TGIF: The Middle East Harvests Bitter Imperialist Fruit
The wall-to-wall coverage of the disintegration of Iraq ought to
carry this credit: This bloodshed was made possible by the generosity of
British and French imperialists.
The stomach-wrenching violence in Iraq — not to mention the
horrendous civil war in Syria, the chronic unrest in Palestine/Israel,
and problems elsewhere in the Middle East — are direct consequences of
the imperialist acts of the British and French governments at the end of
World War I, the history-altering catastrophe that began 100 years ago
this August 4.
The story has been told many times. The government of Great Britain
wanted to disrupt the Ottoman Empire's ability to help Germany and the
Austro-Hungarian empire in the Great War. So the British dispatched
personnel, most famously T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia),
to persuade the Arab leaders to revolt against the Turks, in return for
which they would gain their independence in (roughly) the Levant (what today is Israel/Palestine, Jordan, Syria), Mesopotamia (Iraq), and the Arabian Peninsula. The Arab leadership agreed and proceeded to obstruct the Turks' war efforts.
In the 1915–16 correspondence between the British High Commissioner
in Cairo, Sir Henry McMahon, and Arab leader Hussein bin Ali, McMahon acknowledged Hussein's demand for independence in most of the Levant (Palestine included) and the Arabian peninsula:
Subject to the above modifications, Great Britain is
prepared to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs in all
the regions within the limits demanded by the Sherif of Mecca [Hussein].
McMahon did not give a blanket guarantee; he excluded western parts
of the Levant (Lebanon) in favor of French interests and declared that
With regard to … Bagdad [sic] and Basra [in Iraq], the
Arabs will recognise that the established position and interests of
Great Britain necessitate special administrative arrangements in order
to secure these territories from foreign aggression, to promote the
welfare of the local populations and to safeguard our mutual economic
Nevertheless, the British led the Arabs to believe — and the Arabs
indeed did believe — that they would gain independence in most of their
lands not only from the Turks but also from Britain and France as well
if the Allied powers prevailed.
The British officials, however, never intended to honor this promise
to let the Arabs go their own way at the war's end. The British (and
French) cynically used the Arabs for their own advantage while secretly
planning for a postwar Middle East dominated by their countries.
In 1916, after McMahon's correspondence with Hussein, Sir Mark Sykes,
a Middle East adviser to the British cabinet, and French diplomat
François Georges Picot negotiated the famous secret agreement that bears
their names. (It was also signed by czarist Russia's representative.)
The Sykes-Picot Agreement presumed to divide up the Middle East among
the imperial Allied Powers, even before it had been wrested from the
Generally, the better developed parts of the Arab lands — Iraq and
Greater Syria (including Lebanon) — would be controlled by Britain and
France, while the undeveloped peninsula — today's Saudi Arabia and Yemen
— would be independent, though divided into British and French spheres
of influence. (Its oil potential was yet unknown.) Part of what is
today's Turkey would be in Russian hands.
More specifically Britain would control southern Mesopotamia (Iraq),
two Mediterranean port cities, and what would become Jordan. France
would get Greater Syria, including today's Lebanon, and northern
Mesopotamia. Palestine (minus Jordan) would be under international
supervision. This is not exactly how things ended up, but it set the
stage for the final division of Arab territory between Britain and
France after the war.
Obviously the agreement had to be kept secret, or else the Arabs
would not have cooperated with the British. Moreover, the Allied powers
hoped that President Woodrow Wilson would bring the United States into
the war — and Wilson said he opposed territorial gains by the
The agreement might have remained secret through the war except that
after the Russian Revolution in the fall of 1917, the Bolsheviks
discovered it in the files and made it public in order to embarrass the
French and British governments.
This did not deter them from going ahead with their plan, in apparent
disregard for Wilson's Fourteen Points, issued in January 1918, 10
months before the end of the war. While Wilson is known for insisting on
the principle of self-determination, in opposition to colonialism, the
closest his Fourteen Points came to endorsing that principle is this:
A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment
of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle
that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of
the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable
claims of the government whose title is to be determined.
