‘The commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies.” So remarked that wily old political operator, British prime minister and foreign secretary Lord Salisbury, some 140 years ago. He was referring, of course, to the bankrupt British policy of trying to prop up the rapidly disintegrating Ottoman Empire against the repeated depredations of Tsarist Russia and Habsburg Austria-Hungary, in yet another round of the long-running “Eastern Question.” Failure to settle this matter in an equitable manner was to lead to a general European war in 1914.
On the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, we are facing another “Great Eastern Crisis” as the modern states-system in the Middle East, built out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, collapses before our very eyes. Yet our political masters, whether in Washington, London, or Paris, refuse to recognize this stark reality. Until the recent barbarous killing of American journalists and a British aid worker, our politicians have averted their eyes from the mounting chaos in the Middle East and instead mouthed pieties about the need for forming “inclusive” governments in Iraq and Syria (not to mention Egypt, Libya, and Yemen). They persist in the illusion, like a story out of A Thousand and One Nights, that somehow Western-style democracy can be grafted onto Middle Eastern polities, despite all the terrible evidence of the repeated failure to do so over the years. As in a Hollywood movie, they look for good guys to back and bad guys to chastise and are bedazzled when the actors switch roles without telling the scriptwriter and director. In the vain hope of finishing the production, they suspend all critical faculties and surrender control of the plot to the whim and caprice of the rival thespians as they act out their never-ending story. (Just look at how official opinion has changed toward the regimes in Damascus, Baghdad, and Tehran in the last year.)
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (aka Ibrahim ibn Awwad ibn Ali ibn Muhammad al-Badri al-Samarri) is simply the latest actor to enter, stage left, the great theater of Middle Eastern politics, appearing in his self-appointed role of Caliph Ibrahim of the Islamic State (IS). His appearance prompted an early rave review from General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who muttered in suitably apocalyptic tones about something akin to “the End of Days,” as if we were witnessing Arnold Schwarzenegger in yet another epic comeback.
It is high time that Washington (because London and Paris are only bit players in this production) get a grip on itself and come up with a policy and a strategy to fit the bill. We need a little less of Hamlet and a little more of Henry V from President Obama. He has sought to convince us, in his preemptive speech on the eve of 9/11, that he has hesitantly picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Abu Bakr (who seems to see himself as a reincarnation of the first, all-conquering Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr al-Siddique). But a rehashed soliloquy about air strikes, advisers, arms, aid, and coalition-building is hardly an inspiring strategy. Where is the stirring call to arms, the “Once more unto the breach dear friends,” and the modern strategic equivalent of “Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood / Disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage / Then lend the eye a terrible aspect” — let alone the cry “God for Barry, America, and Saint George!”? And we are still waiting for “Turn to him any cause of policy / the Gordian knot of it he will unloose.”
Instead, President Obama seems determined to compound his misery, and more significantly that of the United States, by pursuing the long-discredited American policy and strategy of trying, and patently failing, to prop up the clearly ailing states-system in the Middle East. It is the political equivalent, to continue the analogy of the Gordian knot, of gazing impotently at the oxcart in the courtyard of King Gordias’s abandoned Phrygian palace, after his kingdom had fallen into the hands of Persian enemies. According the myth, the oxcart had long before been secured with a complex knot, and only he who could undo it would rule the kingdom. Alexander the Great rose to the challenge, reportedly slicing the knot with his sword. It is time for Obama to take his cue from Alexander, to wield the sword that will cut through the tangled threads of the American role in the Middle East. It is time for him to outline a new policy and strategy that recognizes the new realities in the region and how best to protect Western interests.
President Obama could start by dusting off the doctrine of a fellow Democrat, President Woodrow Wilson, who during and after World War I advocated self-determination for the peoples not only of the fallen Central and Eastern European empires but also for the collapsing Ottoman Empire. In doing so, Obama would trump Caliph Ibrahim’s announcement that “Sykes-Picot is dead!” Let us not quibble about the new caliph’s shaky sense of history. (A look at the map accompanying the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement bears only a faint resemblance to the modern borders that crisscrossed the Fertile Crescent. These were determined after the award of the mandates for these territories to Britain and France by the League of Nations at the San Remo conference in 1920.)
The man has a point! Iraq and Lebanon/Syria, Palestine/Trans-Jordan were cobbled together from various former Ottoman provinces (or vilayets) to suit British and French strategic interests, namely the guarding of oil, communications, and minorities. Their borders were not as arbitrarily drawn as some pundits would like to think. They took into account geographical, ethnographic, and political factors, and were usually arrived at after agreement with the local potentates, whether Arab, Turk, or Persian. But the essential point to grasp is that these territories made sense only as long as they were controlled by the British and the French. As soon as they became independent (Iraq in 1932, Lebanon in 1943, Syria and Jordan in 1946, and Israel in 1948), they fell under the winner-takes-all rule of Middle Eastern politics, which excluded all rivals from government. Western-style democracy became a pipe, or rather hookah, dream in Iraq and Syria, where coup, counter-coup, torture, and massacre of one’s opponents have been the preferred modus operandi of successive Arab governments, whether Sunni or Shia, to this day. The only way to break this endless cycle of sectarian violence and death, which has led to the implosion of Syria and Iraq as states, is to redraw their boundaries to reflect the realities of regional politics.
We should start with Iraq, where the problem is the most pressing. We all know, to our cost again and again, that Iraq has never worked as a state because of its unbridgeable ethnic, sectarian, and political divisions. (During and after the Kuwait War in 1990–91, my late father, J. B. Kelly, pointed this out in a series of articles for National Review.) It is simply madness to seek to perpetuate Iraq in its current form. It needs to be divided up into its constituent parts: Kurd, Shia, and Sunni. This would only be a recognition of the realities on the ground, where we have a functioning Kurd state in the north, a rump Shia entity in the south, and an emerging Sunni state, albeit of a dark Islamist hue, in the west. Freed from the fetid embrace of Baghdad, and fed up with the medieval barbarities of IS, the Anbar tribes might very possibly awaken once again and shuck off the Islamists, forging a state in their own image.
And they could do this in association with their Sunni tribal cousins across the now nonexistent border with Syria. After three years of civil war, it is surely clear to all and sundry, though not it seems to that amorphous body known as “the international community,” that Syria no longer exists as a state. It has been balkanized by war into ethnic, sectarian, and political enclaves, whether Kurd, Alawite, Druze, Sunni and Shia Arabs, or, lest we forget, Christians.
A realistic U.S. policy needs to recognize this and also encourage the formation of new entities based upon the principle of self-determination, one of the seemingly forgotten canons of American foreign policy. All the necessary sinews of American power should be strained to hammer out a strategy to implement this policy. Such a distinctive American lead on Iraq and Syria would not only give a moral authority to this diplomatic initiative but also enable the U.S. government to steal a march on the inevitable international, regional, and local opposition, mired as they are in their own murderous squabbles. It would require great courage, determination, far-sightedness, and above all command and leadership, by President Obama. But it could be the making of his presidency. Is he to be a Hamlet or a Henry V — that is the question.
— Saul Kelly is Reader in International History at King’s College, London. He is deputy editor of Middle Eastern Studies and has published a number of books and articles on the region.