For an attack of ignorance, take this

Posted: Thursday, February 13, 2003

In the 1850s there existed in the United States a political party the members of which were happy to call themselves Know-Nothings. Their claim was that they knew nothing - hence the name - of their stated aim, which was to exclude the foreign-born from political participation.

The Last Word by Fern Chandonnet. He can be reached at

(The astute reader will recognize that the K-Ns are alive and well in modern-day America, and may be observed scratching their ribs and gabbing with their fellow orangutans at "English-only" rallies and Ku Klux Klan meetings.)

More to the point, though, is the continuing, uniquely American display of pride in ignorance. I'm but a third-generation American, and am therefore only beginning to appreciate the rapture of having a finger firmly and permanently ensconced in the nostril. So forgive my still-foreign ways if I sit here facing the incoming tide and order it to stop. Right now.

Please read the book "Eastward to Tartary," by Robert D. Kaplan.

If you do, I promise you will never embarrass yourself by answering a radio reporter's question about your views on Iraq - as I heard a woman living on the coast of Alabama reply the other day - that an attack on Iraq is past due; that it has been a while, after all, since 9/11; and that something ought to be done.

In a nutshell, read the book and you will not simply twitch when the Leader trumpets "evil," "God," "terror," "rogue nation" or "weapons of mass destruction."

"Eastward to Tartary" is a fine introduction to the history, geography, culture, politics and prospects of the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucasus - subjects that seem never to be, though they ought, part of the discussion of an American foreign policy that year after year drives toward the East.

Kaplan's is a diary, of sorts, of his travels from Budapest through the Balkans, to the Black Sea and along the Anatolian plain, into the Caucasus, onto the shore of the Caspian, and finally into the far reaches of Turkmenistan. (Don't worry, there are maps.) Along the way he connects with cultural mavens, historians and even heads of state as he develops his and our comprehension - often through the powerful observations of grizzled old savants - of the post-Cold-War state of the states.

If you're normal and were frightened away from history (in fact, from knowing) by a high-school teacher obsessed with the number 1066 and the importance of the Corn Laws, rest easy: Kaplan's joy of discovery will be yours, and it will have little to do with the three principal exports of blah-blah.

For example, you will learn of the wrestler cabal (for Pete's sake!) that controls much of Bulgaria. Readers of National Geographic will remember that Bulgaria has a long tradition of, not to say obsession with, wrestling. Anyway, it seems these large, muscular types have formed into mafias that control much of the economic and even cultural life of a country whose democracy is fledgling (I am being generous) and whose attempts to connect to the West and to disengage from a moribund East are failing.

Or pause for a moment in Anatolia and consider that that vast, dusty plain only became truly Turkish when the ruthless and beloved father of his country, Mustafa Kemal, ran a million ethnic Greeks out.

Lest you think history is about some other time, know that Anatolia is central to a conflagration that is, today, only a snap of President Bush's fingers away. If like most folks you find the term "bad" to be an unsatisfying rationale for foreign policy and would like to know what, for example, Syria is all about, read the book. You'll learn about the ingrained enmity not only between Turk and Arab (in Istanbul, a stray dog is called an "Arab") but also between Sunni Muslims and Alewis - the first comprising Turkey's powerful, emerging Islamists and the second the ruling clique in Syria - also Islamists, by the way, but scum in the eyes of the Sunni.

It gets even more interesting when you consider that the Turks have long had an eye on the oil fields of Mosul, in northern Iraq, as have the Kurds - stateless enemies of the Turks and Iraqis - and the two Bushes: prequel and W.

Complicate what is already nearly unfathomable with the fact that the Armenians look over their western border into Anatolian Turkey at their beloved, sacred icon, Mount Ararat. They look also toward once-Armenian cities, lost along with a million of their kind during the Turkish butchery. They look with a centuries-deep memory, and - fresh from having crushed the Azer Turks in Nagorno-Karabakh - they wait.

This is a gorgeous book, compellingly written - in fact, addictive. As Kaplan travels East and the ethos, the very air becomes more Oriental and less European, you wonder how far he will go, how inventive he will have to be to come to a conclusion. He doesn't, of course. Given the disparate cultures and lands, effecting a rational picture of it all would be silly, like guessing at a theory of everything.

But Kaplan's observations detach easily from the circumstances that breed them. They apply beyond the scope of the book. I will cite only one of many examples: Early in his account, Kaplan worries about the weakness of the Bulgarians' emerging democratic institutions and the burden of the immense (wrestler) monkey on the country's back: "...the real issue here was whether democracy would become a convenient mechanism for criminal oligarchy."

Democracy's crooked doppelganger is there all along Kaplan's route, bleeding that divine form of government to within an inch of its life.

Thank God that couldn't happen in America.

"Eastward to Tartary," by Robert D. Kaplan. Vintage books. Paperback, 364 pages, $14.

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