The Folly of Liberal Imperialism

When, half an eternity ago, I was a small boy who collected stamps, I was very favorably disposed toward King Farouk. I noticed that Egyptian stamps were never the same in taste or quality after his overthrow, and in those days I judged countries and their regimes by the taste and quality of the stamps they produced. I am not sure that I was entirely wrong to do so: The larger and more garish a country’s stamps, the worse the state of its economy and/or the more repressive its political regime. And at least Farouk never tried to do any good, which is the most one can possibly ask of any national leader.

I was much taken at an early age by the uniforms of Egyptian pashas. They seemed to me something worth fighting for. And so when browsing in a secondhand bookshop recently (browse while such shops still exist), I came across a book published in 1911 called The Truth About Egypt by one J. Alexander, about whom assiduous research on my part—i.e., thirty seconds on the Internet—has failed to reveal any information, I knew that I had to buy it. This was not so much for the text as for the pictures: I could resist neither the faces nor the uniforms of Mustapha Pasha Kemal, Boutros Pasha Ghali, and Mohammed Pasha Said, with their wonderful mustaches, tarboushes, frock coats with gold frogging, and swords of office. How dull our modern politicians look by comparison. If they must torture us with their platitudes, could they not at least dress up a little? Who could compare pictures of Boutros Pasha Ghali, Prime Minister of Egypt, and of his grandson, Boutros Boutros Ghali, Secretary-General of the United Nations, and not lament the past? (Admittedly the prime minister was assassinated, but Madeleine Albright would have rejoiced if his grandson had, in this respect, followed in his grandfather’s footsteps.)

It turned out that the text was not without interest, either. Indeed, all meddlers in the Middle East would do well to read and ponder it. Though not intended as such, it is a testimony to the vanity of power, or of supposed power.

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