Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Archive for November 2015

Misadventures in the Middle East

leave a comment »

Events of the past week motivated me to do some re-reading. The book I consulted again was A Peace to End All Peace (1989) by David Fromkin, subtitled The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East.

The Middle East before the Great War

Rand-McNally 1895 Map of the Ottoman Empire in Asia

Rand-McNally 1895 Map of the Ottoman Empire in Asia

This is a map of the Middle East in 1895, when it was largely controlled by the Ottoman Empire. It is somewhat busy, with several names layered over one another in places. The colored areas on the map are, roughly, the major administrative divisions of the land. Thus, you have the administrative region of Syria, shown in green in the lower center. The province of Syria spans that and extends into the neighboring region of Aleppo.

On the right, there is a part of the map labeled Kurdistan, extending into Persia. Kurdistan is not a political entity, as it remains today.

Under [the Sultan’s] rule civil, military and Holy Law administrations could be discerned in an empire carefully divided into provinces and cantons. But the appearance of orderly administration — indeed of effective administration of any sort — was chimerical. … Gertrude Bell, in the course of her travels, found that outside the towns, Ottoman administration vanished and the local sheikh or headman ruled instead. There were districts, too, in which local brigands roamed at will. … On the eve of the First World War, only about 5 percent of taxes was collected by the government; the other 95 percent was collected by independent tax farmers.
— Fromkin, pp. 35-36.

Egypt and Cyprus were factually part of the Ottoman Empire, but British protectorates had been established in both places. Russia and France had granted themselves the right to provide protection for the Orthodox and Catholic enclaves within the empire. The Ottoman Empire was losing ground in Europe and losing the ability to be master in its own house. It truly was “the sick man of Europe.”

However, it is clear from Fromkin’s description that many people within the empire thought of themselves not as citizens of the Ottoman Empire, but as members of their particular clan or tribe and believers in their particular sect.

The Ottoman Sultan was regarded as caliph (temporal and spiritual successor to the Prophet, Mohammed) by the majority group within Islam, the Sunnis. But among others of the seventy-one sects of Islam, especially the numerous Shi’ites, there was doctrinal opposition to the Sultan’s Sunni faith and to his claims to the caliphate.
— Fromkin, p. 35.

Dissolution and Revolt

Westerners saw the weakness of the Ottoman Empire. However, they also looked at its people in terms of modern, western nation-states. Further, under the guidance of Winston Churchill and Jackie Fisher, the Royal Navy was converting from coal to oil as a fuel for warships. Britain had abundant coal, but no oil. However, there were known deposits of oil in the Middle East.

In World War I, the Ottoman Empire sided with Imperial Germany and against Britain, France and Russia. The Entente Powers sought ways of knocking the Ottomans out of the war through invasions of Gallipoli, Mesopotamia and Arabia. After early failures, the Allies were ultimately successful and forced the Ottomans to capitulate. Russia was now the Soviet Union and of a whole different character. However, Britain and France expected to expand their influence in the Middle East by picking apart the carcass of the Ottoman Empire. But there was a problem:

The Prime Minister [David Lloyd George] claimed that Britain was entitled to play the dominant role in the Middle East, recalling that at one time or another two and a half million British troops had been sent there, and that a quarter of a million had been killed or wounded …
What Winston Churchill insistently repeated was that this situation — the occupation of the Middle East by a million British soldiers — was only temporary; the troops demanded to be brought home.
On 10 January 1919, Churchill’s first day in office as Secretary of State for War, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff urgently consulted him about a crisis in the ranks: soldiers had demonstrated, demanding immediate demobilization.
— Fromkin, p. 385.

Not only were the soldiers not inclined to stay on occupation duty, but the nation could not afford to maintain them. Britain and France were economically exhausted from the war. They had hoped to make good their sacrifices by imposing a Carthaginian peace on Germany (as had the Germans hoped to impose on France, had they won the war). But Germany, too, was exhausted; otherwise the Germans would have still been fighting. For the victors, there were precious few spoils and even those were not always the prizes they seemed.

