As U.S. policymakers ponder the future shape of the Middle East, they should perhaps recall that the United States was opposed to the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, the famous “line in the sand” that is now said to be dissolving.
The United States’ opposition back then was based on its rejection of the secret diplomacy between Britain and France that produced the plan to divide the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The United States opposed this neo-colonial carve-up of the region and called instead for the right to national self-determination.
The tragedy of the U.S. role in the modern Middle East is that it became, without entirely intending or realizing it, the protector of the very post- imperial order it once resisted. That story could fill a book, but for now, let’s refresh our memories about the alternative U.S. vision when the Ottoman Empire collapsed.
President Woodrow Wilson enunciated his framework in his famous “Fourteen Points” statement in January 1918, nine months after the United States had entered World War I. Following the armistice in November 1918, Wilson’s idealistic formula was a contentious centerpiece of debate at the Versailles peace conference. It was an inspiration to those who felt victimized by the old order and an annoyance to France and Britain.
Britain and France prevailed at Versailles, imposing a peace settlement so selfish and shortsighted that it all but guaranteed the rise of a revanchist Germany leading to World War II, and the endless headaches of the modern Middle East. It was, as David Fromkin titled his great 1989 history, “A Peace to End All Peace.” It’s this very fabric that is now ripping apart, as civil wars in Syria and Iraq create de-facto partitions of those countries. The question facing policymakers is whether to redraw the lines or let the region devolve into smaller cantons, like the ethnically cohesive “vilayets” of Ottoman times.
My sense is that it’s too early to judge whether the post-1919 boundaries are finished. After all, Lebanon was effectively partitioned during its 15-year civil war, but Lebanese national identity proved strong enough that its sovereignty was restored in the Taif Agreement of 1989. I’d guess that the Syrian national idea will survive over time, too. I’m not as sure about Iraq, but in any event, these are questions for the peoples of the region to decide, not outsiders.
What can Wilson’s Fourteen Points teach us that’s relevant to the current debate? The first five have some bearing, and they’re worth noting carefully because they set a framework for any reexamination of the Middle East map. Let’s list them, with some notations:
(1) “Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at.” This was Wilson’s reaction to the cynical private deal-making of Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, which appalled observers such as T.E. Lawrence. Lesson for today: Any new order in the region must have buy-in from the region itself, starting with regional kingpins Iran and Saudi Arabia.
(2) “Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas.” Still crucial for the United States, the world’s leading maritime power, is ensuring oil flow in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. But as U.S. power recedes, will China embrace this open, rules-based maritime order?
(3) “The removal, so far as possible, of all economic barriers.” The only hopeful vision of the region is one that begins with free trade, in which labor and capital flow across Israeli and Arab boundaries. This economically integrated Middle East could be astonishingly profitable.
(4) “National armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety.” The logic of a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East is becoming increasingly obvious, even to Israelis. Does Israel really benefit from a world in which Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia compete to match Israel’s undeclared deterrent?
(5) “In determining . . . questions of sovereignty, the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.” The heart of the matter. One implication: Kurdish aspirations to nationhood don’t trump Iraqi sovereignty, but they deserve equal weight.
Let us ponder, finally, the self-declared “Islamic State,” which meets none of these Wilsonian conditions. Indeed, it is a textbook example of illegitimate state-making.
The only positive aspect of the Islamic State is that the jihadists, by declaring their caliphate, have given their neighbors (and the world’s counterterrorism forces) an address. Any state that makes itself a safe haven for terrorism becomes a target. In that sense, the Islamic State was born with a suicide pill in its mouth.
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