The way Henry Kissinger tells it, he was in Beijing chatting with Zhou Enlai in the early 1970s and when he asked Zhou what he thought the historical impact of the French Revolution was Zhou answered: “It’s too soon to say.”
Apocryphal? Maybe, but worth remembering these days as the Middle East comes apart.
The Middle East as fashioned by the British and the French out of the dying Ottoman Empire, that is. Everybody knows by now how Sir Mark Sykes and Monsieur Picot carved it up into nation-states where there had been none before. The masters of the universe at Whitehall and the Quai d’Orsay drew borders grouping together people with next to nothing in common to become “Lebanese,” “Syrians” and “Iraqis.” A few years later they also invented countries and protectorates like Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar and validated Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan as an Italian colony named Libya. And of course there was the Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate over Palestine, off of which Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill lopped the east bank of the Jordan and called it Transjordan.
Everybody knows that now. It’s all over the Internet. But did George Bush Jr. and his neoconservative counselors in 2003? Encouraged by idealistic neocons, Bush sent the American military to Baghdad not just to look for WMDs but to liberate the so-called Iraqis and allow the Sunnis, the Shia, the Kurds, the Turkomans and the Chaldeans to set up an enlightened, pluralistic democracy. A beacon for a new Middle East. All people yearn for democracy, right? To claim they’re not suited was a form of bigotry.
We now know that Ariel Sharon advised Bush not to do this. Sharon in 1982 had tried something comparable by taking the IDF to Beirut and had learned his lesson: each new Middle East is likely to be worse than the one before.
Given the choice between tyranny and chaos most people will choose tyranny.
That sound you hear is Saddam and Qaddafi chuckling in hell. A hell paved with good intentions, the most recent of which were those of Bush, Wolfowitz and Company who ignored Sharon’s warning, ignored the law of unintended consequences, ignored the postcolonial maxim that he who sticks his hand into an Arab or Moslem capital will rue the day. To be precise, when the Europeans and their armies departed the nation-states they’d cooked up these could only be kept in one piece by more or less horrible native tyrants who inspired so much fear that the sects and tribes inside the borders kept the peace. When you removed Saddam you let the genies out of the jar. His televised execution begat the Arab Spring in Tunisia, which begat chaos in Egypt and Syria, which begat ISIS, which is begetting headlines almost as big as the world’s cup. Hundreds of thousands dead, millions of refugees, billions of dollars, and whom other than the long-suffering Kurds has it done any good?
Unintended but not unforeseeable — Sharon foresaw it, as did some realists and Orientalists.
First, it’s a waste of time playing What-If and Who-Lost-the-Middle East. Should Obama have insisted on keeping 100,000 American combat troops in Iraq for a few generations? Not in the cards. Should Maliki have been more understanding of and generous to the Sunnis? Ditto. A new Middle East is slouching inexorably towards Bethlehem, a Middle East of more nation-states or homogenous statelets with more rational borders — Hezbollahland, Hamasland, Alawiland, Kurdistan, ISISland, Shiastan, Wahhabistan, maybe something for the Maronites, for the Druse, for the Palestinians. It’s going to be vicious, it’s going to be long, and when it’s grown up and functioning maybe George Bush and Paul Wolfowitz will even get some credit.
And if in 200 years a Jewish professor asks an ultra-subtle Chinese with a long perspective on history what the impact of the U.S. army storming Baghdad was the answer might be: “Too soon to say.”