The Middle East has taken center stage as the primary region in which the world’s superpowers (America, China, Russia) vie for power and influence. Many commentators have written about a decline in American hard and soft power in the region as the inevitable result of military overstretch, botched diplomacy, and Tiger Wood’s zealous promotion of Hedonism as an alternative to fundamentalist Islam. Meanwhile, Maoist China has taken advantage of our follies by engaging in a nefarious, godless campaign to court Middle Eastern governments by providing them with low-cost hummus containers and hand-stitched silk dragon hijabs. (For another sign of the shifting landscape in the Middle East, one need only look at Ahmadnejad’s insistence on using Mandarin Chinese for all official negotiations conducted between him and the Hidden Imam.)
This new unstable geopolitical configuration has been welcomed by Middle Eastern dictators, FLAS-funded graduate students, CNN commentator and token Muslim Fareed Zakaria (for tokenism, see: Iraqi Vice President Tarik al Hashemi), and others who benefit indirectly or directly from continuing turmoil in the region. While we can certainly appreciate the high level of geopolitical importance assigned to our favorite region, we must also remember that there are those who continue to suffer because the United States’ narrow foreign policy focus on the Middle East. A great injustice has been done to another integral part of the Arabo-Islamo-Turkic world, Central Asia.
The Central Asian nation states, whose boundaries were drawn up in 1989 during a drunken game of Risk at the Kremlin, are pleading for more direct U.S. engagement. While we have been attentive to the pleas of the Saudi government for a dozen gold-plated life-size replicas of the Ka’aba and Israel’s request for more Palestinian-Civilian-guided White Phosphorus bombs, we have been neglecting Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and most importantly, Tajikistan.
The Central Asian states, whose entreaties and overtures are more modest than those of our Middle Eastern partners, are like a gentle, loyal lover that the United States has abandoned in favor of another more violent, passionate mashuq- the Middle East. The mostly Turkic-speaking nations still embody the bizzare counterfactual scenario of what could have been if the Soviet Union had not collapsed (for counterfactual scenarios see: O.J. Simpson’s book, If I Did It)- and sadly, they have been unable to unleash their economic and political potential because America has been reluctant to vigorously push the freedom agenda through military force and neoliberal financial institutions.
The Central Asian states are tired of having an increasingly irrelevant country like Russia as their main patron and their startlingly unattractive, eccentric leaders are looking for another superpower to bolster and legitimize their repressive regimes. The United States, which has proven its commitment to liberal democracy through its support for Hosni Mubarak and the Al-Saud family, will not be that type of partner in Central Asia. We will, instead, use a carrot and stick policy to convince Central Asian leaders that allowing a nominal, weak opposition party to compete in a national game of goat-head polo (buzkashi) is the only sensible path for a secular repressive regime looking to increase its domestic and international legitimacy. While they work towards perfecting this critical element of democratic governance, we will increase trade with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan so that average Americans will have access to their most valuable exports: obedient women with unibrows and uranium, respectively. American and European banks will capitalize on the opportunity to finance the rise of a new Central Asian Dubai in Almaty or Bishkek by lending out large amounts of money to be invested in yurt speculation and goat herding . Meanwhile, the Christian right would be thrilled at the possibility that their ministries would have direct access to millions of confused, liberal-enough-to- drink Muslims.
In sum, the good news is that the United States would be able to increase its influence in these strange, natural-resource rich post-Soviet nations , which are, coincidentally, close in geographical proximity to our new colonial possession, Afghanistan. The bad news is that Middle East Studies would wane in importance to such an extent that MESA would be forced to hold its annual convention in the lower levels of Bobst.
How do we comfort ourselves about the unintended consequences of renewed engagement in Central Asia? We must look to the wisdom of that oft-repeated quote from the Bush years, which can help us understand why Middle Eastern Studies will eventually have to play second-fiddle to post-Soviet studies. Freedom isn’t free.