In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson dispatched a theologian named Henry King and a plumbing-parts magnate named Charles Crane to sort out the Middle East. Amid the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, the region’s political future was uncertain, and the two men seemed to provide the necessary combination of business acumen and biblical knowledge. King and Crane’s quest was to find out how the region’s residents wanted to be governed. It would be a major test of Wilson’s belief in national self-determination: the idea that every people should get its own state with clearly defined borders.

Interactive map: How the King-Crane Commission envisioned the Middle East (Karl Sturm and Nick Danforth)

After spending three weeks interviewing religious and community leaders in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and southern Turkey, the two men and their team proposed that the Ottoman lands be divided as shown in the map above. Needless to say, the proposals were disregarded. In accordance with the Sykes-Picot Agreement Britain and France had drafted in secret in 1916, Britain and France ultimately took over the region as so-called mandate or caretaker powers. The French-administered region would later become Lebanon and Syria, and the British region would become Israel, Jordan, and Iraq.

Today, many argue that a century of untold violence and instability—culminating in ISIS’s brutal attempt to erase Middle Eastern borders—might have been avoided if only each of the region’s peoples had achieved independence after World War I. But as the King-Crane Commission discovered back in 1919, ethnic and religious groups almost never divide themselves into discrete units. Nor do the members of each group necessarily share a vision of how they wish to be governed.

The King-Crane report is still a striking document—less for what it reveals about the Middle East as it might have been than as an illustration of the fundamental dilemmas involved in drawing, or not drawing, borders. Indeed, the report insisted on forcing people to live together through complicated legal arrangements that prefigure more recent proposals.

Among other things, the authors concluded that dividing Iraq into ethnic enclaves was too absurd to merit discussion. Greeks and Turks only needed one country because the “two races supplement each other.” The Muslims and Christians of Syria needed to learn to “get on together in some fashion” because “the whole lesson of modern social consciousness points to the necessity of understanding ‘the other half,’ as it can be understood only by close and living relations.”

But the commissioners also realized that simply lumping diverse ethnic or religious groups together in larger states could lead to bloody results. Their report proposed all sorts of ideas for tiered, overlapping mandates or bi-national federated states, ultimately endorsing a vision that could be considered either pre- or post-national, depending on one’s perspective. In addition to outlining several autonomous regions, they proposed that Constantinople (now Istanbul) become an international territory administered by the League of Nations, since “no one nation can be equal to the task” of controlling the city and its surrounding straits, “least of all a nation with Turkey’s superlatively bad record of misrule.” Although the authors had been tasked with drawing borders, it seems that once they confronted the many dilemmas of implementing self-determination, they developed a more fluid approach to nationhood and identity.

Disagreement among the region’s residents about their own future certainly helped the commission reach this conclusion. The commissioners traveled from city to city accepting petitions and taking testimony, compiling a rare record of Arab popular opinion from the period. This early polling exercise captured a wide range of views—some overlapping, some irreconcilable.

Today's Middle East (Wikimedia)

Some 80 percent of those interviewed favored the establishment of a “United Syria”—an outcome that, far from settling the question of what self-determination would look like, forced the commission to wrestle with the crucial issue of what should happen to minorities. Many of the Christians living in this hypothetical future state, particularly those in the Mount Lebanon region, spoke out forcefully against being part of a larger, Muslim-dominated entity. Many called for an “Independent Greater Lebanon,” whose territory would be roughly equivalent to that of the modern state of Lebanon.

The commissioners’ proposed solution was to grant Lebanon “a sufficient measure of local autonomy” so as not to “diminish the security of [its] inhabitants.” But their explanation for why this autonomy should fall short of complete independence seems to challenge the logic of self-determination: “Lebanon would be in a position to exert a stronger and more helpful influence if she were within the Syrian state, feeling its problems and needs and sharing all its life, instead of outside it, absorbed simply in her own narrow concerns.”

The broader conclusion they reached about human affairs was similarly at odds with the principle of self-determination, and it anticipated the 21st century’s recurring debates about where the Middle East’s borders really belong. “No doubt the quick mechanical solution of the problem of difficult relations is to split the people up into little independent fragments,” they wrote. “But in general, to attempt complete separation only accentuates the differences and increases the antagonism.” Even when they conceded exceptions—for instance, in the “imperative and inevitable” separation of the Turks and Armenians given the Turks’ “terrible massacres” and “cruelties horrible beyond description”—King, Crane, and their team nonetheless concluded that “a separation ... involves very difficult problems” and could easily backfire.  

Ultimately, the King-Crane proposal relied on European or American supervision, through the mandate system, to fudge different degrees of sovereignty and ensure minority rights in multi-national states. Placing different mandates under the same mandatory power became an easy way to separate peoples while maintaining an administrative link between them: Syria and Mesopotamia, for instance, could both be under British supervision, while Turkey and Armenia could both be overseen by the United States. There is a telling condescension to the commissioners’ insistence on foreign administration as the best way to implement “self-determination,” but it wasn’t that different from the widely shared belief at the time that oversight from a supra-national body like the League of Nations would also be necessary to ensure minority rights in the new nations of Eastern Europe.

In some ways, it also wasn’t that different from the British and French belief, evident in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, that continued imperial rule was necessary to manage local differences. There are echoes of this conviction in the anti-nationalist imperial nostalgia that exists in some quarters today. Indeed, part of the reason the British and French felt so comfortable drawing "arbitrary" borders was that they believed they would remain in a position to manage relations across them. In this sense, Anglo-French imperialism relied on controlling borders and suppressing self-determination within the region, while the King-Crane commission was more interested in trying to find a balance between them.

The zones of influence established by the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The dark pink represents a region of direct British control, with the lighter pink a British zone of influence. Dark blue represents an area of direct French control, with the French zone of influence in lighter blue. (Wikimedia)

This balance has yet to be achieved. Today, some people argue that Iraq would be better off divided into smaller states, and that Syria might split up on its own, while others—including ISIS—have insisted that the solution is to do away entirely with borders like the one between Iraq and Syria and to create a much larger entity. But both solutions, along with the countless alternative maps proposed for the region, remain focused on redrawing borders rather than transcending them. And for what it’s worth, neither a subdivided Syria nor a union between Syria and Mesopotamia were outcomes that many locals campaigned for when King and Crane came to visit.

All of this suggests a need to look beyond the current paradigm of borders. The people of Scotland, for example, recently decided that their preferred relationship with London involved a mix of dependence and independence rather than leaving the U.K. altogether or allowing England to have total sovereignty over their affairs. And in Syria, a federated arrangement that parcels out control of the country’s territory without breaking it apart could be a faster route to peace than complete victory by any one side.

Of course, recognizing the limitations of nation-states, in the Middle East or elsewhere, does not imply that with a little more foresight the Arab world could have transitioned directly from Ottoman imperialism to post-national European modernity. Historical forces worked against implementing more flexible alternatives to the nation-state system then, and they still do today. But the current regional uncertainty may require the same kind of imagination the King-Crane commission brought to its analysis. A century later, it’s clear that the question of what political arrangements can help people “get on together in some fashion” remains just as difficult as ever.