State of the Union January/February 2008

After Iraq

A report from the new Middle East—and a glimpse of its possible future

Mapping the New Middle East

“Nobody is thinking about whether or not the map is still viable,” Ralph Peters told me. Peters is a retired Army lieutenant colonel and intelligence expert who writes frequent critiques of U.S. strategy in the Middle East. “It’s not a question about how America wants the map to look; it’s a question of how the map is going to look, whether we like it or not.”

In the June 2006 issue of Armed Forces Journal, Peters published a map of what he thought a more logical Middle East might look like. Rather than following the European-drawn borders, he made his map by tracing the region’s “blood borders,” invisible lines that would separate battling ethnic and sectarian groups. He wrote of his map,

While the Middle East has far more problems than dysfunctional borders alone—from cultural stagnation through scandalous inequality to deadly religious extremism—the greatest taboo in striving to understand the region’s comprehensive failure isn’t Islam but the awful-but-sacrosanct international boundaries worshipped by our own diplomats.

Peters drew onto his map an independent Kurdistan and an abridged Turkey; he shrank Iran (handing over Khuzestan to an as-yet-imaginary Arab-Shiite state he carved out of what is now southern Iraq); he placed Jordan and Yemen on a steroid regimen; and he dismembered Saudi Arabia because he sees it as a primary enemy of Muslim modernization.

It was an act of knowing whimsy, he said. But it was seen by the Middle East’s more fevered minds as a window onto the American imperial planning process. “The reaction was pure paranoia, just hysterics,” Peters told me. “The Turks in particular got very upset.” Peters explained how he made the map. “The art department gave me a blank map, and I took a crayon and drew on it. After it came out, people started arguing on the Internet that this border should, in fact, be 50 miles this way, and that border 50 miles that way, but the width of the crayon itself was 200 miles.”

Given the preexisting sensitivities in the Middle East to white men wielding crayons, it’s not surprising that his map would be met with such anxiety. There is a belief, prevalent in the Middle East and among pro-Palestinian American academics, that the Bush administration’s actual goal—or the goal, at least, of its favored theoreticians—is to rip up the existing map of the Arab Middle East in order to help Israel.

“One of the most evil things that is happening is that a bunch of people who are fundamentally opposed to the existence of these nation-states have gotten into the control room,” Rashid Khalidi, who is the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, told me. “They are irresponsible and highly ideological neoconservatives, generally, and they have been trying to smash the Arab state system. Their basic philosophy is, the smaller the Arab state, the better.”

Neoconservatives inside the administration deny this. “We never had the creation of new states as a goal,” Douglas Feith, the former undersecretary of defense for policy, told me, and indeed, there is no proof that the administration sought the breakup of Iraq. On the contrary: shortly after the invasion, I saw Paul Wolfo­witz, then the deputy secretary of defense, at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, and I told him I had just returned from Kurdistan. Maybe he was just feeling snappish (a few minutes earlier he had had a confrontation with Al Franken that ended with Wolfo­witz saying “Fuck you” to the comedian), but Wolfo­witz looked at me and, as though he were channeling the Turkish foreign minister, said, “We call it northern Iraq. Northern Iraq.”

Peters said he noticed early on as well that the administration was committed to a unified Iraq, and to the preexisting, European-drawn map of the Middle East. “This is how strange things are—the greatest force for democracy in the world has signed up for the maintenance of the European model of the world,” he said. “Even the neocons, who look like revolutionaries, just want to substitute Bourbons for Hapsburgs,” he continued, and added, “Not just in Iraq.” (Peters acknowledged that neoconservatives outside the administration were more radical than those on the inside, like Feith and Wolfowitz.)

So just what did the neoconservatives, the most influential foreign-policy school of the Bush years, have in mind? Feith, whose (inevitable) book on the invasion and its aftermath will be published in March, told me that the neoconservatives—at least those inside the administration—did not hope to create new borders, but did see a value in “instability,” especially since, in his view, the Middle East was already destabilized by the presence of Saddam Hussein. “There is something I once heard attributed to Goethe,” he said, “that ‘Disorder is worse than injustice.’ We have an interest in stability, of course, but we should not overemphasize the value of stability when there is an opportunity to make the world a better or safer place for us. For example, during the Nixon presidency, and the George H. W. Bush presidency, the emphasis was on stabilizing relations with the Soviet Union. During the Reagan administration, the goal was to put the Communists on the ash heap of history. Those Americans who argued for stability tried to preserve the Soviet Union. But it was Reagan who was right.” Feith had hoped that the demise of Iraq’s Baath regime would allow a new sort of governance to take hold in an Arab country. “We understood that if you did something as big as replacing Saddam, then there are going to be all kinds of consequences, many of which you can’t possibly anticipate. Something good may come, something negative might come out.”

So far, it’s been mainly negative. The neoconservatives’ big idea was that American-style democracy would quickly take hold in Iraq, spread through the Arab Middle East, and then be followed by the collapse of al-Qaeda, who would no longer have American-backed authoritarian Arab regimes to rally against. But democracy has turned out to be a habit not easily cultivated, and the idea that Arab political culture is capable of absorbing democratic notions of governance has fallen into disfavor.

In December of 2006, I went to the Israeli Embassy in Washington for a ceremony honoring Natan Sharansky, who had just received the Medal of Freedom from President Bush. Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident, had become the president’s tutor on the importance of democratic reform in the Arab world, and during the ceremony, he praised the president for pursuing unpopular policies. As he talked, the man next to me, a senior Israeli security official, whispered, “What a child.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“It’s not smart … He wants Jordan to be more democratic. Do you know what that would mean for Israel and America? If you were me, would you rather have a stable monarch who is secular and who has a good intelligence service on your eastern border, or would you rather have a state run by Hamas? That’s what he would get if there were no more monarchy in Jordan.”

After the ceremony, I spoke with Sharansky about this critique. He acknowledged that he is virtually the lone neoconservative thinker in Israel, and one of the few who still believes that democracy is exportable to the Arab world, by force or otherwise.

“After I came back from Washington once,” he said, “I saw [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon in the Knesset, and he said, ‘Mazel tov, Natan. You’ve convinced President Bush of something that doesn’t exist.’”

Presented by

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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