The Middle East’s “artificial borders” and America’s history of unleashing chaos

On a recent road trip from the Bay Area to northern Washington, I noticed a strange phenomenon: the borders between US states, and even the border between America and Canada, were only indicated via man-made cues like signs and checkpoints. It was strange because I keep hearing about violence in the Middle East, chiefly in Syria and Iraq, and how the region’s problem is its “artificial” borders. Conventional wisdom has coalesced around the idea that the original sin that’s lead to the Syrian Civil War and the resurgence of violence in Iraq is that those countries are “invented,” with illegitimate borders decided upon by the whims of mere humans. What I saw on my road trip made me think that all borders are invented, and maybe every country is man-made, not just Middle East regimes outside the Washington consensus. But who am I to argue with this kind of establishment consensus! Talking about the resurgence of Al Qaeda, journalist Dexter Filkins explained:

“What’s developing in front of our eyes is this very terrifying kind of regional, sectarian war that is basically stretching from the Iranian border all the way to the Mediterranean. The longer this war goes on in Syria, the greater the impact in the region, whether it’s Lebanon, or Iraq, or Jordan. These countries are artificial countries, most of them were drawn on a map in 1919 after World War One.”

The current Middle East conflicts, as Filkins explains, are due to the “artificial” nature of the countries in question. As opposed, one presumes, to the countries of North America and Europe, whose shapes were ordained by Providence. Filkins isn’t alone in ascribing the current violence in the Middle East to the arrogant whims of Sykes and Picot. The idea that century-old cartographic laziness is at the root of today’s Mideast violence is a popular one, repeated in the pages of the New York Times, Time Magazine, The Washington Post, and by Fareed Zakaria, one of the theory’s early adopters. In a segment on The Daily Show, a personification of the British Empire named Sir Archibald Mapsalot explains the “bad borders” theory as the unfortunate result of British imperialism and the ignorance of its administrators. America’s wisest pundits have found the culprit behind the current bloodshed in the Middle East, and it is the 19th Century British Empire. How convenient, and by sheer coincidence, exculpatory for the Middle East’s current imperial master, the United States.

Screen Shot 2014-01-13 at 6.09.09 PM

It turns out this silly Edwardian caricature was behind our problems all along!

The Daily Show invented a mustachioed, pith-helmeted character for its audience to laugh at for the same reason that the “bad borders/artificial countries” theory is so popular with mainstream foreign policy mavens: it’s more comfortable to blame 19th Century British imperialism than the contemporary American variety. When looking for villains responsible for the current configuration of the Middle East, it’s not necessary to invent caricatures. One could point to the post-WWII machinations of the Dulles brothers, which overthrew the Shah and created the Islamic Revolution. Successive US Presidents have declared control of the Middle East to be an inviolable American interest, maybe that’s worth mentioning. To keep things strictly contemporary, maybe some of the sectarian violence in the Middle East has to do with the fact that after the US committed an illegal war of aggression against Iraq, our strategy consisted of creating sectarian death squads that killed hundreds of thousands of people and immiserated millions more. When one surveys the wreckage that American Imperial dominance has left behind, it becomes obvious why establishment voices blame the Edwardian Crown—the truth is too horrifying to acknowledge, and it indicts America for these crimes.

A January 4th article from the front page of the New York Times captures the bizarre and ahistoric way that our media talks about Middle East violence. Titled “Power Vacuum in the Middle East Lifts Militants,” the piece explains that “the bloodshed that has engulfed Iraq, Lebanon and Syria in the past two weeks exposes something new and destabilizing: the emergence of a post-American Middle East in which no broker has the power, or the will, to contain the region’s sectarian hatreds.” It may come as a surprise that the Middle East exists in a post-American state, given the tens of billions of dollars in aid to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf regimes, or the at least 125,000 American troops in the region. According to the piece’s three authors, regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia are to blame for stoking sectarian conflict—made inevitable by Sir Mapsalot and his clumsy British maps. From reading the Times piece, one would never know that America had dominated the region for most of a century, or that it had made sectarian violence the cornerstone of defeating the Iraqi insurgency.

