Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus

By Hickok, Michael R. | Aerospace Power Journal, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus


Hickok, Michael R., Aerospace Power Journal


Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus by Robert D. Kaplan. Random House (http://www.randomhouse. com), 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022, 2000, 364 pages, $26.95 (hardcover).

Like Fitzroy Maclean's Eastern Approaches, an account of his travels as a British diplomat in the Caucasus and Central Asia in the 1930s, Robert Kaplan's new book Eastward to Tartary can leave the reader uncertain as to how true and accurate it is. This is a critical question for military readers since Kaplan enjoys a certain vogue amongst senior officers, from his earlier writings on the Balkans and on political instabilities that followed the end of the Cold War. He writes about places where conflict involving the American military seems likely.

One can argue that in the early 1990s, Samuel Huntington's Foreign Affairs article "The Clash of Civilizations" and Robert Kaplan's Atlantic Monthly article "The Coming Anarchy" shaped the perception of future conflict for a generation of American military leaders. Despite the later criticism of these two pieces, the simplistic but persuasive arguments about cultural determinism and the inherent belligerence of tribal nationalism provided a conceptual framework for senior officers who tried to explain the necessity of military operations throughout the world in the absence of a global Communist threat.

Kaplan's appeal, as evidenced in Eastward to Tartary, is easy to understand. He writes beautifully, having a gift for clear prose and a journalist's eye for exact detail--clothing, smells, tastes, and colors-to make the exotic feel familiar to the reader. Eating a lunch of goat cheese and olives in the Syrian Desert near Qala'at Samaan, Kaplan describes the ruins of a Roman cemetery: "The carved faces of the dead emerged from the canyon's soft volcanic rock in all the earthen tones of a rich palette."

He reinforces these distinguishing elements of the story by drawing comparisons between different places. A reader is left not only with an intimate feel for Bucharest's cafes, but also with the sense of how the author tries to make deeper points by contrasting Romanian coffee with the more traditional coffee services he finds in Syria or Georgia. Kaplan is a master of the inductive narrative.

He leavens his own observations as a traveler with summary regional histories as communicated through his conversations with locals and as referenced to classical and scholarly accounts of the region. Such names as Toynbee, Gibbon, Strabo, and Herodotus are invoked to give a certain gravity to the prose, while other names, such as Daniel Pipes, Olivier Roy, and Ronald Suny, are meant to assure the reader of the academic rigor and policy relevance of the analytical interpretations. Kaplan reinforces these narrative devices by interviews with senior officials and influential thinkers in each of the countries he visits.

Notions about the relative rates of political and economic transition in the Balkans and Middle East, the interplay of ethnic and religious hatreds, the merits of secular authoritarianism versus Islamic democracy, energy politics in the Caucasus, and the modern consequences of differing imperial legacies all intertwine into an enjoyable and accessible book. As a travel writer, Robert Kaplan is near the top in current American literature, yet for the reader who wishes to extract more than entertainment from Eastward to Tartary, a note of caution is in order.

A travelogue can be truthful without being accurate. Inductive reasoning is correct only if the specific truth of the part is applicable to the whole. Local anecdotes are instructive when balanced or placed in context by the author. Yet, Eastward to Tartary fails to pass these tests in too many places.

For example, Kaplan contrasts the impact of organized crime on the political and economic development of Bulgaria with that on other Sovietbloc states.

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