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robert kaplan travels through hell

Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus
Robert D. Kaplan
(Random House, 364 pages)
eastward to tartary cover
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Robert Kaplan’s 1993 book, Balkan Ghosts, was reputed to be a major text in the Clinton White House’s library of resources during the Kosovo crisis. It was Kaplan who dubbed Kosovo the “Balkan West Bank”, and his book was considered a latter-day successor to Rebecca West’s 1941 Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, considered indespensible to any journalist or policy wonk trying to make sense of that part of Eastern Europe that passed from the Ottoman to the Soviet sphere of influence in the first half of the 20th century.

Since then, Kaplan has built a reputation for a peculiar kind of travel book, a combination of trekker’s diary and foreign policy briefing. Imagine a Lonely Planet guide that, instead of telling you where to find a decent bowl of noodles and the cleanest hostel, introduces you to a nation’s political players and breaks down the economic machinery that produces the noodles and might, shortly, turn the hostel into an expensive guest worker’s hotel or a pile of rubble.

Eastward to Tartary sees Kaplan revisiting the Balkans, carefully skirting war-ravaged former Yugoslavia, changing too rapidly for chapter-length summary, and now no longer the terra incognita it was with his previous book. From the Balkans, Kaplan strikes south through Turkey into the Middle East, and then east, into the historic “spice road” countries of Central Asia: Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. 

Always aware of historical precedent, Kaplan describes passing through the ghosts of the Hapsburg, Ottoman, and Soviet empires, subtly hinting that what was once history is, and will become, news. The spice road, for instance, is now an oil road, as petroleum companies commit to turning Baku, on the Caspian Sea, into the next oil boomtown, with the territories adjacent becoming vital pipeline routes. Kaplan does a good job of describing the swift change from ancient poverty to gaudy prosperity as he travels across the desert to Baku, where Irish pubs are constructed from kits and four-star hotels house foreign enterpreneurs, engineers and executives, all, seemingly, blissfully unaware of the history and rumbling instability of the region in their pursuit of petro-dollars.

In a general sense, Kaplan doesn’t tell us anything new. As he journeys east, he passes from the relative economic stability of Hungary, solidly climbing back into lap of European statehood, through the desperation of Romania and Bulgaria, who’d love to follow Hungary’s path, if only the west would offer then a helping hand. In Turkey, he sees the hand of the military behind every political event; not quite a dictatorship, but not democracy in the sense that we know it. In the middle east, he identifies Syria, more than Iraq or Iran, as the key piece that could affect the whole region once president Hafez al-Assad’s regime succumbs to its inherent entropy. To his credit, he avoids the stereotypical cries of alarm over Islamic fundamentalism, aware that there are more pressing issues at hand.

The book really takes off in the wastes of Central Asia, where the future is anyone’s guess, as hard as the multinational petrochemical interests are trying to buy that future off. Here, though, his analysis is predictable: The end of the Soviet Union has left behind a geopolitical nightmare, for which, as with everywhere else, there is only one solution - more support from the West; more democracy. In his analysis of Turkey, Kaplan seems to understand that there are not only degrees, but different species of acceptable “democracies”, and that workable, stable governments can persist, even thrive, without resembling Europe or America. Still, his conclusions seem coloured by the sort of wishful thinking that has made U.S. foreign policy a daydreaming giant on the world scene - too big to ignore, too often naive and petulant.

Aware of his unique position as an “expert”, he makes avid recommendations - let Bulgaria and Romania enter NATO, give the Caucasus nations the use of special forces and intelligence advisers to aid in maintaining stability. This last suggestion is so close to the kind of situation that commenced American involvement in Vietnam that I’m surprised Kaplan tosses it off so lightly. “The fundamental issue will be the survival of the states themselves - by whatever means,” Kaplan writes of the Near East. It’s the kind of rhetoric you expect to hear in a State Department report, and it’s those last three words, like a minor chord in the soundtrack of history, that have precipitated so much tragedy in the past that Kaplan, of all people, must understand never ends.

(2002 update: Obviously, subsequent events overtook Kaplan's book - which didn't include a chapter on Afghanistan - and my review, written in the late winter of 2001. Islamic fundamentalism proved to be more of a menace than either Kaplan or I anticipated. Syria doesn't seem like much of a hot spot next to Iraq and Israel just at the moment, although the interventionist policy Kaplan favours is being increasingly embraced by the formerly isolationist Bush administration. Predicting the future is a mostly pointless exercise; reviewing those predictions can be like following a badly drawn map, complaining about the shoddy draftsmanship without knowing you're lost.)

©2001, 2002 Rick McGinnis