Monday, January 26, 2004

I've just finished reading the extraordinary memoirs (available online) of Henry Morgenthau, American ambassador to the Ottoman empire from 1913 to 1916. Originally published in 1918, this account of his time in Constantinople is a rare example of a fascinating historical document that's also wonderfully entertaining to read. Morgenthau presents colorful sketches of the major personalities with which he interacted as part of his job--particularly Turkish leaders Dalaat Pasha and Enver Pasha, and German ambassador von Wangenheim--and clearly explains the strategic military and diplomatic issues of the day.

His most valuable contribution, however, is to give telling insight into what might be described as inchoate German and Muslim fascism. From his conversations (as a neutral party) with German military and diplomatic representatives in the lead-up to World War I, for example, he becomes convinced that the German leadership had been planning on war for years; that they expected to win, and to impose harsh terms on the countries they anticipated defeating; and that if they lost, they would simply study their mistakes, correct them, and start another war in a decade or two. His portrayal of Germany as a confident, aggressive, ruthless nation, with absolutely no principles beyond victory at all costs, no fear of defeat, let alone war, and no compunction about planning for victory in the next war--in 1918!--is frankly stunning to read in hindsight.

His portrayal of Turkey is comparably evocative. Run jointly by a triumvirate of former democratic idealists ("Young Turks") turned ruthless dictators, his host country is, like its German ally, full of aggressive, ruthless confidence--but without any of the economic or military prowess to back it up. As a result it throws itself into grandiose political and military campaigns that lead only to slaughter and disaster. Its victories--repulsing the Entente navy at the Dardanelles, and the British Empire's forces at Gallipoli--are a result of massive German assistance. Its other endeavors are bloody, feckless disasters, in which large numbers of innocents are slaughtered, Turkish troops are soundly defeated, nothing is accomplished, or all three of these results come to pass. All the while, though, official pronouncements remain faithful to a kind of "Baghdad Bob"-style mirror reality, in which Turkey is always noble and blameless, its enemies evil and corrupt, and its inevitable success assured. A more vivid picture of a modern Middle Eastern Muslim nation would be hard to draw even today, let alone in 1918.

The main lesson of Morgenthau's portrait of these two countries, it seems, is that nations that are dangerous--to their neighbors, their despised minorities, and to the world--share certain identifiable characteristics. By now this list should be familiar: a large, dense population, a history of vigorous, chauvinistic, somewhat race-tinged nationalism (perhaps masking deep internal disunity), a strong military tradition, a national inferiority complex encouraging a sense of slighted belligerency, confidence inspired by a recent spurt of political or economic vigor, and, of course, a ruthless, thoroughly undemocratic government with an ambitious ideology. Perhaps now my prediction about the rise of China as a major source of world conflict in 2004 makes more sense....

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