Three Empires on the Nile: The Victorian Jihad, by Dominic Green, is a very exciting book, yet I'm not sure I recommend it, because it's not edifying. It describes the history of Egypt and the Sudan from the completion of the Suez Canal to the Fashoda affair and General Kitchener's victory of the Mahdist troops at Omdurman. Major characters include Charles Gordon, the brave but gloomy "martyr" of the British Empire at Khartoum, Sir Evelyn Baring, later Lord Cromer, power-behind-the-throne in Egypt after 1882, Khedive Isma'il Pasha, the greedy and spendthrift hereditary monarch of Egypt (nominally subject to the sultan and turned into an instrument of the British and French), Ahmed Urabi, an army officer who led a sort of abortive revolution and was a forerunner of Nasser, British prime ministers Gladstone, Rosebury and Salisbury, Queen Victoria, Muhammad Ahmed "the Mahdi," his successor Khalifa Abdullahi, Arabophile British aristocrat Wilfrid Blunt, and General Kitchener. Winston Churchill appears briefly near the end. All these historical figures come to live in Green's book. But none of them are represented as very wise or admirable.
One of these figures, Charles Gordon, was greatly admired by contemporaries, but his reputation was damaged by Lytton Strachey's biography of him and other heroes of the Victorian era, Eminent Victorians, and opinion has generally followed Strachey in disdaining Gordon ever since. I found myself sympathizing with Gordon and the other Englishmen, especially Baring, who seems to have gotten the Egyptian economy on a sound footing after the depredations of the extravagant Khedive Isma'il. Gordon was a little neurotic, and his conduct in failling to evacuate Khartoum as his superiors in London demanded was rank insurbordination-- a bit like MacArthur's in the Korean War. Yet he was brave, holding out in besieged Khartoum for 300 days in his determination not to abandon its inhabitants to the barbarous religious fanatics of "the Mahdi," and finally dying in hand-to-hand combat with Mahdist troops defending the city he had tried to save. Whatever his illusions and errors of judgments and oddities of character, he was disinterested, disdaining his own comfort and sacrificing his life for the sake of what he believed was his duty. Baring/Cromer, Kitchener, Gladstone, Salisbury, Woolsley (another military man), Wilfrid Blunt, and most of the other English characters in the story exhibit a similar disinterestedness. Sometimes they are thinking of their own careers, looking for praise and honor; rarely if ever of material gain; and never of the harems and slaves that seem to motivate Khedive Isma'il. When Gladstone leaves Gordon to die at Khartoum, both of them seem somewhat devious and dishonorable, yet they are both acting in the service of high ideals at great risk and unpleasantness to themselves. Gladstone, a fervent if inconsistent anti-imperialist, endures a storm of abuse and risks the destruction of his political career to avoid being drawn into an adventure in the Sudan, while Gordon's motives, though harder to read, seem to include opposition to the slave trade and a belief that the Mahdi's victory would be a humanitarian catastrophe for the Sudan, a belief which later events fully justified.
By contrast, the two main Muslim characters in the drama, Khedive Isma'il and the Mahdi, while they have some ideals-- Khedive Isma'il wants to modernize Egypt, while the Mahdi wants to overthrow an Egyptian tyranny and restore Islamic justice-- are not above any cruelty or lust. Khedive Isma'il is incorrigibly extravagant and deceitful and ultimately accepts an Anglo-French bribe to go into exile. He has a large harem, and while he passes laws against the slave trade to appease the English humanitarian lobby, his agents continue to practice it. The Mahdi is a "holy man" who claims to be appointed by the Prophet Muhammad in a vision, and seems to believe it; and in his youth he practiced a certain renunciation of the sinful ways of the world for which one might feel a limited admiration. But he too practices polygamy, first taking four wives as a means to various political alliances, later, after sacking Khartoum, taking hordes of concubines (and leaving women not taken as concubines by him and his warriors to starve), and gorging himself on sweets and meats, becoming fat. In a sense, Khedive Isma'il and the Mahdi are easier to understand: when they get power, they use it to get the things their stomachs and their selfish genes make them want. The Britons, with their clashing ideals and altruism, are more mysterious.
Both similarities and differences between a Victorian foreign-policy crisis and a contemporary American one are striking. On the one hand, modern human rights lobbies are direct heirs of the Victorian humanitarian lobby. Then as now, humanitarianism could impel imperialism, as military intervention might be the only plausible way to stop horrors. Then as now, the sovereign debt of an under-developed country was a major issue. The fictional sovereignty of Egypt after 1882, in which the khedive, a nominal vassal of the Ottoman sultan, became a pawn of Anglo-French and then of British interests as a result of a debt default, is reminiscent of modern episodes in which the World Bank, the IMF, or other international agencies take charge of the policy of a country-- though never, I think, to quite the extent that Victorian Britain controlled Egypt.
One thing that is totally different, though, is that the Victorians seemed to see war as glorious and enjoy it. The British public seems to have been enthusiastic for imperialism, and young men flocked to join the expedition of Kitchener, with Churchill's mother using all her social ties to get him a place in it. Journalists and memoirists milked the imperial campaigns for bestsellers. A certain attitude to war has, I think, been lost forever. American elites today largely shun the military, while the public respects soldiers but regards them, if anything, as victims. I think this is a response to World War I, which robbed war of its romance, for better or worse.
There are important ways in which we definitely ought not to be like the Victorians. In particular, they seem weirdly indifferent to the need to define states and political institutions in a manner that allows for liberty and self-government for the various peoples (e.g., Egyptian, Sudanese) whose destinies they came to dominate. But I don't know that it would be a bad thing if American, Western European, and Japanese elites had a little more courage and love of adventure, and perhaps even of glory, provided it were mingled with a desire to help less fortunate peoples.