In early spring of 1915, the British government formed a committee to determine what its goals should be in the Middle East once the war was over. The term “Middle East” had only recently been coined by naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan to describe the area between the Near East and the Far East (which was then thought to begin at India). Britain controlled Egypt and India, but most of the lands in between belonged to the Ottoman Empire, a loosely administered collection of backward provinces whose government had made the bad bet of siding with Germany in the war. The British committee ended up deciding how the Ottoman Empire should be dismembered — a role in which Britain took the lead after the war, since its Romanov rivals in the region had been deposed.
The committee didn’t really know what it was doing. Its members were influenced more by their Oxbridge education in the classics than by any grasp of contemporary realities in the region. So they redrew the Middle Eastern map using Greek names like Mesopotamia and Syria (Palestine was derived from the Greek “Philistia,” land of the Philistines), and paid scant attention to the administrative boundaries the Ottomans used. That was unfortunate in the case of the area they designated Jasirah-Iraq — modern Iraq — because the Ottoman provinces run from Basra, Baghdad and Mosul conformed about as well as nomadic patterns allowed to the ethnic divisions of the country. The committee’s carelessness was encouraged by a widely held view that Arabs were incapable of self-government, so Britain would end up running the place anyway.
The consequences of those fateful deliberations are recounted in David Fromkin’s masterful A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (1989). The book takes its title from the portentous comment of Palestine-hand Archibald Wavell, who remarked after the war that having waged “the war to end war,” the allies seemed determined to make a “peace to end peace.” Certainly that has proven to be the case in the Middle East. America replaced Britain as dominant outsider in the region after World War Two, but that doesn’t seem to have appreciably improved the quality of analysis as to what is politically feasible.
The reason these distant memories matter today is that the United States is embarked on its own ambitious plan to remake the Middle East, and once again, the plan does not seem to be informed by a grasp of who or what it is we intend to transform. The Bush Administration proposes to project American values and practices into an environment where almost none of the forces shaping American character have prevailed. Thus, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that an Iraqi official was cited in Tuesday’s New York Times warning that Iraq’s security forces are so weak, “any major withdrawal of American troops for at least a decade would invite chaos.” The truth is that Iraq isn’t really a nation at all. It is a political contrivance fashioned by Britain long ago, whose fractious population has been held together by a succession of strongmen. Therein lies the real intelligence failure in Iraq — not our inability to find weapons of mass destruction, but our inability (or unwillingness) to see who the Iraqi people really are.
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