This John Judis piece got lost in my browser tabs over the weekend, but his piece has a longer shelf life than the headline stuff I usually cover. His headline reads, “The Middle East That France and Britain Drew Is Finally Unravelling — And there’s very little the U.S. can do to stop it.”
Of course, as I’ve argued since the run-up to the Iraq War, we have zero interest in maintaining or helping to maintain century-old Franco-British lines in the sand, but Judis has put together a readable summary of just how bad those lines are:
These lands had always contained a mix of religions and ethnicities, but in setting out borders and establishing their rule, the British and French deepened sectarian and ethnic divisions. The new state of Iraq included the Kurds in the North (who were Sunni Muslims, but not Arabs), who had been promised partial autonomy earlier by the French; Sunnis in the center and west, whose leaders the British and the British-appointed king turned into the country’s comprador ruling class; and the Shiites in the South, who were aligned with Iran, and who had been at odds with the Sunnis for centuries. After the British took power, a revolt broke out that the British brutally suppressed, but resentment toward the British and toward the central government in Baghdad persisted. In the new state of Transjordan (which later became Jordan), the British installed the son of a Saudi ruler to preside over the Bedouin population; and in Palestine, it promised the Jews a homeland and their own fledgling state within a state under the Balfour Declaration while promising only civil and religious rights to the Palestinian Arabs who made up the overwhelming majority of inhabitants.
In the new state of Lebanon, the French elevated the Christian Maronites into the country’s ruling elite, and created borders that gave them a slight majority over the Shia and Sunni Muslims. In the land that became Syria, the French initially separated the Alawites (from whom the Assad family would descend) and the Druze into their own states and empowered the urban Sunni Muslims in Damascus and Aleppo. During World War II, Syria was finally united in the state that exists today.
From the beginning, these newly created states were engulfed by riots, revolts, and even civil war.
By definition, it takes foreign powers to make colonial states. When the foreigners withdraw, the post-colonial states are left to their own devices — in the absence of the hated foreign oppressor to keep them even marginally united. From Sub Saharan Africa, through the British and French mandates, to the bloody partition of the Indian subcontinent, this story has played out again and again and again.
Saddam Hussein was able to keep the lid on Iraq, until we came in to upset the Arab world’s applecart in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. That I believe was still the right thing to do. But Bush was too narrow-minded to rethink anything about Araby, and Rumsfeld was too wedded to his “light footprint” war theories. Then just when we’d managed to sort out some of our errors, Obama allowed the progress we’d made to wither away in what amounted to a fit of foreign policy pique.
Then on a smaller scale, in Libya Obama repeated Bush’s mistakes. This time however, our footprint was so light that we accomplished nothing but to destroy the Libyan state without even the pretense of replacing it with anything else. In Egypt Obama managed to switch sides two or three times without ever picking a winner. Stupid diplomacy followed by stupider war followed by hardly any diplomacy at all — which means right now, when we could use as much leverage in the Middle East as possible, we have less leverage than at any time since before the Second World War.
It’s impossible to say what will take the place of the post-WWI mandate areas, but it’s also impossible to say that it won’t be ugly.