Posts Tagged borders

Ben-Gurion and land for (true) peace

In the film Ben-Gurion: Epilogue, Israel’s founder is made to seem eager to exchange territory for peace. That was in 1968, when he was 82 and long out of power. We see him say this to an interviewer: “If I could choose between peace and all the territories that we conquered last year [in the Six-Day War], I would prefer peace.” (Excluded: Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.)

In my April essay at Mosaic Magazine, I showed that Ben-Gurion had a very different take on territory back in May 1948, when he declared Israel’s independence from the pinnacle of his political and analytical power. But what about the later Ben-Gurion?

In my “last word” in the month-long discussion of my essay, I track his thinking on Israel’s borders, from the later months of 1948 through 1972, the year before his death. It turns out that the quote in the film, torn from its context, is utterly misleading. I restore the context, and you may be surprised to discover where the “Old Man” ended up.

In the course of telling that story, I touch on a few of the most interesting points raised by my distinguished respondents: Efraim Karsh, Benny Morris, and Avi Shilon. I’m grateful for their insights.

“Israel’s Situation Today Looks Much as Ben-Gurion Envisioned It,” my “last word”—read it right here.

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    The Fragile Crescent

    On April 30, I gave a lecture at Harvard University, where I am Olin Institute Senior Fellow, and where I’ve spent the past month. The subject: “After Iraq: The Future of the United States in the Middle East.” Below is an excerpt from the lecture.

    The objective of the United States is to protect and advance its interests at the lowest cost, and from the greatest distance. That is easiest done when there is a stable structure of states with which to interact. A state is a convenient address a place to which you can dispatch diplomats or cruise missiles, to which you can sell arms or issue threats. In short, a state is an entity with which a state can conduct business, usually at arm’s length.

    The states of the Middle East are the legacy of the Anglo-French partition of the Ottoman empire that followed the First World War. The United States has regarded these successor states, however constituted, as basic building blocks of order. Washington did not draw the map of the Middle East, but it has been adamant that the map not be altered. At times, certain Middle Eastern leaders, acting in the name of this or that ideology, have attempted to wipe a state off the map. Nasser’s Egypt absorbed Syria, Saddam’s Iraq absorbed Kuwait, and Asad’s Syria absorbed Lebanon. In each case, the United States used its influence or power to put the map back.

    It has been axiomatic in Washington that the foundation of the pax Americana is the maintenance of a partition largely finalized back in 1922. The United States is even committed to putting Palestine back on the map, from which it disappeared in 1948. If only the map could be completed, so the thinking goes, the Middle East, like Europe, would cease to be preoccupied with identity, and move to more productive pursuits.

    Not only has this “final status” eluded the United States. The irony is that the United States itself has delivered a massive blow to the map. In Iraq, it meant to destroy the regime and leave the state intact, but the state collapsed with the regime. The ramifications throughout the region are profound, if uneven.

    They are not as significant for the states that draw upon a strong sense of territorial or ethnic or linguistic nationhood—Egypt, Turkey, Iran. But what I call the “Fragile Crescent” has felt the shocks acutely.

    The British and French divided this part of the Ottoman empire, but not into its smallest conceivable parts. In fact, many of the successor states in this area were mini-empires in their own right, modeled on the late Ottoman system, governed on the same principles, and often by the same elites. Iraq, in particular, was a scaled-down version of the Ottoman empire. David Fromkin in his book A Peace to End All Peace wrote: “The Allies proposed a post-Ottoman design for the region in the early 1920s. The continuing question is whether the peoples of the region will accept it.” But precisely because the design was not entirely post-Ottoman, it somehow did function and most people grudgingly accepted it.

    Now that design has been given a blow, and large pieces of the remaining order are threatened with further fragmentation. Put differently, the dissolution of the Ottoman empire has resumed.

    There are three specific impacts of the Iraq war that are rendering parts of the political map an anachronism.

    The first is the Shiite revival in Iraq and beyond, also known as the “Shiite Crescent,” a phrase coined by Jordan’s King Abdullah in a loquacious moment. The idea—a Sunni one, not a Shiite one—is of a Shiite band of population running from the Arab Gulf states through Iran, southern Iraq, leap-frogging Sunni parts of Iraq and Syria, and extending into Lebanon a trans-border, trans-ethnic belt of allegiance with Iran at its center.

    The “Shiite Crescent” is one part hype, one part reality. There isn’t a contiguous belt of Shiites like the one shown in newspaper graphics; Shiites outside Iran and Iraq are still surrounded by a Sunni sea. Nor are Shiites driven by a need to reconfigure the map. In key states in the “Shiite Crescent”—Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain—Shiites are not minorities: they seek to capture the state whole, not break it into parts. Still, wherever the Sunni-Shia rift runs through a state, that state is vulnerable. The “Shiite Crescent” may be a hyped Sunni slogan, but it highlights the growth of an allegiance that is both sub-state and supra-state, and that erodes the state order from without and within.

