ONE OF THE FASCINATING things to do when studying history is to speculate about "What if?" questions.
- What if Britain hadn't nearly bankrupted itself in two centuries of Middle Eastern military adventures in a bid to protect its Indian colony? What shape would the Middle East's maps be in today if Britain's flawed mercantilist thinking hadn't entangled it in so many misadventures in which it had no need to participate?
- What if Harry Truman hadn't entangled America in the Middle East in a flawed bid to restrain communism? What use would the bankrupt Soviet Union have been able to make of the Mid-East even if Truman had left the sphere alone? (And what threat would it have been if Franklin Roosevelt and Klaus Fuchs hadn't both in their own way helped to arm the Soviets?)
- What if Dwight Eisenhower hadn't pulled the pin on Britain, France and Israel's recovery of the Suez Canal after Nasser's nationalisation of it? Would Eisenhower's support for the already successful recovery have helped to nip the incipient Mid-Eastern nationalism in the bud?
- What if Britain and the US hadn't stood back when the oil fields and refineries owned, established and built up by British and American investors were nationalised by tribal leaders and would be nationalist heroes? Would this have sent a signal to all potential plundererers of American and British property that property rights would always be upheld by American and British governments, and given a valuable lesson in the importance of property rights?
Perhaps the greatest tragedy thrown up by these 'what-ifs' is a real failure of ideas. I've already mentioned the flawed mercantilist thinking that empowered Britain's military misadventures -- an entanglement that cost Britain in both wealth and manpower, without any real gain.
Perhaps the most important thing demonstrated by the whole tragedy of the Middle East -- and the Mid-East's failure to ever really lift off is certainly a tragedy -- is the failure to properly communicate the ideas that underpin the freedom and prosperity of the west. This is the real failure of the west with respect to the non-west.
YOU SEE, ALL THE countries of the Middle East at one time or another were confronted with the need to to shake off their superstitious pasts and to modernise their bad selves (to use the words of educator Maria Montessori, they developed a 'sensitive period' for learning about what made the west great); when confronted with the obvious military and economic superiority of the west all of them looked westward for inspiration -- but what countries like Turkey and Egypt and eventually even Afghanistan saw when they realised their own backwardness and looked westward for inspiration was not the ideas of the likes of John Locke or Thomas Jefferson or Adam Smith -- the ideas that had underpinned the west's freedom and prosperity -- but instead the intellectual pygmies who then crawled across the intellectual wastelands of the late-nineteenth century who were then doing all they could to undercut freedom and prosperity altogether.
Instead of Carl Menger, Turkey's Kemal Atatutk picked up Karl Marx. Instead of Frederic Bastiat, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser picked up Frederick Engels. It's a powerful example of the necessity for good intellectual hygiene and of the power of even bad ideas -- that ideas can as easily destroy as make prosperous, depending on the particular ideas one picks up.
Each Middle Eastern country modernised at a different time, each picking up the intellectual current of that time -- and unfortunately by the latter half of the nineteenth century when most were modernising, the intellectual current of the west was already fast dwindling to become a cesspool*. The results in large part can still be seen today, with the secular shibboleths of collectivism and nationalism fighting the secular battle against the superstitious backwardness of Islam, and losing.
You see, the game of 'Historical What-If?' is endlessly fascinating, and what I've said here has only just scratched the surface: I've only posed questions arising from the first few lectures of Scott Powell's Islamist Entanglement course.
It's fascinating to speculate for example about what the whole Middle East would be like, hell, what the whole world be like, if it had never been infected with the stinking collectivism of Marx and the nasty nationalism of the likes of Hegel and the German 'ethnic nationalists': if all the many millions slaughtered by the dictators of the twentieth century had been allowed to live, and if all the billions enslaved by totalitarian ideology had been allowed to live free.
JUST IMAGINE IF THE world hadn't been intellectually empowered to give power to those killers, "those depraved individuals who would rather kill than live, who would rather inflict pain and death than experience pleasure, whose pleasure comes from the infliction of pain and death. Unfortunately," observes George Reisman in his book Capitalism, "there is no lack of such individuals...
[and no shortage of] philosophical justification for [their] murders, such as the security of the State, the will of God, the achievement of Lebensraum,or the establishment of communism and a future classless society. Each of these alleged values supposedly justified the murder of living human beings. As the Communists were so fond of saying, “The end justifies the means.”
And with enablers like Hegel and Marx to state the ends -- which amount to making one neck for one noose -- the killers were given power and the means by which to carry out their atrocities. But "just imagine," as Reisman invites ...
In eras that are philosophically and culturally better than our own, [these killers] might even pass their entire lives quietly, in modest obscurity, causing harm to no one. In such a better era, Hitler might have passed his days as an obscure paperhanger, Himmler as a chicken farmer, and Eichmann as a factory worker or office clerk. Lenin would probably have been just a disgruntled intellectual,and Stalin perhaps an obscure cleric. But in the conditions of a collapse of rationality, frustrations and feelings of hatred and hostility rapidly multiply, while cool judgment, rational standards, and civilized behavior vanish. Monstrous ideologies appear and monsters in human form emerge alongside them, ready to put them into practice.
In short, the real lesson from even these few 'what-ifs' is the life-saving necessity for good intellectual hygiene.
* Thank goodness New Zealand was settled in 1840, when John Locke and Adam Smith were at least remembered, if not still admired. The Treaty of Waitangi at least pays homage to the shadow of John Locke, which is really its chief and perhaps only boon. (And thank goodness that when Asian tigers like Hong Kong and Taiwan began to take off in the latter half of last century, they chose to ignore the then-fashionable intellectual fads of the west, and go for prosperity instead)