March 21, 2004

The genie is out of the bottle

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As the British Empire collapsed into chaos, the Muslim population was terrorised off its lands in one disputed region.
In 1948, a civil war erupted between the Muslim and non-Muslim peoples of this region.

Historically, the smaller non-Muslim group had lived in peace with their majority neighbours, but in 1948 it seized its chance.The newly founded UN, based on an earlier British promise and post-war guilt, gave this group a new state. As the civil war raged and pogroms ensued, ethnic cleansing on a monumental scale created millions of refugees.

The British did what they do best and partitioned the country.The majority Muslim areas of the protectorate were divided in two – a large Muslim state and a small sliver of terribly overpopulated land wedged against the sea.This small, pathetic piece of land is now among the poorest places in the world. It is sealed off by a heavily patrolled border, characterised by desperation, and is a breedingground for Islamic fundamentalism.

The bigger Muslim entity was cut off from its hinterland,with only tiny access to the ocean. Beside it, a new democratic but non-Muslim state emerged, absorbing displaced refugees from far and wide. These two states have been involved in three major wars since 1948.The borders are today the most heavily policed in the world,with two huge standing armies eyeballing each other over disputed territory.

Where am I talking about? Not Israel and Palestine. Arguably, it is the far more worrying conflict between India and Pakistan. If the story sounds like Palestine, it is because both conflicts are the result of the collapse of empire,whether British or Ottoman.

Many observers are now warning about the impending collapse of what is left of the Ottoman settlement.The implications of this are so significant that it is difficult to know where to begin.

The vast area between the border of India/Pakistan and the Mediterranean atTel Aviv and Gaza is an ethnic fabrication. What we now call the Middle East is the creation of British and French bureaucrats who cobbled together the maps in an agreement called the Skyes-Picot pact.

This agreement laid the groundwork and ground rules for the way that Britain and France carved up the Ottoman Empire between them, prior to its demise in the latter stages of the First World War. It paved the way for subsequent development in the region, including the establishment of Iraq, Palestine,Trans-Jordan (invented by Winston Churchill one afternoon in 1922), Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia as distinct political entities and, in theory, nation states.

This process of diplomatic and military engineering has proved remarkably stable. Amongst other upheavals, it survived several Israeli/Arab wars.

The arrival of the Americans in the heart of the region has irrevocably changed the whole picture.The concern now (one year after the war) is not only what happens to Iraq, but what happens to the region. How long will Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon last in their present guise?

And if there is an implosion,what else will change? What chain of events could trigger upheaval? Might it, like the collapse of the Soviet Union ten years ago, be dramatic but amazingly peaceful? Or could it be violent? And where would that violence end – in Madras, Mecca or Madrid?

This weekend, America’s critics appear to be gloating, as if the disaster that is post-war Iraq is something to be celebrated. Since the attack in Madrid,we are all involved and we all have a stake in the outcome.

Arguably, the issues articulated yesterday at the anti-war demonstrations do not really matter. It is not so important to apportion blame. It doesn’t really matter whether the American arrival in Bagdhad is the `fault’ of Bin Laden and the 9/11 strike or of Saddam Hussein.

It is not so important to establish whether America’s presence is because of Bush, Cheney and the `neocons’ or American imperialism. Nor does it matter so much now whether the war was over oil or the failure of the UN, or indeed is the inevitable development of the `clash of civilisations’.These issues are now less relevant than the effect of having American troops at the vortex of the old Ottoman Empire.

Increasingly it looks as though the invasion and conquest of Iraq has triggered a process whereby the entire Sykes-Picot structure will crumble and disappear. In fact, the simplest, and perhaps the most accurate description of what is happening across the region is that the artificial Middle Eastern political geography created by the Anglo-French alliance during 1916-22 is coming apart at the seams.Wherever there is a seam,whether ethnic, religious or cultural, there is tension and actual or incipient conflict.

Thus we have the rapid decomposition of Iraq (itself a political entity nailed together by the British in the 1920s to facilitate control and exploitation of its huge oil reserves) into its Kurdish, Shi’ite and Sunni components.

