Between Iraq and a hard place

Just over eleven years ago, President George W. Bush had his “Mission Accomplished” moment aboard the carrier Abraham Lincoln.

Talk about premature.    

Now President Barack Obama – whose foreign policy rests on reading civics lectures to the world’s tyrants and terrorists but never, ever doing anything – faces a new, self-inflicted disaster in Mesopotamia.

ISIS – a sort of Islamist Mafia who make the Taliban look like a Quaker meeting – has overrun much of northern Iraq.  They appear to be moving on Baghdad.

It seems incredible that this huge city – which American commanders approached with considerable trepidation – would collapse in the face of lightly-armed irregulars, but a lot of well-heeled Baghdadis are packing their bags.    

Stay tuned.

In weeks to come, Americans not hopelessly zoned out on soccer will hear much conflicting advice from genuine experts in Middle Eastern affairs – scholars, soldiers, diplomats, journalists, and former officials.  All of these experts – or at least, those willing to admit their past mistakes – deserve our attention.

But, while we listen to them, let’s not forget the importance of historical perspective and a little common sense.  Most of these experts are wedded to the assumption that we live in a world of nation-states.   Our generations learned – in our university days – that the lines and colored patches on a globe represent reality.

Not all of us have outgrown those lessons.   

Our Western world-view has long been shaped by the study of modern European history, which embraces events which took place in the western part of the Eurasian landmass since about 1400.

Modern European history is readily understood as the story of how nation-states emerged from the medieval mix of the universal – the Catholic Church – and the extremely local – feudalism and the manorial system.  The critical event is probably the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which defined the legal concept of territorial sovereignty.

I taught AP European History for years.  It’s a fascinating subject, filled with great events and remarkable personalities.

But it’s also the story of five or six centuries in one corner of the planet.

For unique reasons of geography, demographics, economics, etc., Europe’s history turned out to be a story of emerging nation-states.  But this was an evolutionary response to specific local conditions.  There was nothing inevitable about it.

It’s certainly not inevitable that the nation-state become the global model.

Yet we and our European cousins keep trying to make it so.

In the nineteenth century, Europeans carved up Africa into colonies by drawing lines on a map – lines which ignored tribal realities.  These lines have now hardened into particularly unfortunate national borders.

After World War I, and again after World War II, the winners – basically the U.S., Britain, France and Russia – painstakingly redrew the map of the world to create nations where none had existed before.

We set up the United Nations, which channels the tumultuous variety of human voices through the ambassadors of two hundred nation-states – whether those nation-states actually represent anyone or not.

Even today, American presidents of both parties consistently cling to the myth that all nation-states are equally valid, equally sovereign, equally real.

But they’re not.

The myth of the nation-state clearly hasn’t worked in the Middle East, where tribal and sectarian identity means far more to the average person than nationalism.

Consider Iraq.  As a nation-state, it has never really existed.  Before World War I, the territory now included in Iraq consisted of three separate administrative areas – vilayets – of the Ottoman Empire.

During that war, the Ottoman Turks sided with Germany and Austria-Hungary.  Britain, operating from its quasi-colonial base in Egypt, forged an alliance with Arab tribes seeking to overthrow Turkish rule.  

If you’ve seen “Lawrence of Arabia,” you know the story.

The British and Arab allies liberated Palestine and Syria from the Turks.  When the war ended, the British were awarded custody of much of the former Turkish empire – including the three vilayets of Mesopotamia.

In the 1920s, British officials – wishing to reward one of their Arab allies – declared that these three vilayets would henceforth constitute Iraq.  They installed their puppet king – an outsider who never proved popular with his “people.”  Iraq remained unstable until a ruthless dictatorship – under the Ba’athist Party – replaced the hapless monarchy. Saddam Hussein became Iraq’s second Ba’athist dictator.  He ruled a brutal military and security state, supported by the Sunni minority which lived mostly in the western region.

This Sunni-backed, but secular, regime succeeded for decades in suppressing Iraq’s Shi’ite majority, which lived mostly in the southeastern region.  It was no kinder to the non-Arab Kurds, who occupied the northern region.

When George W. Bush led us into Iraq – for reasons which turned out to be entirely fictitious – he was thinking of Iraq as a nation-state.   He and his advisors expected to depose Saddam, abolish his army, and turn over the nation to some sort of elected, civilian government.

What Bush didn’t understand was this:  There was no Iraqi nation.  There never had been.

The Iraq Mr. Bush intended to liberate was collection of tribes and religious sects. Once Saddam’s ruthless regime was toppled, the whole thing fell apart.

And so it remains today.  In the north, the Kurds have established a successful, autonomous regional state – independent in all but name.  The rest of “Iraq,” while technically governed by the U.S.-imposed government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, remains a myth.

Maliki can only govern with the support of the Shi’a majority, which has decades of scores to settle with the Sunnis.  Knowing this, the Sunnis are more afraid of their own government than they are of ISIS.

And so the mess in Mesopotamia goes on.

President Obama must now decide what – if anything – to do about ISIS.  

It might help if he first got over the illusion that he’s dealing with an actual nation-state.  

He’s not.

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