“There's nothing the Arab respects more, John, than a strong steady white hand drawing arbitrary lines betwixt there ridiculous tribal allegiances," John Oliver said recently while dressed as a 19th-century British explorer.
Recently the Daily Show joined the growing consensus of commentators declaring that arbitrary, carelessly drawn imperial borders are to blame for all that's wrong with the Middle East today. In doing so, they demonstrated that it’s easy to be incredibly funny and dangerously wrong at the same time. There's plenty to criticize about the legacy of colonialism, but dwelling on colonial borders only increases the risk that our future interventions in the region will further undermine its already fragile states.
The idea that better borders, drawn with careful attention to the region’s ethnic and religious diversity, would have spared the Middle East a century’s worth of violence is especially provocative at a moment when Western powers weigh the merits of intervention in the region. Unfortunately, this critique overstates how arbitrary today’s Middle East borders really are, overlooks how arbitrary every other border in the world is, implies that better borders were possible, and ignores the cynical imperial practices that actually did sow conflict in the region.
A quick tour of present-day borders reveals a few key similarities with the local Ottoman boundaries in place before the French and British arrived. The three separate provinces -- Mosul, Baghdad and Basra -- that were joined to make Iraq, for example, were often treated as a coherent economic and military area by the Ottoman government. And of course, the region’s geographic unity going back to the origins of human civilization, had long been recognized in the term “Mesopotamia.” Meanwhile, the fact that Iraq’s eastern border with Iran followed a line set by the 16th-century conquests of Suleiman the Magnificent didn’t prevent the countries from fighting a decade-long conflict over it that killed ten times more people than all the Arab-Israeli wars combined. To the West, Mount Lebanon had been carved out as a special administrative unit following religious violence there in 1860 as a compromise between Istanbul and the Great Powers. (That this region should nonetheless belong to Syria was perhaps one of the Assad regime’s least controversial positions over the years.) The only country in the area for which no ancient borders existed was Jordan -- it was formed in 1922 from some not-too-desirable bits of arid land as something for Britain’s ally, Abdullah, to be king of. Like most kings, he would have liked something bigger, and yet under his family’s rule Jordan has been spared much of the turmoil endured by its less “artificial” neighbors.
No commission could have been expected to find the magic line that got all the Sunnis on one side, the Shiites on the other, and the oil right in the middle.
Even if Britain and France had set out to divide the Middle East with the best of intentions, which admittedly they did not, it’s far from clear how they could have done better. At best, creating more countries would have just meant more borders to fight over, while fewer large countries would have turned regular wars into civil ones.
In Iraq, for example, creating smaller independent states would only have prefigured the conflicts dividing Iraq today. A predominantly Kurdish state built around the old Ottoman province of Mosul would almost inevitability have become ensnared in the ongoing conflict between the Republic of Turkey and its own Kurdish minority. Similarly, Shiite Iran would have had religious grounds to try to incorporate a small Shiite state based around Basra, whereas a state based around the central province of Baghdad would have hated to sit back and watch its neighbors grow rich off oil deposits that it lacked.
So what if the British and French had instead endorsed the logic of pan-Arabism and created one big Arab state out of the whole region? Well, any such state would still have faced difficulty with its Christian, Kurdish, and Shiite minorities. And with Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia all asserting their own claims to preeminence in the Arab world, the question of leadership would have been contentious. Had such a state failed, like the short-lived United Arab Republic (1958-1961), its division would have brought regional politics back to square one.
Most appealing, perhaps, is the idea that things might have gone smoother if the Europeans had just left the region’s inhabitants to sort things out themselves. This is what happened in the Balkans, where local leaders drew their own borders, and the fighting lasted up through the 1990s.