So the British attempted to impose their rule on their new subject peoples on the cheap. There was an immediate crisis, because the British didn’t have the resources to project power effectively. Between 1919 and 1921, a series of insurrections boiled over from Turkey to Egypt to Afghanistan. It is instructive to read about the British difficulties in Mesopotamia in 1920:

While [Civil Commissioner Arnold Wilson] was prepared to administer the provinces of Basra and Baghdad, and also the province of Mosul, he did not believe that they formed a coherent entity. Iraq (an Arab term that the British used increasingly to denote the Mesopotamian lands) seem to him too splintered for that to be possible. Mosul’s strategic importance made it seem a necessary addition to Iraq, and the strong probability that it contained valuable oilfields made it a desirable one, but it was part of what was supposed to have been Kurdistan; and Arnold Wilson argued that the warlike Kurds who had been brought under his administration “numbering half a million will never accept an Arab ruler.”
— Fromkin, p. 450.

Furthermore, religious tensions made the situation worse:

A fundamental problem, as Wilson saw it, was that the almost two million Shi’ite Moslems in Mesopotamia would not accept domination by the minority Sunni Moslem community, yet “no form of Government has yet been envisaged, which does not involve Sunni domination.” The bitterness between the two communities was highlighted when each produced a rival Arab nationalist society.
— Fromkin, p. 450.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

British nerves were on edge as vague rumors, constant unrest and repeated killings took their toll. In the summer of 1919 three young British captains were murdered in Kurdistan. The Government of India sent out an experienced official to take their place in October 1919; a month later he, too, was killed.
— Fromkin, p. 451.

The continued stream of killings continued into the next year. In June, Mesopotamia exploded into open revolt. Armed insurgents overran British outposts, massacring the soldiers. In Karbalah, a Shi’ite cleric proclaimed a Holy War against Britain. By August, some of the rebels proclaimed a provisional Arab government.

Back home in Britain, the economy was in a state of collapse, with business failures and mass unemployment. This situation was not caused by the uproar in the Middle East, but the continued drain there was hardly the tonic the nation needed.

In a leading article on 7 August 1920, The Times demanded to know, “how much longer are valuable lives to be sacrificed in the vain endeavor to impose upon the Arab population an elaborate and expensive administration which they never asked for and do not want?”
— Fromkin, p. 452.

Many of the outpost towns that had been cut off by the revolt were isolated until October, and only after February 1921 could Britain consider itself to have re-established a grudging sense of order in the country. The cost to Britain was almost 2,000 casualties, including 450 killed.

Britain struggled to understand what had actually caused this crisis and sought causes from outside, including the Soviets, the Turks and even agents of the American oil companies.

“What we are up against,” said Wilson, “is anarchy plus fanaticism. There is little or no Nationalism.” The tribesmen, he said, were “out against all government as such” and had no notion what they were fighting for. In mid-August, he said that the “revolutionary movement has for some time past ceased to have any political aspect and has become entirely anarchic.”
— Fromkin, p. 453.

But the concept of government for men like Wilson was limited to governments like Britain or France had. This made no sense in the Middle East, where the understanding of capital-N Nationalism was mostly limited to radical intellectuals educated in the West.

Earning Self-determination

From David Lloyd George and Gertrude Bell to Paul Wolfowitz and Paul Bremer, there has been a tendency in the West to look at the peoples of the Middle East as a sort of White Man’s Burden: we will stand them up, teach them how to have democratic, pluralist, secular nation-state governments like we do and everyone will get rich and live happily ever after.

Fromkin offers a different perspective: what if the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 was properly analogous to the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century? He points out that it took nearly one thousand years for Europe to develop the nation-state as the primary form of political organization, and then a further five hundred years to work out which nations would get to have states and which would not. The process often featured bloody wars; the Thirty Years’ War is a particularly unpleasant example.

Whether civilization would survive the raids and conflicts of rival warrior bands; whether church or state, pope or emperor, would rule; whether Catholic or Protestant would prevail in Christendom; whether dynastic empire, national state or city-state would command fealty; and whether, for example, a townsman of Dijon belonged to the Burgundian or the French nation, were issues painfully worked out through ages of searching and strife, during which the losers — the Albigensians of southern France, for example — were often annihilated.
— Fromkin, p. 565.

