Politics & Policy

Baghdad Delenda Est.

There’s a legend, probably apocryphal, that the sharp bend in the border between Saudi Arabia and Jordan is the result of a slip of Winston Churchill’s pencil while drawing up the dividing line between the two countries. Apparently, some folks believe Churchill was a bit sauced-up and couldn’t draw a straight line. Others contend that Churchill’s elbow was bumped.

The important thing to keep in mind is that it doesn’t matter if the story’s true. Even if the line were precisely how Churchill wanted it, it would be no less arbitrary. The Europeans who designed the Middle East weren’t like prospectors, shaking the dirt away in their pans until the gold nuggets of eternal nation-states appeared before them. They drew their lines out of self-interest. Even the Marxists and Arab apologists like Edward Said would agree that’s true. This map of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 shows how the British and French wanted to divvy up the region.

Opponents of Israel, like Mr. Said, love to point out that it is a creation of Western imperial powers, an unnatural, inorganic construct imposed by distant exploiters. This Zionist implant, they argue, has aroused the fury of the Arab body politic; anti-Jewish rage is simply a natural immune response to imperialism. Suicide bombers, this theory holds, are antibodies. Remove the foreign matter, and the normally peace-loving Arab and Muslim metabolism will return to normal.

There are some obvious problems with this analysis, the first being the notion that the region has any history of being peace-loving in the way we understand the phrase in the West. Peace in the Middle East has always — always — been imposed from above or without, not attained from within. Indeed, that the Islamic Middle East no longer has a ruling empire, caliphate, or dynasty, is one reason it is such a mess. Unable to accept the fact — and it is a fact — that the region is ever shrinking in the rearview mirror of the West, it has grown hobbled by rage. As David Pryce-Jones has eloquently argued, the Middle East is what anthropologists call a “shame society.” In such societies, Jones argues, “the acquisition of honor and the converse, avoidance of shame, are the keys to motivation.”

More on all that in a minute. But first, okay, sure. Israel is a young nation, cobbled together with the aid of foreign powers. But, you know what? So are Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, etc., etc. Indeed, of all the Arab nations, only Egypt has any history of being a nation-state — as we understand the concept — prior to the 20th century. It sounds bizarre, but in a certain concrete sense Israel is one of the older nations in the Middle East as this map suggests.


Now, obviously, the Middle East is the home to some of the oldest civilizations on Earth, so it’s a little unfair to talk about Israel this way (though Jews were central to those civilizations thousands of years before Mohammed was born).

But it’s also a little unfair to talk about “nations” at all. From the time of Mohammad through to the 20th century, the internal “borders” of the Middle East were divided according to the dictates of one or several empires, dynasties, or Caliphates. The list is fairly endless: the Seljuk, Byzantine, Sasanid, and British Empires, the Mongol hordes, Microsoft, (okay, not yet) etc., etc.

Indeed, the Islamic faith itself is at odds with the concept of nationalism. In the Koran, Mohammad admonishes believers not to think of themselves as “Worthington Rockwell of Baghdad” or “Hymie Moskowitz” of Cairo (names changed for the fun of it) but to think of themselves as members of the faith, regardless of geography. Islam began as a pan-Arab religion and even though it has become a catholic faith (please! Note the small “c”), it has retained much of the internal logic of empire.

Europe, of course, had its empires and dynasties too. But Europe and Islam are very different things. Europe is a place. Islam is a religion. Europe, thanks to geography and Christianity, developed into coherent nation-states that are only now melting together. The cultures are different. Civil society — the space between state and the individual — is huge in the West. It’s teeny-tiny in Arab cultures. The word “religion” draws from the Latin “religio” which originally referred to customs and rituals. The Islamic word for “religion” in Arabic is “din” which means “law.” To be grossly simplistic, religion in the West is something we do, in the Middle East it is something you must do.

Bernard Lewis, the West’s leading scholar of Islam, has written at length about how, in the East, Islam takes up the “space” that nationalism does in the West. “For the traditional Muslim,” he writes, “religion was not only universal but also central in the sense that it constituted the ultimate basis and focus of identity and loyalty. It was a religion that distinguished and united those who belonged to the group and marked them off from those outside the group, even if they lived in the same country and spoke the same language.”

When the Ottoman Empire (seen here at a high point) finally collapsed at the beginning of the 20th century, the relevant political entities were tribes or “peoples,” not nations (if you haven’t seen Lawrence of Arabia, rent it — you can skip past the scene with Jose Ferrer if it makes you squeamish). Some tribes actually got nations, as in Saudi Arabia, and some tribes got screwed, the Kurds for example. But in most cases the lines on the map didn’t necessarily reflect anything deep, natural, or permanent. They were, ultimately, lines in the sand.

As late as 1917, responding to the growing nationalist fervor sweeping the globe, a Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire explained, “The Fatherland of a Muslim is wherever the Holy Law of Islam prevails.”


It’s this sort of thing, which has obvious present-day echoes in the statements of all sorts of people, particularly Osama bin Laden, that makes me think the editor of The New Republic, my friend Peter Beinart, is wrong when he distinguishes between Yasser Arafat’s terrorism and Osama bin Laden’s. He argues that Israel’s war on terrorism is different than ours, because the Palestinians are fighting a “war of national liberation” while al Qaeda is

…international, it doesn’t have a clearly defined set of territorial demands. To the degree it has any demands at all, they are to rid the Muslim lands of infidels and of their culture — to establish a vast Islamist caliphate across much of the globe. And as with Nazism and international communism, movements that seek world domination don’t make very good negotiating partners.