The genie that the Americans have unleashed from the bottle,whether wittingly or not,will also affect Turkey. Although Turkey is a shrunken remnant of the old Ottoman Empire which achieved greater ethnic cohesion via brutal population transfers with Greece in the early 1920s, it still has a massive Kurdish problem. As for Iran, the upheaval there is already under way, though in slow motion.

The primary issue is neither inter-ethnic nor inter-religious but inter-generational: the huge young population, more educated than those in other Muslim countries, is beginning to assert itselfover the mullahs who have run the place since 1979. Finally to the most artificial of all the post-First World War creations, the `countries’ more aptly described as family businesses: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the other entities on the western side of the Persian Gulf.

The main threat to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states comes from al-Qaeda, and it is more insidious than the threat of Saddam 12 years ago, because the danger comes from within.

Given all this,the US is likely to remain in Iraq and probably extend the scope and scale of its involvement in the region as a whole. However, the Americans are no longer essential to the process of regional upheaval that their intervention triggered.

Even if they decided to pull out lock, stock and barrel tomorrow morning, the process is irreversible. Indeed, if the Americans quit, the `coming apart at the seams’ will probably be quicker, and almost certainly be bloodier. On the other hand, in everything concerning the kind of regimes that will replace the outgoing dictatorships and absolute monarchies, the larger the American and western presence, the more influence the US and its allies will have on the outcome.

And this is where Europe has to step up to the plate.We have to decide whether we want to be players or bystanders in what could be the biggest geopolitical upheaval in 60 years.

We have a choice. At the moment we appear obsessed with the smallest and, in geopolitical terms, least significant part of the jigsaw – the Israeli/Palestinian peace process. But over the coming years this will be dwarfed by bigger shockwaves.

Why, you might ask, is the intelligence community not speaking of this larger possibility? Why is the status quo still the central case for the UN, the EU and the intelligence services of all major players? Maybe it is for the same reason that the CIA, after devoting billions to `intelligence’ work on the Soviet Union, did not predict the fall of communism.

Or for the same reason that every intelligence agency (even those of the French and Germans) believed that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Or for the same reason that the `brilliant’ British intelligence forces were caught by the IRA ceasefire. Or for the same reason that theYanks never predicted Pearl Harbour.

It is because the `intelligence’ community (like those `analysts’ in investment banks paid to `forecast’ currency movements) never deviate from the status quo because they have a vested interest in the status quo.

They are not trained to entertain the thought that the centre sometimes has no credibility. Most of all, they have no grasp of history.UnlikeYeats, they cannot get their heads around the fact that from time to time, `the centre cannot hold’.


  1. Paul Rux, Ph.D.

    David, this is a brilliant piece of analysis! We here in
    the Heartland of America (State of Wisconsin) are fed up
    with the killing. We are tired of providing cannon fodder
    for conflicts in countries that are distant from our
    shores. We had one Vietnam in my lifetime (I am age 60),
    and we are weary of what happens over the seas. If they
    want to kill each other, let them do it. If they want to
    drink their oil, comb their hair with it, or drink it, let
    them do it. In the end, they will want to sell it; we
    will buy it. Meanwhile, I see no reason for this country,
    the USA, to be involved in policing the world. As you can
    see, there are some old-time Isolationists left over here!
    I find your writing refreshing! Keep them coming! I also
    admire Yeats!

  2. John Hayes

    The reason that the old order held together for so long has
    a lot to do with the fact that the states in question were
    and for the most part still are totalitarian and oppressive.
    The intervention by the puppet master states to put down
    any troublemakers, as the British did (in Yemen?) in the
    50′s, would have helped as well.
    The fact is that the democracy that the Americans say that
    they want for the Middle East would tear it apart.
    Democracy is the last thing to put in place, not the first.
    What about the civil service, the independent judiciary to
    safeguard the soverign constitution, the civil police force
    to uphold the rule of law etc?
    Without these you would only be electing another dictator.
    And what of the demos? Is there enough common ground within
    many of these countries that were the constructs of a
    victorious France and Britain within a weak league of
    nations to accept the notion of majority rule?
    European democracy emerged from a state of almost constant
    war from the 1650′s to the 1940′s. It took us 400 years.
    How can we expect to impose overnight a system on a Muslim
    middle east that grew over centuries to fit a Christian
    Europe/America?
    Democracy may in many ways be the panacea but it is the end
    game, not the opening shot.

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