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Colin Powell Not Lawrence of Arabia

Tuesday April 15, 2003

Nothing could be more indicative of America’s innocence abroad than the outraged statement by one of the officers in Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

“We were attacked by militias who were not even wearing uniform,” he complained. “They were in civilian clothes.” Really? Civilian clothes? Shock and horror! Did the Iraqis forget to do their laundry during the bombings? Did they forget to polish their boots before strolling out to face the B-52s? 

After all, when the forces of “good” are trying hard to defeat the forces of “evil,” the least the forces of evil can do is be well-dressed. American naiveté would be funny if it weren’t so worrying. 

If America wants to be a good imperialist, perhaps it might turn its attention to the lives and careers of the Great Gamers of the British empire, who, exploitative colonialists as they were, still brought detailed knowledge and human engagement to the imperialist project. “The Great Game” is the name given to the period of intense competition between Britain and Russia in the 19th and early 20th centuries, for control of the interiors of Asia. 

Charles Napier, Francis Younghusband, Charles “Chinese” Gordon among others were all imperialist adventurers of the time of the Great Game. And how different they were from the hard-faced techno-warriors of the United States. For the Great Gamers foreign adventures became journeys of personal transformation. 

Sir Charles Napier conquered the tribes of Sindh but he laid down formidable systems of civic administration and produced a voluminous collection of personal letters giving insights into the lives of the emirs. Durand, British agent at Gilgit from 1889 to 1894, set out in the quest for a “natural border” for India and established the Durand Line. Durand has left a painstaking memoir where he has described the horses, wild flowers, rope bridges, polo matches and hunting dogs of the area. 

By contrast, Tommy Franks can barely pronounce Umm Qasar, CNN anchors often say “Kuwait” instead of Baghdad and have only recently discovered the phenomenon of the suicide bomber. 

The commissioner sahibs of the British civil service were also imperialists. They quelled riots with a glare and silenced subordinates with a word and held down an empire for 200 years. 

The sahibs measured the mountains, carried out linguistic surveys, wrote directories of castes and tribes and produced gazettes and censuses. By contrast, what do the Americans have? A robot-like Donald Rumsfeld who utters the word “Iraqi” as if it means an alien species. Colin Powell who promises to “travel more” to find out about the world. Bush, who has traveled out of America only twice in his entire life. 

In fact, the wealth of American intellectual life in its universities stands in sharp contrast to the provincial insularity of its leadership. Morris Berman, professor at MIT, writes in “Twilight of American Culture” that America has fallen into an irretrievable dark age. The “dumbest” president in the history of the United States presides over a society where the number of people reading a daily newspaper has halved since 1965. In Berman’s survey, 40 percent of Americans couldn’t name the United States’ World War II enemies and 120 million Americans had the cognition of an 11-year-old. 

Victoria’s loyal officers ruled a formal empire and the sahibs sat in seats of administrative power for three-and-a-half centuries. American dominance is hardly direct or formal. Yet inbuilt in the British imperial project was a broadening of the mind for the imperialists, an exploration of new vistas. By contrast, the Americans seem only interested in imposing the “Middle America mentality” on the world. Listen to the expressionless assistant secretary of defense, Victoria Clarke, with her sterile phrases like “models” of “upscaling” and “downscaling” and her “flow of force” and “area denials” and it doesn’t seem as if there are human beings involved in this war, only an avalanche of strategic-speak and a chilling disinterest in other cultures. 

Compare Colin Powell to Francis Younghusband. The latter was an agent of empire who traveled to Lhasa to force the treaty of Tibet on the ruler and weld Tibet to British dominions. 

Yet Younghusband underwent a religious transformation and also became a supporter of Indian independence. T.E. Lawrence or “Lawrence of Arabia” also served British expansion, but ended up becoming deeply emotionally attached to Prince Faisal. Although Lawrence is today criticized for his paternalistic civilizing mission, he immersed himself in Arab culture and thought. Can you imagine Powell ever admitting that he is drawn to any part of the world other than the United States? 

The difference between the Great Gamers of the 19th century and the Americans today is the explosion of technology and information. But it seems that excessive information has torn people further apart than it has brought them closer. The American foreign project is imprisoned in antiseptic strategic-speak and think-tank theorizing. 

The Great Gamers, by contrast, were grassroots travelers who tried to learn as many languages as they could. Perhaps Gen. Tommy Franks might learn a bit of Arabic and Rumsfeld could cast off his gray suit and try on a jalabeya. 

A version of this article appeared April 2 in The Indian Express, an on-line publication based in Bombay, India.