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Blame The Middle East Mess On the Brits & the French? October 18, 2007

Posted by tkcollier in Geopolitics, philosophy & politics, Politics.
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The Middle East Is Born Again – Forbes.com

“The peace settlements that followed World War I have recently come back into focus as one of the dominant factors shaping the modern world. The Balkans, the Middle East, Iraq, Turkey, and parts of Africa all owe their present-day problems, in part, to these negotiations.” —Ambassador Richard Holbrooke
The French and the British, beginning in 1919 Paris, sought to replace Arab political structures with their own European designs, creating nations in their own Western image. It was hardly a model for peace and prosperity. This template had, after all, led to a succession of bloody wars in Europe over the previous millennium. Still, Europe became the central power in the Middle East. The Western model of nations appeared to the peacemakers in Paris to be more akin to convenient political organizations with which to negotiate and do business than a host of feuding tribes.

The result is a legacy that continues to plague the region. Today, the United States is the region’s dominant power. But do the Iraqi people really want America’s Western-style democracy, or like the British and French before, does the U.S. simply want to create nations that resemble itself? In any case, it’s probably too late. The ethnic amalgams created in Paris in 1919 make any democratic nation as now constituted in a region like the Middle East problematic, as the West has already discovered in Yugoslavia.

This is the third installment in a series of excerpts from the book A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today by David A. Andelman (Wiley: $25.95).

In late November 1918, a short, handsome, dark-haired prince with flashing black eyes accompanied by a phalanx of Bedouin warriors boarded the British naval vessel HMS Gloucester in the harbor of Beirut, bound for Europe. The goal of the Emir Feisal Ibn al-Hussein was to speak for his Arab warriors, who had just defeated the hated Turks, rulers of the Middle East and one of the defeated Central Powers. The Arab rebels now sought what they thought was their just reward.

But Feisal’s goal was to speak even more broadly–for the vast and ultimately diverse mass of the peoples of Arabia–from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, from the mountains of Anatolia to the pyramids of Egypt. His was, he believed, a mission entirely congruent with what he had been reading and hearing of the mission of Woodrow Wilson, the self-styled voice of the voiceless, who believed in self-determination for all those people who had been effectively liberated by the Allied victory on the battlefields. He was wrong. For the leaders of Britain, France, and to a degree, Italy, were persuaded instead that the Arabs were ill-prepared to make their own way in an increasingly complex and dangerous world. The view of Allied statesmen was that the Arabs wanted, indeed needed, to be ruled by Europeans for their own benefit–and for the benefit of the victors in the Great War, to whom, they believed, belonged all the spoils.

For most of the regions whose futures would be determined and borders redrawn by the peacemakers gathering in Paris–the future lands of Syria, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and beyond–the predominant issues were power and territory. The Middle East added a third, and what turned out to be prime determinant–religion. Unfortunately, few of even the most astute peacemakers recognized this overwhelming constant. And those who did appreciate the power of faith saw it as simply another lever to control the territory and peoples they needed for their blinkered geopolitical purposes. Indeed, throughout the history of Europe in the Middle East, few recognized this ultimate reality. Yet this reality was to continue to the present day. With our failure to recognize and deal with the power of religion–especially the Islam that its adherents are now seeking to export to the rest of the world at the point of guns, bombs and terror–we are faced with our biggest challenges. Few of today’s Western leaders recognize that the origins lie in the failures of their own predecessors.

As Feisal made his way to Paris, he fully expected that the allies of his family and their warriors would receive the hearing they and their Bedouin warriors had bought with their loyalty and their arms throughout the war. But others were preparing an entirely different sort of reception. It was a script carefully prepared by the Europeans long before the Central Powers and the Allies began facing off in Europe–indeed whose outlines had first been drawn even before Columbus set sail to discover America.

The French and the British, beginning in Paris, sought to replace Arab political structures with their own European designs, creating nations in their own Western image. It was hardly a model for peace and prosperity. This template had, after all, led to a succession of bloody wars in Europe over the previous millennium. Still, Europe became the central power in the Middle East. The Western model of nations appeared to the peacemakers in Paris to be more akin to convenient political organizations with which to negotiate and do business than a host of feuding tribes.

The result is a legacy that continues to plague the region. Today, the United States is the region’s dominant power. But do the Iraqi people really want America’s Western-style democracy, or like the British and French before, does the U.S. simply want to create nations that resemble itself? In any case, it’s probably too late. The ethnic amalgams created in Paris in 1919 make any democratic nation as now constituted in a region like the Middle East problematic, as the West has already discovered in Yugoslavia. There, as we will see in a later chapter, peace could be assured today only by disassembling the creation of the peacemakers in Paris nearly a century ago.

So what might we have been left with had Feisal had his way and had the British and the French proved more flexible, or at least more even-handed, in dealing with the principal powers of the post-Ottoman Middle East? First, in Syria and Lebanon, we might have had a Hashemite Arab kingdom like Jordan, which has been a thus-far peaceful model of Arab governance. Instead we have two all but dysfunctional nations–an anti-Western Syria, ruled by a dictator and his family, hospitable to terror and disorder, and a Christian-Muslim Lebanon, torn apart by decades of civil war and instability.

Second, we might have had a Mesopotamia consisting of a loose federation of states, each free to pursue its own religious and ethnic course. Instead, we find ourselves saddled with Iraq–a nation assembled by European diplomats in Paris–that became all but ungovernable in the hands of anyone but a despot.

Most Arabs wound up with a deep bitterness toward Britain and France, with most unable, or unwilling, to distinguish one from the other. The U.S. inherited this enmity of foreign overlords that began with America’s colonial predecessor in the region, the Ottoman Turks. In Paris, the British and French sought to serve their own economic and geopolitical interests. Now, in the post-Cold War period, the U.S. appears to be doing the same–shaping the region to serve its own global interests. And Americans wonder why they face such implacable hostility.

The U.S. may have become the dominant outside force in the region, but as the British and French discovered, post-1919 Paris, it is in maintaining this dominance that America’s role there has come unglued. The troops America sent–and who remain, the boundaries the U.S. has inherited and is seeking to guarantee, the rulers it is supporting, or subverting–are all a constant, never-ending reminder of the imperialism the region thought it had shed when the Ottoman Empire was dismantled in Paris so long ago. Today’s terrorism is merely another manifestation of yesterday’s Arab Revolt.

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