If, as the saying goes, failure is an orphan, then the fruit of Western intercourse with the Middle East must be the most forlorn love-child in the history of foreign affairs. London and Paris, for example, have yet to officially acknowledge the damage they did to the Arab world by imposing its partition at the end of World War I. Nor is the Zionist movement likely to assume a shred of culpability for the Middle East’s mess for erecting a Jewish state in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world. And now former Bush cadres are trying to cast blame for the consequences of their disastrous war on Iraq at the Obama administration.
Neoconservative fabulism to the contrary, paternity for Iraq’s current misery rests with those who frog-marched the world into war a decade ago and then botched the job thoroughly enough to realize an epochal, sectarian holocaust. The New York Times last week could not have been more compelling or concise. The Sunni-jihadi horde that is now tearing Iraq apart, it reported earlier this month, “is directly connected to the American legacy in Iraq. The American prisons [established immediately after the invasion] were fertile grounds for jihadist leaders and virtual universities where leaders would indoctrinate their recruits with hard-line ideologies.”
Among the group’s objectives, apparently, is to nullify the borders drawn under a century-old Franco-British scheme to Balkanize the Middle East into assorted states and emirates and to provide geographical definition for a Jewish state in Palestine. The agreement, codified in secret by the notorious Sykes-Picot Treaty and then ratified in several international forums, betrayed Western promises to Arab elites for statehood in exchange for their help in ousting the Germans and Turks from the Levant during World War I. It was, as George Antonius wrote in his masterful book “The Arab Awakening,” published in 1938, “a shocking document …, not only the product of greed at its worst [but] greed allied to suspicion and so leading to stupidity: it also stands out as a startling piece of double-dealing.”
Dismemberment doomed the Arab world economically as well as politically after four centuries of relatively peaceful and prosperous Ottoman rule. (For a detailed analysis of the economic costs of partition, see “A History of Middle East Economies in the Twentieth Century,” by Roger Owen and Sevket Pamuk.) The process would be accelerated by Bush’s assault on Iraq, a prospect not lost on Iraqis who, by then cruelly acquainted with Washington’s fecklessness and ignorance of the Arab world, made peace with their fate even before the smoke of the April 2003 invasion had cleared.
“George Bush gave Iraq to Iran,” a Sunni-Iraqi friend told me in Baghdad a few weeks after the removal of Saddam Hussein. “And he did it for free.”
It is a revealing comment, steeped as it is in the pathos and cynicism that comes with being Arab - particularly an Iraqi one - in the post-war world. After decades of torment members of Iraq’s once prosperous and secular middle class now regard their country as barter rather than a sovereign state worth defending - thus the Iraqi army’s inability or unwillingness to resist assaults from lightly armed and vastly outnumbered jihadi militias. It is a hard-boiled merchant’s conceit; the fact that a powerful leader like the president of the United State would hand his purloined loot to a third party without getting something in return was almost as scandalous as the theft itself.
Long before the last American troop withdrew from Iraq in 2011, Iraq had become the sovereign equivalent of the goat carcass Afghan tribesman battle to control in a game of Buzkashi. The average Iraqi today has known nothing but foreign occupation, tyranny, and conflict. They warred with Iran throughout the 1980s and then battled the U.S. over Kuwait, reaping a generation of sanctions that remained in place even after the 2003 invasion. There are Iraqi’s today who can remember the humiliation of British colonial rule - during which Iraq was stripped of the oil-rich parcel of land that became Kuwait - followed by a succession of monarchs and dictators that led to Hussein’s sadistic twenty-five year rule.
It wasn’t always like this. Last month I attended an exhibition at Paris’ Institut du Monde Arab of the Orient Express, the luxury passenger train that once carried travelers from London to Istanbul and onto the Arab world. The exhibit, according to the catalog, celebrated “the wealth of relationships formed between France and the countries of the Middle East.” There was, needless to say, little mention of the Sykes-Picot agreement and its fateful consequences.
The show began with a tour of several exquisitely restored passenger cars, their cabins staged to recall such famous travelers as the dancer Josephine Baker - silk gowns strewn over an opened steamer-trunk, a copy of Le Monde, circa 1928, tucked under a portable Victrola on the couchette - and writers like Agatha Christie and Graham Greene as well as diplomats, journalists and monarchs. That was followed by a dazzling display of Orient Express memorabilia: purser uniforms, tea sets, silverware, serving plates and linen bearing the train’s monogram, along with paintings and photographs of moon-lit desert landscapes, libidinous pashas and languid harems girls - camp but quaint Western renderings compared to the malign caricatures to come.
The final viewing hall showcased epic posters announcing the Orient Express’ Levantine attractions: Istanbul, Cairo, Jerusalem, Damascus. Two in particular caught my attention. An oil portrait of Aleppo’s stout, crenelated citadel, painted in 1925 when there was no reason to believe the city would be anything but eternal, and a poster drawn fifteen years earlier beguiling travelers to “Go see Baghdad, Karbala, Ur, Mosul and Basrah.” The names were stacked up one after the other and crowned by a stone lion of Babylon. It was a charming display made achingly poignant by the Arab world’s subsequent decent into madness. Aleppo is now in ruins, destroyed by many of the same zealots who now control Mosul and menace Baghdad.
A century ago, when the Orient Express surged through a borderless Arabia, the exploitation between visitor and host was mutually enriching. Partition - “to cut up the Arab rectangle in such a manner as to place artificial obstacles in the way of unity,” according to Antonius - made the Arabs slaves to the European powers and ultimately, amid the chaos of decolonization, to each other. The engineers of America’s war on Iraq were only the most recent, and in many ways the most destructive, aggressors in that offensive. To suggest otherwise is to betray a profound ignorance that explains why Americans keep getting snagged in unwinnable wars in places they do not understand.