A Dialogue with Professor Eugene Rogan

This interview from September 10, 2021, was conducted between Jodie Wen, a PhD candidate at Peking University (PKU) in China and visiting student at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies (OSGA), and Professor Eugene Rogan, professor of Modern Middle Eastern Studies at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. This interview was originally intended to reach a Chinese audience, and its English transcription has been abridged for publication with OMER. The interview discusses Professor Rogan’s career and works, their relevance in China today, and his perspectives on the history of the region.

Jodie Wen: As a Middle East historian, you are probably most famous for your books, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East and The Arabs: A History, which have now been translated into Chinese. My first question is: What do you want to deliver to Chinese readers through these books?

Eugene Rogan: It’s a good question—I am very happy that these books have been translated into Chinese, and I am delighted to have this opportunity to reach Chinese readers. The books have now been translated into 18 languages.

I think it is important to say that I do not see myself as teaching Chinese readers; I see my books as starting a conversation with the Chinese people that my books reflect very much. 

One thing that I enjoy when I go to China is that when I talk to my Chinese colleagues, they bring a very different perspective to the Middle East. It goes right down to the name. Rather than talking about the “Middle East,” in China, the terminology for the region is West Asia and North Africa, which is a much more neutral way to view this region. I think that China brings a different perspective to the study of the region. What I hope my books will do is not tell Chinese readers what to think about the Middle East, but to start a dialogue and an exchange of views, because I will understand the Middle East even better when I can see it through Chinese eyes.

JW: I think your books do a good job of contextualising the tumult that the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and subsequent period of colonial rule brought to the Middle East and North Africa. Why does it seem that peace eludes this region?

ER: I think the way in which the Middle East emerged into statehood condemned it to a period of violence that we see evolved in each subsequent historical period. The fall of the Ottoman Empire led the Middle East into a period of colonial rule in which the Arab peoples had to struggle to achieve their national rights and their self-determination. The political culture that emerged from these conditions never really attained stability.

Today, I think we see no clear state that is dominating the region. We see a region that is facing more challenges, more governments that are failing than ever before, and no clear, dominant power that is able to assert its influence over the region as a whole. America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is a demonstration of the limits of American power in the region; the failure of the American attempt to rebuild Iraq as a pro-Western country, sympathetic to America, is further proof of that. In a sense, the Middle East now does not look to America as the sole superpower, but it is looking to China, to the European Union, and to Russia, as ways to balance American influence.

JW: When we talk about the fall of the Ottoman Empire, we have to think about the context of World War I as well. Did World War I represent a turning point for the Middle East region?

ER: If we focus just on the shaping of the state system after the end of the Ottoman Empire, one major problem was that the European powers never saw the Middle East as a geostrategic zone in its own right. What I mean by this is that they never thought about how they could create a stable Middle East, this crucial crossroads between the Mediterranean world, Asia, Europe, and Africa. They only thought about the Middle East in terms of their own empires, instead asking, How do we reach a balance of power between the British and French empires? 

They were driven by the concern that, coming out of WWI, the British and French would fight another war over imperial divisions. They believed that their empires would be the dominant structures of international politics for generations to come. We know in hindsight that their empires would last 25-30 years maximum, but they did not know this at the time, so they tried to create a world that would balance the power of their empires. As a result, they carved up the Arab countries in ways which did not correspond to the wishes of the people who lived in those areas, and they have been fighting against this state system imposed by the imperial order ever since. 

JW: One of the biggest ways the region was changed by outside influences was the establishment of the state of Israel. Can you talk a little bit more about the British and French considerations in this realm after World War I?

ER: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a classic example of a decision taken by imperial powers after the fall of the Ottoman Empire that has completely destabilized the Middle East since 1917. Britain was using the Zionist movement as a way to justify adding Palestine to its empire, but France wanted Palestine for its own empire as well. It then became a clear instance of employing “balance of power politics,” which led Britain to make a promise to the Zionist movement. Remember, the Balfour Declaration promised a Jewish national home, but not a Jewish state.

The British hoped to use the Zionists as partners in an imperial project to rule Palestine as a part of the British Empire. But they ended up stoking the nationalist Zionist movement, to create a Jewish state, while at the same time stoking another nationalist Palestinian Arab movement to create an independent Palestinian state. The mandate of Palestine under British imperial rule became impossible to govern, so the British gave up. They withdrew in 1948, and we saw the first war between Israel and the Arab states. The Israel-Palestine issue is a clear legacy of this short-sighted attempt to balance British and French imperial interests that created instability at the very heart of the Middle East. 

JW: I want to turn now to the role of the United States in the Middle East. The United States had no actual military involvement in the Middle East and Asia before World War I, but after World War II, it became involved in the Middle East and adopted interventionist policies around the world to expand its influence. What do you consider to be the turning point in U.S. foreign policy towards the Middle East?

ER: The first factor that changed U.S. relations with the Middle East is oil. The United States was able to establish its oil interests in the Middle East just before World War II, but also before the Americans could actually begin to export it. So coming out of WWII, the American government wanted to ensure that American oil companies would be able to extract the oil from Saudi Arabia, which was sitting on the largest reserves of oil in the world.

For America, this was very important because WWII was fought with guns and bombs, of course, but the airplanes, the tanks, the trucks, the ships, everything—was driven by petroleum. The Americans knew the geostrategic importance of oil, and they knew they were going to make a lot of money for their companies. 

