In 2006, it was Ralph Peters, the retired lieutenant colonel turned columnist, who sketched a map that subdivided Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and envisioned Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite republics emerging from a no-longer-united Iraq. Two years later, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg imagined similar partings-of-the-ways, with new microstates — an Alawite Republic, an Islamic Emirate of Gaza — taking shape and Afghanistan splitting up as well. Last year, it was Robin Wright’s turn in this newspaper, in a map that (keeping up with events) subdivided Libya as well.
Peters’s map, which ran in Armed Forces Journal, inspired conspiracy theories about how this was America’s real plan for remaking the Middle East. But the reality is entirely different: One reason these maps have remained strictly hypothetical, even amid regional turmoil, is that the United States has a powerful interest in preserving the Sykes-Picot status quo.
No, no, no, and a thousand times no.
We have zero interest in preserving the idiotic lines drawn by grabby French and British interests. following the Ottoman collapse at the end of the First World War.
Those phony borders, and our insistence on trying to preserve them, have resulted in decades of bloodshed. My first major disappointment with Bush 43 was when he didn’t make Independent Kurdistan the price of Turkish intransigence during the lead up to the Iraq War. Before the US came in, Iraq was held together by Sunni terror against the Shi’a majority, just as Syria was held together by Alawite terror against everybody else. My colleague David Goldman argues that a tyranny-of-the-minority is an inherently stable situation, and it is — right up until it isn’t.
And it’s not so much that the nation states of the Arab world are badly drawn, it’s that the nation-state and Arab Islam aren’t a good combination. Maybe you like Islam, and maybe you like strong nation-states. Maybe you like scotch, and maybe you like marshmallows — but you wouldn’t necessarily want to combine the two.
The future of the Greater Middle East might be far more stable as a loose confederation or affiliation of city-states, looking towards a new state centered around Mecca-Medina as its titular head. The vast hinterlands might be left to the own, cruel and primitive devices — with the city-states conducting the occasional pacifying raid. Otherwise they would use the time-honored tradition of buying off the tribes, or playing them off one another. That’s pretty much how Muammar Gaddafi ran Libya for decades, and it took the giant upset of the Arab Spring (and Western airpower) to ruin it.
It was one thing for the Western powers to run Arab nation-states as wards during the interwar period. We had a great chance from 2003-2009 to try something new and forward-looking in Iraq, but this ill-fated “interest” of ours in the craptaculent status quo turned out to be a massive waste of blood and treasure. Failing to change the status quo, we needed to at least maintain a level of force adequate to maintaining a small amount of order in Iraq. But Bush failed in the former and Obama failed in the latter — and the inevitable result is spelled ISIS.