To many, it seems that George Bush's "war on terrorism" is a dumbed-down continuation of that same great game. Historically, the contest was played out in the 19th and early 20th centuries between Britain, France, Germany, and Russia for control of the land and sea routes connecting colonies in the Asian subcontinent to Europe. In the 20th century, this prize grew to include control of the oil fields in the Middle East and the Suez Canal. During the 1920s and 30s, Britain and France carved up great chunks of the Middle East for themselves, particularly Palestine, Egypt, Iraq and Iran, the latter two countries having been invented by those two powers amid the treaties that reshaped the world after the First World War.
During the 1940s and 50s, America became involved and competed with Britain and Russia, each state trying to grab its share of oil wealth. Many moves in the great game comprised one or other imperial nation controlling Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan by military force, or by more covert methods, and setting up puppet leaders to do their bidding.
Until American and British troops landed on Afghan soil in response to 9/11, the most recent throw in the game was the disastrous invasion of that benighted country by the Soviet Union in 1980. Russia replaced a pro-American puppet with a pro-communist figurehead who then became the focus of hatred by indigenous mujahadeen. Once Russia was beaten, many of these Islamic holy warriors turned their enmity onto America, the world's only remaining imperial power.
Little of this historical perspective seems to be understood in the current frenzied Washington warmongering. Oddly, the most sane commentaries come not from politicians, who are caught up in election year war fever, but from military men on both sides of the Atlantic.
One American general described as being "involved in the Afghanistan war" suggested invading Iraq could be simply settling scores for the Bush family.
"I'm not aware of any [Iraqi] linkage to al-Qaida or terrorism," the general said.
Growing concern among senior members of the British armed forces was voiced by General Sir Michael Rose, one-time head of the SAS and former commander of UN forces in Bosnia. In an article in London's Evening Standard entitled "The madness of going to war with Iraq," Rose said: "There are huge political and military risks associated with launching large-scale ground forces into Iraq."
A former Chief of the British Defence Staff, Field Marshal Lord Bramall, warned that an invasion of Iraq would pour "petrol rather than water" on the flames in the Middle East and provide al-Qaida with more recruits. He told the BBC that evidence produced to support an attack against Saddam Hussein had so far been "sparse," and he also questioned whether Bush's motivation was based on revenge.
"This is a potentially very dangerous situation," Lord Bramall stated, which could easily result in a "very, very messy and long-lasting Middle East war. You don't have licence to attack someone else's country just because you don't like the leadership."
It is indeed possible to paint an apocalyptic scenario, with the whole Middle East in flames, despotic regimes in Islamic countries being toppled by nationalist Islamic rebels, Iraq in a state of civil war and Israel surrounded by even more Arab hatred than today.
Lord Brammall quoted a military predecessor who said during the 1956 Suez crisis when Britain and France invaded Egypt in their last, futile effort in the imperial power game: "Of course we can get to Cairo but what I want to know is what the bloody hell do we do when we get there?"
That, of course, is the point. What happens when we get to Baghdad? The belief in some US foreign policy circles, shared by statesmen in Europe, is that the last thing Bush's hawks want is democracy in Iraq; rather, Washington prefers another tyrant, a more compliant thug to run the world's second greatest source of oil. Once upon a time, Saddam Hussein filled that role; indeed when he gassed the Kurds, he was a leading US ally! Now the CIA has a list of 15 approved generals from which a new leader will likely be picked.
The prime candidate apparently is one General Nizar al-Khazraji, once the Iraqi army chief of staff and now living in exile in Denmark. Al-Khazraji is an alleged war criminal who ethnically cleansed the Kurds who were driven from their homes to die in prison camps by the thousands.
None of this skullduggery appears in Washington's propaganda offensive. Instead, the Washington war drums pound fear of attack into our brains to the exclusion of any rational debate. Bush's desire for vengeance may simply bring Armageddon much closer to home. No one ever said the great game would be won by the imperialists.