Then of course, during the Cold War, the United States began to view the world in geostrategic zones of influence that they were determined to prevent the Soviets from dominating. One of those zones was what they called the Northern Tier. The Northern Tier went from Greece through Turkey to Iran and Pakistan. The Americans were very concerned to secure this stretch of geography as a geographic zone, thereby isolating the Soviet Union from the Mediterranean world and the Middle East. 

In the Middle East itself, the Americans were very keen to replace the British and French with nationalist movements led by strong military commanders, because the Americans believed these would become their natural partners. The Americans distrusted the politicians in the monarchy of Egypt, because these politicians were all British-trained lawyers, so they believed that they would all be sympathetic to Britain. At a time when the president of the United States was Eisenhower, a general, the Americans believed they could work with military men to extend their influence by selling weapons to the Arab countries. They failed, but they thought this would exclude the Soviets in this immediate post-World War II period. 

JW: So because of this jostling for influence in the Middle East, countries in the region felt as if they had to choose a side? 

ER: I think many in the Arab world would have wished to be non-aligned. They wanted good relations with both the Soviets and the Americans, so they could get development assistance from both. But the Americans had the very simple policy of, “You’re either with us, or you’re against us.” 

JW: I want to shift our focus to Central Asia. Historically, Afghanistan has not been a typical nation-state. Political loyalties in Afghanistan were mainly comprised of ethnic and tribal links, and there was very little sense of identity at the national level. Twenty years ago, George W. Bush went to war in Afghanistan, promising to transform the country into a liberal democracy, but we now know the current state of affairs in Afghanistan. What do you think of America’s goal to transform democracy in the Arab and Islamic world?

ER: In very simple terms, after the September 11th attacks on the United States, President Bush’s response to such a violent attack on American soil was to declare war against the people who did this. It is difficult, however, to make a war on something as vague as terrorism. Your country makes war in other countries, and if you defeat that country, you win the war. But if you declare war on an invisible enemy, that enemy could be in many places. You don’t know where they are, and you can’t win. When Osama bin Laden fled Afghanistan and Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban, fled Afghanistan, Bush was frustrated. He could not win this war on terrorism, but he could use the American military in smaller countries. He did that to prove to the American people that his administration was getting revenge against the attackers of September 11th and was making the world safer for America.

Behind that, though, there was another ideological response that Bush and his new conservative advisers believed sincerely. They believed that you only saw terrorism in failed states or states with no democratic institutions. Now, I don’t agree with this idea at all, but if you think about the context—fighting a war in Afghanistan and about to fight a war in Iraq—these military actions were justified in terms of bringing democracy to the Middle East. I think the Bush administration believed that if they could state-build in Afghanistan and create a democratic order in Afghanistan, then they could make Afghanistan safe from terrorism. The way they entered Afghanistan and Iraq, however, was not as liberators but as occupiers. An occupation will be resisted by the people of the country, and the institutions the occupier puts in place will be rejected—and America has seen its institutions in Afghanistan rejected. 

JW: Given that there are no U.S. troops in Afghanistan now, how do you think the legacy of America’s presence, or even America’s current foreign policy actions, will influence the future of the country?

ER: The American political scientist Joseph Nye is famous for the idea of “smart power.” By withdrawing soldiers from Afghanistan, America is no longer going to rely on hard power to influence events on the ground, but it will continue to have a great deal of soft power that it can exercise to influence the government. This could be through aid, easing sanctions, or releasing the foreign currency reserves of the government of Afghanistan. These are ways in which not just America, but Europe and other countries, can have influence abroad without having soldiers on the ground. 

You have to use soft power wisely, so I hope that they show wisdom. I understand why America does not want to just hand currency or aid over to the Taliban without knowing whether the Taliban will respect certain core principles or values that people in Europe and America hold, like women’s rights. You are more influential if you speak quietly behind closed doors, than if you make pronouncements in the newspapers, because discretion gives people room to change their policies.

JW: What do you think about China’s attitude toward the new government in Afghanistan, particularly since China shares part of its border with Afghanistan?

ER: I think there are some analysts in China that say they are willing to engage with the Taliban and talk about how the two countries can do things together. There may be an opportunity, if there is going be a bit of a power vacuum in Afghanistan, that China can fill it. Yet, at the same time, China is very cautious. China does not like going into countries where there are clear divisions and a risk of civil war. China also does not wish to show enthusiasm for the Taliban movement in case it could encourage thinking it finds threatening in Xinjiang or elsewhere. I think it is going to be quite interesting to see how China is going to proceed, and how much influence China will exercise over the shape that Afghanistan takes. China has lost nothing in Afghanistan, while America has lost a lot.

JW: Recently, Stephen Walt wrote a paper in the Financial Times saying that he thinks the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will allow America to focus on bigger goals. How do you feel about these “bigger goals”—what could they be?

ER: Many people believe that the Biden administration would like to focus more resources on containing what they see as a rivalry with China. I have no insight into these geopolitics, but it is not the first time that the Americans have identified China as a geostrategic rival. Earlier in our interview, we talked about the Bush administration in the pre-9/11 era—when George W. Bush first came to power, he declared that America’s first concern was China. I think this shows that America has had an eye on what the growing power of China could hold for America’s place in the 21st century for a long time.

To me, the question of whether this is the “America century” or the “China century” is not a good one. I do not want to live in any one country’s century—I would like it to be the world century. I think many people believe that is a narrow or naive way to think, and they believe that there are dominant powers that shape a period, but this is what I think.

JW: Thank you so much, Eugene, for your time and your reflection.