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.
The main parties in this bourgeoning civil war were Sunni and Shiite Arabs. Each faction had allies in neighboring states, and some of them took the new phase of the war as a rallying cry either for coming to the aid of their brethren in Iraq or for mounting their own rebellions at home. As the authorities in these always-artificial (and therefore illegitimate) states weakened for various reasons (some of them having little to do with the Iraq war), the internal clashes between Sunni and Shiite came to dominate local—then regional—politics.
The question is how far this unraveling goes. Will civil wars erupt in one artificial state after another? That is, will the path of Syria be followed by Lebanon, then Jordan, then (hard as it may be to imagine) Saudi Arabia? Will Sunnis or Shiites, or both, take their sectarian fights across the borders to the point where the borders themselves collapse? If so, will new borders be drawn up at some point, conforming to some historically “natural” sectarian divisions? There have been many such alternative-maps proposed over the years, none of them quite alike, which raises the possibility that the definition of “natural” borders may itself be a contentious matter, likely to set off its own disputes or wars. Will these new borders conform to the results of these new battles? (Borders, like histories, are usually drafted by the winners.)
David Fromkin foresaw all this when he wrote A Peace to End All Peace a quarter-century ago. He also noted that the then-impending havoc would go on for quite a while, likening the situation to that of Europe’s in the fifth century “when the collapse of the Roman Empire’s authority in the West threw its subjects into a crisis of civilization that obliged them to work out a new political system of their own.” Fromkin went on:
“It took Europe a millennium and a half to resolve its post-Roman crisis of social and political identity: nearly a thousand years to settle on the nation-state form of political organization, and nearly five hundred years more to determine which nations were entitled to be states … The continuing crisis in the Middle East in our time may prove to be nowhere near so profound or so long-lasting. But its issue is the same: how diverse peoples are to regroup to create new political identities for themselves after the collapse of an age-old imperial order to which they had grown accustomed.”
There is a danger that such a cosmic view of world politics might breed passivity: The dynamics of conflict seem so inexorable, and so glacial, that outside intervention—even outside interest—appears futile. That’s not necessarily the case. History still walks on two feet. Leaders of nations can take steps, in alliance with other leaders, to reduce the human misery, control the level of violence, prevent the rise of some new empire that, in its full power, might threaten our own security.
But one clear lesson of Fromkin’s tome is that there are limits to what we—especially we, as sectarian outside powers—can do. Another clear lesson is that, if our leaders are going to intervene in another country’s fate (and not just in the Middle East), they should have some understanding of the country’s politics, history, and culture—which is to say, they should have some notion of the consequences of their actions—ahead of time. We and much of the rest of the world would be much better off today, if a few people in the Bush administration had read that one book.
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.