There’s some merit here, of course. The Arab complaints against Israel are more concrete, long-standing, and understandable than bin Laden’s hissy fits about American “Crusaders.” But that doesn’t mean the complaints don’t share common origins. The Germans wanted the Sudetenland and few people complained because, well, the Germans were right to feel aggrieved about the “unfair” Treaty of Versailles. But the same logic which demanded that Germany “must” have the Sudentland also demanded the whole of Czechoslovakia as well.

Besides, al Qaeda does have explicit territorial demands, which Peter even concedes. Bin Laden is an ethnic cleanser. “Allah ordered us in this religion to purify Muslim land of all non-believers, and especially the Arabian Peninsula,” he’s declared.

But the most relevant point is the one made by Pryce-Jones. The Middle East is a shame culture. What unites the Arab world, from “moderates” to “suicide bombers” is a fixation of humiliation and honor. When Crown prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia offered his “peace plan,” almost the first words out of his mouth were about humiliation. Terrorists of every stripe and flavor seethe with talk of their honor and how humiliation must be avenged. Pay attention to the newscasts whenever Israel captures a Palestinian terrorist. Statements issue forth from unnamed Arab and Palestinian sources insisting that “any attempt to humiliate” Marwan Barghouti or any other murderer will be “counter-productive” (Translation: result in the murder of Israeli kids).

Pryce-Jones confirms what I noticed whenever I read the profiles of “suicide bombers”: They don’t seem to be particularly hopeless. Despite what we’re constantly told, the majority of suicide bombers, he writes, “usually come from large and stable families, middle class, some of them relatively well off; and often they are university students or graduates who had aspirations to professional lives.” The exact same thing could be said of the September 11 hijackers.

Which raises the possibility that there’s something in the Arab water. After all, only a fool would believe that Arab support for the Palestinians is derived solely out of a general love for human rights, or for that matter, the Palestinians. Syria has killed more Arabs than Ariel Sharon and all the other Israeli prime ministers combined, as Nicholas Kristof noted earlier this week. Arabs in Israel have more civil rights than in any of its neighbors. There are Arabs in the Knesset, for Pete’s sake.

And, as for the Palestinians as a “people” (a very new concept), countries like Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait talk a great game about how much they care for them, but their actions run in the opposite direction. These regimes pay lip service to “Palestinian nationalism” — with all their talk of the “Arab nation” and “Muslim world” — as a way to feed their own resentments and hence, the beast of Islamic fundamentalism.

It seems to me wishful thinking, of a very gloomy sort to be sure, to say that societies with such hair-trigger low self-esteem will suddenly become normal and rational once they choke the Mediterranean with the corpses of Jews and appropriate Israeli cars, homes, and businesses. But hey, I could be wrong.

But it seems absurd for the United States to expect Israel to take that chance. Israelis can be infuriatingly arrogant, but that comes with the territory when you decide not to let other people gas you to death by the millions anymore. So the distinction between Osama bin Laden’s terrorism, that seeks to attack America first, and Hamas’s terrorism, that wants to start with Israel, is fairly academic from their perspective. They have a very real fight against very real terrorists. And, let us not forget, it isn’t a war on terrorism, but on those willing to use it. And I don’t want to racially profile but we know which countries we’re talking about.


Which brings us to Iraq. Of all the artificial nations of the Middle East, Iraq is the most bogus. Even the name “Iraq” reveals the wishful thinking of its architects. It means ‘’well-rooted country.’’ Of course, it’s not well rooted. Shiite Muslims form the majority of the country (assuming Saddam hasn’t killed enough to put them in the minority). The Kurds comprise another fifth of the Iraqi “population” (the quotation marks are there because it’s not clear that Saddam thinks the Kurds qualify as Iraqis, which is why he was so cavalier about gassing them). When Col. Edward House, an adviser to Woodrow Wilson, looked at the British plan for Iraq, he told the president, “They are making a breeding place for future war.”

The Ottomans never conceived of Iraq as a nation, in fact no one did. To the Turks the area was comprised of three imperial provinces centered on three respective cities: Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul. When the British laid claim to the area they made Faisal Hussein king of Iraq. He was well qualified for the job in that he had previously been king of Syria until the French decided they didn’t like him there (Faisal felt he’d been promised a kingdom over all Arabian lands). The Brits also made his brother Abdullah the King of Jordan (his descendents still rule there). The Husseins also got Arabia, but the Sauds — another tribe — stole it away from them and renamed the country Saudi Arabia (this is like me laying siege to Cleveland and establishing “Goldberg’s Cleveland” or “The Goldbergian Caliphate of Ohio” or something like that). Shortly before his death King Faisal wrote, “I say with my heart full of sadness that there is not yet in Iraq an Iraqi people.”

Anyway, there are any number of excellent reasons to topple Saddam Hussein: We should have done it the first time; he tried to murder the first President Bush; he’s developing weapons of mass destruction; he gassed the Kurds; he’s got that pickle-sniffer mustache; whatever. I don’t care. All of that is a conversation for another day.

The point for now is that Iraq shouldn’t have existed in the first place. It’s lasted this long thanks to the Stalinist repression of the Baath regime. And the only reason we didn’t get rid of it last time was that the Saudis despise the idea of toppling Hussein because they don’t want us to establish an attractive alternative to the nasty form of government they profit from. Well, boohoo for the Saudis. If they hadn’t found oil on their land they’d be a trivia question for students of comparative government today.

Wouldn’t such a huge move inflame the Middle East? Sure. Wouldn’t such a humiliating effort give Osama bin Laden exactly what he wants? Yes. Wouldn’t this cause the European diplomats to drop their egg spoons in disgust over such barbarism? Most definitely. Wouldn’t the civilized world — with the notable exception of the British — turn its collective back on us? I guess so.

All that would in all likelihood be true.

Until we win.

More on why winning is the most important thing next time.


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