Monday, April 28, 2008

I read a couple of great books over the winter. Two books, by Peter Hopkirk, really stand out. The first is entitled "The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia" (I'll refer to it as TGG). TGG is about the history of European colonialism in Central Asia. It focuses on the competition between the Russians and the British to bring the Central Asian tribes into alignment. Britain, desperate to protect her interests in India, was constantly sending spies into Central Asia and attempting to map the passes through which a Russian attack might be mounted upon India. The Russians, wanting to expand their empire and apply pressure to the British, also sent forth numerous spies and agitators. TGG relays its information largely through telling the stories of individuals. In contrast to ordinary history books, which state (interpreted) facts about events, TGG tells adventure stories about what happened to specific people as they attempted specific missions. The historical information thus become part of the narrative, and the reading is far more compelling.

The second book, "Setting the East Ablaze," picks up right where the first leaves off right about the time of the Russian Revolution. The Russian objectives in East Asia changed, but the goals in terms of empire remained essentially the same. Rather than simply padding the coffers of the Russian empire, Central Asia became the jumping off point for communist revolution in India, as well as a buffer against the Imperialist British.

Both of these books are insightful and informative. If you have any interest in world political history or if you enjoy books like the Flashman novels by George MacDonald Fraser, you'll really like these. They remain roughly neutral (though with a cheerful adoration of British bravado and ingenuity). They helped me to understand much more about Afghanistan and the conflicts there and in northern Pakistan and even Iran.

Both TGG and SEA help to make clear why so many people over there don't like westerners. We've been stepping on their toes for hundreds of years, messing around in their politics and trying to use them as our pawns. I'd be bitter too.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

In the bookstore yesterday I noticed that there seems to be a trend in tell-all books by former manipulators of the global economy. I read what I believe to be the first of these books some time last year. It's called Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. It was a dastardly tale of adventure and deceit.

Alleged to be auto-biographical, Confessions recounts how the author was recruited by the NSA to work for a large Construction company. His task was to deliberately and significantly over-estimate the economic benefits of proposed infrastructure projects in developing countries. Using his estimates, the country would take out a loan from the World Bank with a contractual obligation that the money go directly to an American contractor. They would use the money to build the project, then find that the economic benefits fell far short of the estimates. At this point they are unable to repay the debt, and the US leverages the debt into UN votes, overly favorable trade agreements, and other forms of economic servitude. Perkins alleges this as a deliberate strategy to ensnare developing countries and ensure that they abide by our interests.

It's a compelling read, like a spy novel. It's claims are outrageous and infuriating. It's difficult to believe that it's all true, and yet, I have a nagging suspicion that it is.

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