The Middle East That Might Have Been
Nearly a century ago, two Americans led a quixotic mission to get the region’s borders right…
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…
Poor bloody locals. If the West is truly willing to sort things out right now, are we then willing to rule–one way or another–for some decades or so to try to ensure things work out wellish? Triple double HAH! Given no willingness for, or today in the West intellectual acceptance of, such a prospect, then let us just face things honestly:
After all we remain none too disturbed to let millions of black Africans die in, or as the consequence of, armed conflict.