factor in President Bill Clinton’s decision not to militarily intervene in 1993, thus putting off the dispatch of NATO forces into the Balkans for two years. Balkan Ghosts, a record of my experiences in the Balkans in the 1980s, appeared first as works in progress in The Atlantic Monthly before the Berlin Wall fell. Then, in June 1991, Chapter 3 of Balkan Ghosts (about Macedonia) appeared in The Atlantic. According to a former State Department official, quoted in The Washington Post (February 21, 2002), that article was instrumental in getting “the first and only preventive deployment of U.N. peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia.” Though a 1990 CIA report warned of Yugoslavia disintegrating, the State Department “was in a state of denial … until Kaplan’s article came along.” As it happens, the deployment of 1,500 peacekeepers in Macedonia prevented violence that later broke out in Bosnia and Kosovo. Balkan Ghosts was published in book form in March 1993. That same month I published an article about Yugoslavia in Reader’s Digest, in which I wrote: “Unless we can break the cycle of hatred and revenge—by standing forcefully for self-determination and minority rights—the gains from the end of the Cold War will be lost. All aid, all diplomatic efforts, all force if force is used, must be linked to the simple idea that all the people of Yugoslavia deserve freedom from violence.” Soon after, I appeared on television to publicly urge intervention in the Balkans. I also urged intervention on the front page of The Washington Post’s Outlook section on April 17, 1994, more than a year before we finally intervened. Balkan Ghosts paints a grim picture of ethnic relations in southeastern Europe, but it is only the grimmest human landscapes where intervention has usually been required in the first place: one need never idealize a human landscape in order to take action on its behalf. And as we would learn later in Iraq, when you do intervene, you should do so without illusions. Though my books and articles were read by the president and others, at no point did anyone in the Clinton administration contact me in any way concerning my work, and how it might be applied to specific events and policy choices that arose after the book was completed.

18. Leon Wieseltier, “Force Without Force: Saving NATO, Losing Kosovo,” New Republic, Washington, April 26 and May 3, 1999.

19. Leon Wieseltier, “Winning Ugly: The War Ends, Sort Of. The Peace Begins, Sort Of,” New Republic, Washington, June 28, 1999.

20. Ibid.

21. Leon Wieseltier, “Useless,” New Republic, Washington, April 17, 2006.

22. Bob Woodward, State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), pp. 84–85.

23. Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).

24. Israel at the time of 9/11 was undergoing frequent terrorist attacks and so naturally was at the receiving end of American sympathy. Demands for it to freeze settlement activity in the occupied territories would resume later on, though. During the buildup to the Iraq War, I wrote that if Bush was successful in Iraq and achieved a second term, he should end “the domination by Israeli overlords of three million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza,” a situation which I called “particularly untenable.” “A Post-Saddam Scenario,” Atlantic Monthly, Boston, November 2002.

25. Robert D. Kaplan, Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos (New York: Random House, 2002), p. 84.

26. Hobbes and Berlin are great precisely because of their nuance. Hobbes’s philosophy may represent a grim view of humanity, but he was also a liberal modernizer, because at the time of his writings modernization meant the breakdown of the medieval order through the establishment of a central authority, which his Leviathan represented. Likewise Berlin, while the embodiment of liberal humanism, was also a realist who recognized, for example, that the search for sufficient food and shelter came before the search for freedom.

27. Actually, advance columns of American forces in the First Gulf War had come within 150 kilometers of Baghdad. But the bulk of the troops were based in Kuwait and the Saudi desert. Robert D. Kaplan, “Man Versus Afghanistan,” The Atlantic, April 2010.

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