Plus ça change, in the Caucasus and Iraq

It’s that time of year again, when classes have started and professors have resumed their occasional dispensation of blog-worthy anecdotes. Today’s contribution to the venerable tradition of “Guess what?!” posting (as in, “Guess what thing I heard today that maybe you would also like to hear?”) comes to us from the arid eastern shores of the Caspian Sea where, in 1716, Prince Alexander Bekovich-Cherkassky found himself in command of a Russian expedition sent to probe deep into the hinterland of what is modern-day Turkmenistan. Reliant on erroneous cartography and the fabricated testimony of a foreigner with ulterior motives, the Russians believed the great dry riverbed of the Uzboy to be the result of nefarious damming further upstream – remove the dam and the water would once again flow, providing whoever controlled access to the river with an easily-navigable route to India (Russian mappers do not appear to have been aware that India is separated from the Caspian littoral by, among other things, the Himalayas). Alas, Prince Bekovic-Cherkassky’s expeditionary force was brutally obliterated by the forces of a local khan, and Russia never did succeed in establishing a land route to India.

The story is astonishing for many reasons (is it really the case that literally centuries of Russian/Soviet foreign policy has stemmed in part from the fact that they didn’t know about the Himalayas?), chief among them its similarity to the narrative of America’s eventual involvement in Iraq. Faulty intelligence combined with the self-serving and false assertions of a foreign informant to convince a large and powerful state of the usefulness of a particular course of action, only to see everything go horribly wrong and have lasting implications for the conduct of its future policy.  I’m not sure there’s a larger point to be made here, but on a night when President Obama has announced an air campaign that will have us bombing targets in Iraq for the fourth time since 1990 and the New York Times has dug up this from its archives, it’s hard to avoid feeling like there really is nothing new under the sun.