09/28/2012 11:10 am ET Updated Nov 28, 2012


Just days ago, Texas representative Louie Gohmert, standing tall on the House floor, delivered this Attic lamentation, echoing like a cry of grief in the great chamber: "This is the massive beginning of a new Ottoman Empire, that President Obama can take great credit for."

Poor Congressman Gohmert, he is so late to the game. Ottoman is not new, but more important, it is not about them. We are Gohmert's Ottoman Empire. Ottoman-America was established 34 years ago, at Camp David.

We are his Ottoman Empire.

Yet certainly the United States of America is not the Ottoman Empire. In so many ways, America is not even like world of Rûm. How can anyone in good conscience and right mind compare Washington D.C. to the Sublime Porte?

This is a metaphor.

The Ottoman Empire ruled the Arab Middle East from 1517 to 1918. After 1918 the British took over most of that realm. After 1973 the United States took over from Britain. In the first decade of this century the United States was "managing" -- as had the Ottomans -- this same realm. This was not "empire," we told ourselves, but we took on the same imperial charge as Sultan Selim in 1517. We were an outsider civilization that was going to calm and shape the Arab Middle East.

Today our enterprise is in ruin. The Ottoman metaphor is relevant because we tried, however unconsciously, to be like them. We had three benchmarks: (1) Ottomans ruled the Arab Middle East as an outsider power (sounds like us); (2) Ottomans carefully co-opted local ruling elites and even armed groups were co-opted to run things (sounds like what we said we were doing); and (3) if 400 years of Ottoman authority in the Arab Middle East was passed on to Britain, was it not natural and right then for America to take up this stabilizing role (we said we were inheritors)?

So maybe the Ottoman-America metaphor is worth exploring. Why were they successful, and how did we fall short?

Outsider rule. The Ottomans were nothing like cartoon narratives "The Terrible Turk" pushed by Catholic-Hapsburg propaganda. Historian Karen Barkey calls the Ottoman state a "hybrid Byzantine-Turkish" enterprise: Half Orthodox Christian, half Sunni Muslim. In its first 200 years, of 47 Grand Viziers (the prime ministers who really ran the empire), only five were Turkish. The rest were from Christian households. Converts yes, but they remained rooted in their own culture and very often their family communities. Moreover, the shock troops of the Ottoman army -- and their most capable administrators -- were from the Janissary corps, which was all from Christian households, mostly Greek and Serbian. The Ottoman state was a balanced blend of Byzantine and Turkish cultures, and in the first two imperial centuries, weighted Byzantine.

Just to show: Two Serbian brothers -- one an Ottoman official (Mehmed Sokullu), one an Orthodox priest (Makarius) -- rose to high estate. Mehmed became Grand Vizier and Makarius became head of the Serbian Church -- yet they stayed close, their intimate correspondence always in Serbian.

So the Ottomans came into the Arab world as outsiders. They had Muslim legitimacy, but they also brought the force of Romano-Byzantine authority and statecraft. Ottomans were European, they were from a Western state tradition, and they were different.

Like us?

Indirect rule. Ottomans were perhaps the most subtle and supple conquerors of all time. Tough in the takeover, they then literally embraced the ruling elites they had just defeated, and made them equal partners in rule. Better than that, they made them brothers in rule. Sheer genius -- and in history, few are the empires willing to succumb to genius.

Ottoman rule, as "the outsider" in Arab lands, showcases their breakthrough talent in statecraft. Even along disputed frontiers most precious to imperial security, like Christian Hungary, we see an incredible flexibility of rule, to the point of sharing administration with Magyar nobility. As one Pasha wrote: "Your village, Nagyegros, is in my possession in Turkey -- I mean, it is in your possession in Hungary."

But Ottomans did not simply welcome local elites into their management style, they also co-opted unruly armed-groups (often the size of state militaries), which they called "bandits." Karen Barkey writes: "The genius of Ottoman state policy was to define the bandits as outside the realm of legitimacy by calling them celalis [terrorist] -- and then incorporating them selectively."