It may be that the nation-state is the logical political goal toward which the peoples in the Middle East should be striving, or it may be that they can devise an alternative political form that makes more sense for them. In any event, the process of getting there has to be their process, which they have to own and pay for in their blood. It is not possible to give people self-determination. Our forbears had to earn it, we have to keep it (and it is an open question how good a job of it we are doing) and anyone else who wants it has to earn it. It is a messy process, full of wrong turns, overreaction and violence. People who have power don’t say, “yeah, I see your point about popular sovereignty,” and then retire peacefully to Florida, never to be heard from again.

I’m from Baghdad, and I’m Here to Help

In most of the world, it never bodes well when a representative of the central government comes to visit. Outside of the countries we know as The West, it is laughable to think that you would take your problems to the government and expect any kind of help. He is going to want something: your harvest, your labor, your son for his army.

Your country ain’t your blood. You remember that.
— Sonny Corleone

In most of the world, the people you can count on for help are the people you have relationships with. Your clan is your support system. The farther you get from your clan, the less reciprocal influence you have and the less you can trust. Sonny sounds cynical to a post-New Deal American audience, but his advice is real life outside of the developed West.

We have come far in the West, and I am certainly not knocking it. I wouldn’t trade life here for life in these other places. However, we need to understand what goes on in these other places so that we can create policies that have a hope of actually working.

Look at the world the way many Russians look at it. Dmitri Orlov did a great job describing the mindset in his book The Five Stages of Collapse. He sets up a human relationship pyramid, modeled on the nutrition pyramids:

The base of my pyramid, representing a royal share of a healthy human interaction diet, is made up of family, extended family, clan or tribe — those people who are closed to you, and whom you have known all your life. These are your people — before whom you have irrevocable obligations, who you can trust completely and will support, defend and protect unconditionally as a matter of family honor. … Next, a somewhat smaller slice is made up by friends and allies — those people with whom you are united by bonds of friendship or solemn promise, but who are not your people. Next, an even smaller sliver is made up of strangers: those with whom you are drawn together, not through blood relations or personal allegiance, but through accident or necessity or fleeting circumstance. … [A] fleeting circumstance such as hosting a performance by an itinerant musician may be pleasant, but it cannot be prioritized above the needs of those who are not strangers.
— Orlov, pp. 85-86.

Through this lens, government is a racket. You pay tribute for protection against violence. You accept that the entity to whom you pay tribute will have a monopoly on violence, because if they don’t, you will likely be caught in the middle between two very violent claimants for exclusive control. You just hope that the racketeer doesn’t start turning his violence on you. It’s been like this since time out of mind.

None of this excuses the violence that the Islamic State is spreading around the world. The people running the show there are showing themselves to be human viruses, much as the Nazis were human viruses. They were a mortal threat to civilization. Even Winston Churchill was prepared to make common cause with the Communists, because he saw that the Nazis were the clear and present danger.

Nor is containment a strategy. You don’t win wars by not losing. You win wars by winning, by defeating your opponent. But then what?

Nature Abhors a Vacuum

What would be a least-worst outcome in Syria, for example? Clearly the Assad regime has to go. But what to replace it with? And what will happen after that?

Assad is a member of the Alawite subgroup of Twelver Shia Islam, and has made extensive political use of the Alawite minority in Syria. It is hard to imagine a future for Syria where Assad falls that does not involve bloody reprisals against the Alawites.

Images of continued violence will be beamed around the world by Western news feeds and bother influential people in the West. These people are well-intentioned, but as we learned long ago, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

What has to happen in places such as Syria is that we need to find the least offensive candidates who can hold power and support them. These people will be corrupt. They will probably turn a blind eye to the violent reprisals that Syria needs to go through if it is ever to come together again politically. Many innocent people will pay for the evil deeds others have done in their name. As long as the successor regimes don’t make trouble for the neighbors and do not support international terrorism, they need a breathing space to get their own house in order.

At some point in the future, it is possible that Arab people will be able to take ownership of their own societies and reshape them. Many of them have been educated in the West and exposed to western political standards. First they need to be able to exist in their own societies. The people who are all about killing each other and killing anyone they can must be swept away. That will require international help.

However, the international community is limited in what it can achieve to bring these peoples into modernity. We can’t give them modern politics where governments are under the law. No one gave it to us. Our predecessors fought and died for that. Arabs will have to do likewise. They don’t have to follow our path, but they have to follow some path, which they must choose themselves and take ownership of their choices.


Written by srojak

November 18, 2015 at 10:33 am