Note that the interests of subjugated people are to receive only
"equal" consideration with the claims of governments. That hardly sounds
like self-determination. At any rate, Wilson, who took sick when the
Paris Peace Conference convened, was unable to stop the British and
French from carrying out their imperial plans. In the end, his
administration acquiesced in return for oil concessions for American
As noted, the actual division of the Middle East did not follow
Sykes-Picot precisely, because modifications were made in light of
subsequent agreements, conferences (such as the 1920 San Remo conference),
and events (such as the Russian Revolution). The language of
19th-century colonialism was dropped in favor of the "mandate" system,
which (in theory) authorized Britain and France to oversee newly created
Arab states until the Arabs were ready for self-government. The British
created the states of Iraq and Transjordan (later Jordan). What was
left of Palestine (it had different boundaries at different times) would
not be designated a state but would be administered by Britain. France
took Syria, out of which it created a separate Lebanon.
The arbitrarily drawn "national" boundaries cut through sectarian,
ethnic, and tribal lines, planting the seeds of future conflicts that
continue to this day. (The imperialists had done the same thing in
Regarding Palestine, in the November 2, 1917 Balfour Declaration
the British government expressed its approval of "the establishment …
of a national home for the Jewish people," and pledged to "use their
best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object." The
declaration also stated that "nothing shall be done which may prejudice
the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in
Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any
other country." These provisos were little more than boilerplate.
Note that the declaration was issued before the British army
conquered Palestine. The government was making promises about land it
did not yet control — and this promise to the Zionist movement
conflicted with the promises made earlier to the Arabs, again setting
the stage for later conflict.
The Balfour Declaration, which created anxiety among Arabs and most Jews, of course paved the way for the creation of the State of Israel some 30 years later.
It is important to understand that throughout this process, the Arabs, Kurds, and other indigenous people were never consulted about
the imperialists' disposition of their lands. No wonder: what they
wanted — independence from foreign powers — conflicted with the
objectives of British and French politicians. But by what authority did they decide the future of the people in the Middle East?
Here's another heartbreaking aspect to this story, When the Paris
Peace Conference convened, Arab leaders looked to the United States to
frustrate the imperialists' designs, because they associated Wilson with
the principle of self-determination. Their hopes, however, were dashed.
(For details see Ussama Makdisi's Faith Misplaced: The Broken Promise of U.S.-Arab Relations, 1820–2001.) Anyone who protested the callous treatment of the Arabs and others was dismissed or ignored as naïve.
Let that sink in: the Arabs — Muslim, Christian, and secular — looked
to the United States as a beacon of liberty and independence. (Whether
American history justified that attitude is another matter.) They were
let down and have suffered as a result ever since.
America may be despised by many people in the Middle East today — but it did not have to be that way.
The French and British proceeded to create states and governments in
their new possessions. In the early 1920s, whenever Arabs tried to
resist foreign rule, they were brutally suppressed — by the British in
Iraq and the French in Syria. (This was reminiscent of the American
suppression of the Filipinos, 1899–1902.) The Arab resistance was no
match for the Europeans' bombers, artillery, and mechanized vehicles.
Let's now take a step back from the trees and view the forest.
This is a story about arrogant Western imperialists who thought
enlightened, civilized Europeans should govern the Arabs (and Kurds)
rather than let them determine their own destiny. Often
the British and French described their rule in paternalistic terms. The
barely disguised colonial system would be for the Arabs' own good, it
was said. When they achieved the elevated condition of their overlords,
they will have earned the right to be free.
This view was voiced by men representing countries that had just
engaged in over four years of savage trench warfare in the "war to end
war," not to mention the previous centuries bloodied by Europe's
religious and political wars. The paternalistic facade of course
concealed narrow economic and political interests. (When Britain and France were unable to continue managing the Middle East after World War II, the United States took over.)
What's happening in the Middle East today may be seen as a violent
attempt to undo the Sykes-Picot, San Remo, etc., impositions of the last
for example, has erased the artificial boundary between Syria and Iraq.
In this light, further Western intervention looks like a recipe for an
even greater disaster.
As we look at the violence today in Iraq, Syria, Palestine/Israel,
Egypt, and elsewhere in the region, we should remember that it all might
have been avoided had the European powers not launched World War I, or
if, in the event of war, the British and French had let the Arabs chart
their own course.
As Edward Woodward's character, Harry Morant, says in Breaker Morant just before being executed by the British army during the Second Boer War, "Well … this is what comes of 'empire building.'"