The "post-American Middle East." Red: Countries with an American military presence Stars: US military bases

The “post-American Middle East.”
Red: Countries with an American military presence
Stars: US military bases

In conquering Iraq, the famously reality-resistant Bush administration instituted numerous disastrous changes. Along with disbanding the Iraqi army, proconsul Paul Bremer imported the administration’s childish, Manichaean worldview to Iraq. In the words of journalist Nir Rosen, Bremer treated the defeated Iraqi regime like the Nazis, and Iraqi Shiites like the Jews in postwar Germany. Consequently, the US occupation privileged Shiite Iraqis and punished Sunnis, exacerbating sectarian divisions that had only nominally existed before the invasion. When an organized Iraqi opposition threatened American dominance of the country, a brutal counterinsurgency campaign was instituted which would lead to the majority of violence during the war. As journalist Peter Maass said, “the template for Iraq is not Vietnam, to which it has often been compared, but El Salvador.” During the “Salvadorization” of Iraq, men like David Petraeus underling Col. James Steele trained the sectarian death squads that tore Iraq apart. General Petraeus was hailed as a hero for the “surge” that allegedly reduced violence in Iraq through a counterinsurgency strategy that subsequently was exported to Afghanistan. The reality was uglier, and it’s that casualties in Iraq declined after Iraqi neighborhoods and cities had been ethnically cleansed, less because of his vaunted “surge.”

The creation of sectarian death squads in Iraq was part of a greater Imperial project to remake the Middle East, decapitating or dismembering intransigent countries that failed to conform to Washington’s dictates. In a 2007 speech, General Wesley Clark described a conversation he had in the Pentagon 10 days after the September 11th attacks.

“An officer from the Joint Staff called me into the office and said, I want you to know, sir, we’re going to attack Iraq. I said, why? He said, we don’t know. I said, well did they tie Saddam to 9/11? He said, no, he said, but I guess they do not know what to do about terrorism… but they can attack states and they want to look strong. Six weeks later, I saw the same officer. I said, we still going to attack Iraq? He said, oh, sir, it’s worse than that. He pulled up a piece of paper off his desk. He said, I just got this memo from the Secretary of Defense’s office, says we’re going to attack and destroy the governments in seven countries in five years. We’re going to start with Iraq and then we’re going to move to Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran.”

Though the Neocon dream of militarily overthrowing all those regimes and instituting Afghan-style puppet governments ran aground on reality, the disintegration of these states fits American imperial designs. The idea that current Middle East boundaries are illegitimate has the benefit of both absolving America’s murderous Iraq policy and justifying the dismemberment of noncompliant countries. In Iraq, for instance, which has essentially ceased to function as a state, Kurdistan is heralded as a success story. Commentators like Jeffrey Goldberg regularly trot out the functionality of Kurdistan to retroactively justify the invasion. Happily, “a Free Kurdistan would be the most pro-Western state between Bulgaria and Japan,” in the words of Armed Forces Journal. What Gen. Clark’s unnamed interlocutor called “those old Soviet regimes” are, in America’s eyes, best carved up into rump states who can serve America’s interests, like Kurdistan, or left to sectarian infighting. Oded Yaron, a senior Israeli foreign ministry official, provided a template for this in a policy paper titled “A Strategy for Israel in the Nineteen Eighties.” Yaron said:

“The total disintegration of Lebanon into five regional, localized governments is the precedent for the entire Arab world… The dissolution of Syria, and later Iraq, into districts of ethnic and religious minorities following the example of Lebanon is Israel’s main long-range objective on the Eastern front.”

The New York Times blames sectarianism on Iran and Saudi Arabia for the same reason that Fareed Zakaria, Joe Klein and Jon Stewart blame the British Empire—because it’s easier to shunt blame to bygone historical figures or apocryphal forces than to blame America’s imperial projects and the Exceptionalist philosophy that undergirds them. US designs in the region have killed hundreds of thousands in the last decade, but you’d never know it from reading our establishment press. No true accounting of America’s War in Iraq has ever been conducted; it was merely pushed down the memory hole by polite society. A true reckoning would involve every war-supporting media celebrity and think-tank member being shipped off to Fallujah, filling 55-gallon drums with soil made radioactive by depleted uranium as part of reparations to the Iraqi people. Bush would whimper next to a snarling Dick Cheney behind bulletproof glass, Eichmann-style, in the International Criminal Court. Instead, people voted for a slick Democrat who called a great historic crime—punished by hanging at Nuremberg—a “dumb war,” and told us to look forward, not back. The American establishment has imposed omertà on Iraq, and will look for anyone to else to blame for the hellish violence currently roiling the Middle East.

When the truth contravenes the narrative of American imperial hegemony, it gets erased from the narrative. That’s why our pundits are getting so “Philosophy 110” on us—But what, like are countries, though? Isn’t a border just a collective delusion? Borders and national sovereignty are great for the United States—we have one of the most securitized in the world. For Syria, Lebanon or Iraq, they’re an archaic mistake. Fighting in those latter countries couldn’t have anything to do with the world’s superpower having designs there—it must be because the last superpower accidentally threw all those belligerents together a century ago. This is how an imperial narrative goes: it’s someone else’s fault, it was like that when we got here, and above all else, we’re helpless bystanders.

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