    The second impact gets less attention: the Kurdish crescent. The Kurdish revival is as deep as the Shiite, but it is potentially far more subversive of the state order, because Kurds, unlike Shiites, are everywhere a minority. Iraq’s Kurds already have a de facto state, and it is a going concern, which is unlikely to maintain more than a formal tie with the rest of Iraq, if that. The autonomy of Iraq’s Kurds is a long-standing American commitment, which the Kurds are reinforcing through an extensive public relations and lobbying effort.

    The more successful Iraq’s Kurds are—the more state-like they become—the more this affects Kurds in Turkey, Iran, and Syria. The rather expansive map of “greater” Kurdistan is a logo map—that is, a mental map inculcated via its representation on everything from keychains to commemorative plates. You will not find “Shiite Crescent” keychains, because the notion is Sunni, not Shiite, and Shiism is not a territorial nationalism. But Kurdistan is another matter: Kurdish nationalism has a strong territorial component, and it won’t be put back in a bottle.

    The third and last impact involves the movement of millions across borders: the refugee crescent. These are mostly Iraqi Sunnis who have fled the chaos of their country to Syria or Jordan, and who are waiting out the war. Their numbers are already substantial, and they could increase dramatically in various scenarios. As the Palestinian case demonstrates, refugees put more than a material stress on host states. They throw the legitimacy of the status quo into question. While populations are being separated in Iraq, a great mixing is taking place in Syria and Jordan, with outcomes that cannot be predicted.

    In sum, the map has been undermined. The choice the United States will face with greater frequency and urgency is whether or not to sustain its traditional support for that map. Past challenges came from aggressive states encroaching on smaller ones, and aggressors could be cajoled, deterred, and punished. But transformation within states, in which the main actors are movements, insurgents, refugees, and secessionists, is another matter.

    We have a natural proclivity to dwell on those problems that we somehow might fix or tweak with the tools we have. Iran’s nuclear ambitions are a classic case. So is the Israeli-Palestinian issue. I have not discussed those problems this afternoon they are already being discussed elsewhere and everywhere. But it is precisely because the United States has so few of the tools it needs to deal with this sort of “new Middle East,” that its strategic and policy implications are not being discussed anywhere. Perhaps now would be a good time to start.

    Postscript: For my pre-war discussion of this same issue, go here.

      Borders and Democracy

      Last Monday, the Cairo daily al-Ahram published (in Arabic) an interview with David Welch, U.S. ambassador to Egypt. Toward the end of the interview, Welch was asked whether the United States would seek to remake the Middle East by redrawing its map. “Absolutely not,” replied Welch. “We do not want to draw new maps in the Middle East; we are not an imperial power. We have enough problems with the maps that were drawn in the past.”

      There was nothing inappropriate about the answer, but it does get one thinking. The assumption of U.S. policy is that the region can be stabilized, “reformed,” even democratized, without creating any new states, eliminating any existing ones, or redrawing any of the region’s borders. It’s the regimes that have to be changed in some places, the nature of regimes in others.

      Is that assumption a valid one? For example, is it a coincidence that the two most egregiously failed states in the region have been Iraq and Afghanistan? These are heterogenous polities that are difficult to rule at all, except through a centralizing dictatorship. Saddam Husayn is often cast as the man who destroyed Iraqi civil society. But the country has been plagued by strong-man interventions since its founding, precisely because none of its constituent elements—Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish—has ever felt secure. In Afghanistan, the lack of trust among its components—Tajik, Pashtun, Hazara—has given rise to warlordism and perpetuated it.

      There are two possible solutions for these states. One is federalism, which has no record of success in the region, and many instances of failure (one thinks in particular of various “Arab federations” that came and went). Another is a kind of power-sharing that worked in Lebanon for about thirty years. It was the late Edward Shils who underlined the weakness of this kind of solution, well before it collapsed. Such a polity “revolves around an empty center.” It therefore has to “be kept completely still politically” in order to prevent distrust from exploding. Keeping Iraq and Afghanistan “completely still” will be an expensive business. A new study by the U.S. Army’s Center of Military History says its would require a long-term commitment of 300,000 troops in Afghanistan, and 100,000 in Iraq.

      Might it be less costly to the United States and more conducive to democracy, to allow the kinds of modifications that occurred in the map of Europe after the fall of communism? After all, the states of Iraq and Afghanistan were founded at about the same time as Czechoslovakia. And if the present configurations of Iraq and Afghanistan inherently encourage dictatorship and warlordism, what is the U.S. interest in perpetuating them? More important, is the United States prepared to sacrifice treasure and lives to maintain them?

      I ask these questions; I haven’t answered them. I am familiar with the objections, and the quarters from which they might come. And the eve of an Iraq war is not the time for planners to discuss the issue, at least in public. But it is certainly not too early to begin thinking about it—and where can that be done, without commitment, if not on a weblog like this?

      One thing I will say: only someone with no sense of the history of the Middle East believes that the region’s map will never change again. The question is not whether it will be redrawn, but when and where, by whom and in whose favor.