From Bernard Lewis
One hears a great deal in the Middle East, and to some extent elsewhere, of American imperialism. This is a term which is both inaccurate and misleading; it reveals a lack of understanding both of what America is about and of what the word ‘imperialism’ means.
For a better understanding, I can go back to the history classes in my primary school where my education in history began. When the Romans came to Britain some two thousand years ago, and when the British went to India a few hundred years ago, an exit strategy was not uppermost in their minds. They had quite a different purpose, a different intention, and they stayed for a long time.
If one looks at the more detailed criticism that is leveled against America and American policies in the Middle East, the particular charge is not so much that America is engaging in imperialism as that America is failing to meet its imperial responsibilities. In other words, the assumption is that there has to be an imperial power, a successor to the British and French empires. That is the role in which history has cast America, and the Americans are failing to fulfill it.
In considering the possible role of America, I am inevitably reminded of a remark made by a Turkish general at a dinner party in Ankara very shortly after Turkey joined NATO in 1952, I believe. He was asked how he felt about this new alliance, and he said (and I recall it vividly), “The problem with having the Americans as your allies is you never know when they’ll turn round and stab themselves in the back.” I have often been reminded of that wise saying, particularly in recent years and months and days, in following the course of events in the region, and more particularly in the United States.
The future role of America in the Middle East is difficult to predict. I would say that, on the whole, America is unlikely to play a major, still less a dominant role in the region. I see a growing American reluctance to become involved in this troublesome region, and a growing anxiety to ask first and foremost how do we get out of there. It seems to me therefore that the U.S. role in the Middle East role will be limited to certain interest groups, to certain specific interests and to one or two other factors.
Let me just enumerate these as a reminder. Specific interest groups obviously include the Jews. But the famous (or infamous) Israel lobby is by no means the only lobby; there are other lobbies that have been much more active though much less talked about. Another group with an interest in this area is the Christian Evangelicals, and to these we may now increasingly add a third: the growing Muslim population in the United States who will have their own interests, their own concerns about what is happening in this part of the world.
What specific interests does America have in the region? Oil immediately comes to mind. Trade is not vastly important; there are other regions of much greater commercial importance. Strategy? That was very important during the Cold War but since then, the Middle East has lost most of its strategic importance, except of course for Middle Easterners.
There is another element of American influence, and that is what those who dislike it call ‘cultural imperialism’: the enormous impact of American popular culture in the region, which grows day by day, affecting people in even the most unlikely settings. I am told for example that in Iran, where satellites are forbidden, the basij, the young revolutionary guards who go around with orders to destroy any satellites, are bribed to tolerate satellites, the price being a free seat to watch their favorite program—and the most popular program is Baywatch. American cultural imperialism, as its critics call it, is an important and rapidly growing—one might almost say overwhelming—factor in much of the region, and that will probably remain as the most important single American involvement.
Bernard Lewis made these remarks in a speech at Tel Aviv University on January 21.