The Coming Collapse of the Middle East?
The regions’s borders have long been artificial. The war in Iraq accelerated their demise.
Photo by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
On Feb. 26, 2003, President George W. Bush gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, spelling out what he saw as the link between freedom and security in the Middle East. “A liberated Iraq,” he said, “can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region” by serving “as a dramatic and inspiring example … for other nations in the region.”
He invaded Iraq three weeks later. The spread of freedom wasn’t the war’s driving motive, but it was considered an enticing side effect, and not just by Bush. His deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, had mused the previous fall that the spark ignited by regime-change “would be something quite significant for Iraq … It’s going to cast a very large shadow, starting with Syria and Iran, but across the whole Arab world.”
Ten years later, it’s clear that the Iraq war cast “a very large shadow” indeed, but it was a much darker shadow than the fantasists who ran American foreign policy back then foresaw. Bush believed that freedom was humanity’s natural state: Blow away the manhole-cover that a tyrant pressed down on his people, and freedom would gush forth like a geyser. Yet when Saddam Hussein was toppled, the main thing liberated was the blood hatred that decades of dictatorship had suppressed beneath the surface.
Bush had been warned. Two months before the invasion, during Super Bowl weekend, three prominent Iraqi exiles paid a visit to the Oval Office. They were grateful and excited about the coming military campaign, but at one point in the meeting they stressed that U.S. forces would have to tamp down the sectarian tensions that would certainly reignite between Sunnis and Shiites in the wake of Saddam’s toppling. Bush looked at the exiles as if they were speaking Martian. They spent much of their remaining time, explaining to him that Iraq had two kinds of Arabs, whose quarrels dated back centuries. Clearly, he’d never heard about this before.
Many of Bush’s advisers did know something about this, but not as much as anyone launching a war in Iraq, and thus overhauling the country’s entire political order, should have known.
It wasn’t rocket science; it was basic history. And to learn the history, they didn’t have to read vast, dry dossiers assembled by the CIA or the State Department (though that might have helped). There was just one book that would have told them, in this respect, everything they needed to know: David Fromkin’s 1989 best-seller, A Peace to End All Peace.
Subtitled “The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East,” Fromkin’s book (still available in paperback) tells the tragic story of how, toward the end of World War I, British and French diplomats redrew the map of the Middle East in ways that were certain to sow violence for decades, perhaps centuries, to come.
Before WWI, the countries we now know as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey did not exist. They were all part of the Ottoman Empire, and had been for 500 years. As the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the face of war, the British and French made plans to weave the territories into their own empires. Country names were coined, boundaries were drawn, tribal leaders were anointed, coopted, or traded promises for their obeisance. As it turned out, though, the war exhausted the British and French—their treasuries and their people’s patience—and over the subsequent two decades, their empires collapsed. But the borderlines they drew in the Middle East survived. These lines bore no resemblance to the natural, historic borders between tribes and sectarian groups; often they divided the members of a group from one another, or imposed the rule of minorities over majorities. The western-installed rulers of these artificial states survived too, and one of their main tasks was to oppress the groups, or buy them off, or play them against one another, in order to sustain their own rule.
What is happening in much of the Middle East now is the collapse of this system. When the U.S. military ousted Saddam Hussein, this process took a leap; initially, it was unclear to what effect. Soon it became obvious that the administration had no plan for post-war Iraq, in part because Bush didn’t think one was needed (democracy would spring forth naturally, once the dictator’s jackboot was lifted), in part because neither Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld nor the top military leaders had much desire to wade into “nation-building.” The coup de grace came when the U.S. proconsul, L. Paul Bremer, issued his two infamous orders, abolishing the Iraqi military and blocking Baathist party members from holding government jobs—as a result of which, order broke down completely. In the vacuum emerged the insurgency, which was never a unified rebellion but rather a multiplicity of groups, harboring a multiplicity of resentments and ambitions, some of them against the interim government, some against the American occupiers, some against one another. The fighting intensified and widened, the American commanders (at least for the occupation’s first three years) had little idea what to do about it—and so it degenerated into civil war.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.