Articles by Sheldon Richman
Friday, July 11, 2014
TGIF: Speaking to Nonlibertarians
If libertarians want to change how nonlibertarians' think
about government, they will need to understand how nonlibertarians think
about government. By "nonlibertarians," I mean the majority of people who spend
little if any time pondering political theory, or what Murray Rothbard called
political ethics. They may focus at times on particular government programs and
actions, or on proposals for new programs, but rarely about government as an
No Mere Blunder
When year in and year out, for more
than six decades, a group of politicians does things that objectively encourage
their most violent adversaries and discredit their most conciliatory
interlocutors, we are entitled to conclude that this is a calculated policy.
Blunders don't persist for 66 years and counting.
Thursday, July 10, 2014
Let the Immigrants Stay
Virtually all commentary about the influx of unaccompanied
Central American children into the United States, which some say could rise to
90,000 this year, misses the point: no government has the moral authority to
capture these kids and send them back to the miserable situations they have
Sunday, July 06, 2014
Israel and Due Process
You have to admire Israel,
"our" closest friend and ally in the Middle East, the "only
democracy" in the region, for its commitment to due process, not to
mention individual rights. Three Israeli teens were kidnapped and murdered,
inexcusable crimes. So the Israeli government declared Hamas guilty without
public evidence or trial. (Hamas, which denies responsibility, typically
engages in prisoner exchanges rather than the killing of captives.) Then the IDF
bombed the Gaza Strip, the densely populated open-air prison, killing
innocents, and blew up the family homes of so-called suspects -- collective
punishment. Nothing new here. It's how the Israeli government has acted as a
matter of policy. The demolition Palestinian homes is so prevalent that Israeli
Jews founded an
organization to stop it.
Meanwhile in Jerusalem, a Palestinian teen was beaten and burned to death by
Israelis, apparently in reprisal, and his cousin, a resident of Tampa, Fla.,
was beaten apparently by two masked soldiers in uniform.
Just another day in the lives of the subjugated Palestinians.
The murders of the Israeli teens were atrocities, of course, but they can in no
way justify, retroactively or prospectively, the systematic violence
perpetrated against Palestinians that the state of Israel constitutes at its
core. (For a disturbing report on how religious authorities justify the killing
of non-Jews by Jews, see Allan Brownfeld's article "Resistance Is Growing to Zionism's Corruption of
American Jewish Life," especially the section headed
"The King's Torah."
UPDATE: Israel announced the arrest of six suspects in the murder of the
Palestinian teen. No word yet on whether the authorities destroyed their
families' homes or bombed Israeli neighborhoods.
Wednesday, July 02, 2014
Hobby Lobby Ruling Falls Short
As far as it went, the Supreme Court generally got it right
in the Hobby Lobby-Obamacare-contraception case. Unfortunately it didn't go
nearly far enough.
The court ruled that "closely held corporations" whose
owners have religious convictions against contraceptives cannot be forced to
pay for employee coverage for those products.
I wish the court could have said this instead: (1) No one
has a natural right to force other people to pay for her (or his) contraception
or anything else (with or without the government's help), and by logical
extension, (2) everyone has a right to refuse to pay if asked.
For people about to celebrate the Fourth of July, these
principles ought to be, well, self-evident.
Friday, June 27, 2014
TGIF: Smedley Butler and the Racket that Is War
From 1898 to 1931, Smedley Darlington Butler was a member of
the U.S. Marine Corps. By the time he retired he had achieved what was then the
corps's highest rank, major general, and by the time he died in 1940, at 58, he
had more decorations, including two medals of honor, than any other Marine.
During his years in the corps he was sent to the Philippines (at the time of
the uprising against the American occupation), China, France (during World War
I), Mexico, Central America, and Haiti.
"War is a Racket" - by Major Gen. Smedley Butler, USMC (ret.)(Glenn Jacobs' narration)
Major General Smedley Darlington Butler, USMC
1881 - 1940
double recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor "I spent 33 years and 4 months in active service as a member of our
country's most agile military force--the Marine Corps. I served in all
commissioned ranks from second lieutenant to Major General. And during
that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for
Big Business, for Wall Street and for the bankers. In short, I was a
racketeer for capitalism. I suspected I was part of a racket all the
time. Now I am sure of it. Like all members of the military profession I
never had an original thought until I left the service."
Smedley D. Butler (1881-1940) [source]
narrated by Glenn Jacobs
(WWE wrestler and Ron Paul supporter)