Like we tried in Iraq?

Continuity of rule. Standing back, is it not a bit strange, imagining Great Britain as the Ottoman successor and natural overlord of the Arab Middle East? Is it not even stranger imagining America taking that imperial baton from Britain?

Yet we could call this historical continuity. We can say that Britons knew how. During their first two centuries in India, they fluently slipped into Mughal administration -- gift of a great Muslim empire -- and they did it again in Egypt in 1882, after 365 years of Ottoman stewardship. Or did they?

In 1919, in addition to Egypt, the Crown already had client or protectorate relationships with Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Aden, and the Trucial Coast (UAE). Now, as Ottoman successor, the United Kingdom occupied Iraq, Palestine, and Transjordan, and jumpstarted Saudi Arabia -- all of the non-Turkish-speaking Ottoman realm, save for Syria and Lebanon, which went to France.

Britain seemed poised to claim Ottoman bona fides, but from 1919-1951 their neo-Ottoman "dream palace" slowly and majestically crumbled.

Then the United States, after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, began extending its own successor claim to fading British patrimony -- starting with Israel, then Jordan, Egypt, all the Gulf states, and finally, in 2003, Iraq (Saudi-American clientalism goes back to 1945, and a fateful lunch on the quarterdeck of that grand old heavy cruiser, U.S.S. Quincy).

At our 2003 high tide, America gathered together the entire non-Turkish Ottoman empire as it was in 1914 (minus Lebanon and Syria) -- every one of the eleven states (today) that Britain "managed" in the 1920s and 1930s.

We might even explain this apparent continuity: Over five centuries the Arab Middle East got used to being ruled by an outsider power. The Ottomans were so successful at it that their "management" could even be successfully handed-off to non-Islamic authority.

But is this continuity or discontinuity? Britain managed Egypt for 70 years, and the ten other Arab/Jewish states, beginning by treaty with the Trucial Coast (now UAE) in 1853. They failed miserably only in Palestine and Iraq (maybe Aden). They were gone most everywhere else by the 1970s.

The United States has managed Saudi, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states from the mid-1970s to now. We have failed miserably only in Palestine and Iraq (maybe Yemen). Now we too are getting out.

We tried, like the British, to be good Ottomans -- and we too failed. We failed, like the British, for three reasons.

1. We lacked an Islamic foundation for righteous legitimacy. Ottoman legitimacy in the Arab Middle East rested on the righteousness of a just Sultan, even if ruling from a European city, even if his administrators were culturally Christian. But absent Islamic authority, outsider rule could be historically transportable only for a while.

2. The spirit of the age of empire has fled the earth, hopefully never to return.

3. We never admitted that what we were doing was a grand imperial enterprise. No matter the client-dependency, the protectorate subsidies, the web of American bases, and the eventual military interventions -- no one in the U.S. Government will say that we did anything more than protect the national interest.

Or we protested that we were simply doing God's work, like American Sultans George I declaring that we were birthing "a new world order," or Jimmy The Pious and his heir, William Jefferson The Magnificent, righteously seeking "peace," or Sultan George II announcing that we were about "transforming the Middle East." All true surely, to those so sure that political rhetoric represents truth -- but none of these proclamations is even close to the thing itself.

But every now and then someone important would speak the truth.

Beylerbey Rumsfeld's assistant, Pasha Rich Haver, trumpeted the thing itself to me, personally (and for all to hear), in the summer of 2004. After I innocently averred that in a short few years we would be exiting Iraq, he yelled, red-faced, "How long have we been in Korea, how long have we been in Germany?"

So there was a time when we were this close to openly calling ourselves Ottomans: We were that close to actual rule in the Arab Middle East. Yet at the same time we were also wholly ignorant of Ottoman success, just as we were fully flush with our theology of converting Arab Islam to American Democracy. In a mere eight years, not 70, we not only failed as Ottomans -- we managed to unleash an Arab-wide rebellion against the sway of outsider power.

So what Congressman Gohmert and all of us can truly take credit for, is "jumpstarting" Muslim Renovatio.