Last updated on 18 Sep 2017
There’s been a lot of media spin and unthinking objections to the visit of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the US. He was called the “modern Hitler”, for example. This strikes me as both unthinking and dangerous. Ahmadinejad is his own kind of threat and problem, and comparisons to past dangerous individuals don’t resolve or enlighten anything. As Time Magazine clearly noted, he has no power over the things that he is being demonised for, and is incompetent and hated internally for the things he does.
But it seems to me there is a wider issue here than the internecine politics of an Islamist state.
We want to see democratic, or at least more liberal, societies in the middle east, something that has been very hard to do when so much of it is tribal, and ethnic divisions were not respected by the victorious powers of the Treaty of Versailles after the first world war. How can we achieve this? Well, for a start, it is not by demonising local leaders, and nor is it by the use of military force. This will inevitably harden attitudes, and set back the local liberalising movements by decades, if not centuries.
Iraq is an obvious case in point – it has three major ethnic groups and a number of smaller ones like the Marsh Arabs and various Christian and Zoroastrian communities. But let’s look at the three major ones. The Kurds are a disenfranchised ethnic group that have existed as a unity for over a thousand years, but have never had a country of their own or political self-determination. They live in the north, and their ethnic group continues either direction into Iran and Turkey. Even the Baathists had trouble ruling that region.
On the east, we get the Arab Shiites, on the west the Sunnis, and in the middle, in a strip that runs from the Gulf to the Kurdish territories, a mixture. So, how do we resolve this conflict, which goes back itself over a thousand years, while at the same time trying to make the surrounding nations liberaliseable? Here’s a suggestion: make them police and rebuild their ethnic cousins’ provinces. Make Iran administer the south east (and maybe the part of the Kurds’ territory that is more closely related to its own population of Kurds than to the other western region). Make Syria and Saudi Arabia administer the non-Arab Shiites. And the remaining Kurdish territory could be reunited with the Turkish Kurds (which might increase the political influence of Kurds in Turkey).
If Iran or Syria or Saudia Arabia had to ensure good order, under a UN mandate and with UN-mediated funding, in each of their third of Iraq, they would be forced to behave like responsible states just to keep their own populace happy. Liberalisation in those countries would tend to flourish, or at least advance, if there were no foreign interlopers involved in this. Of course, we’d need UN observers and a threat that if any of these nations tried to invade outside their zone of control, the UN would immediately meet that with force, but if they didn’t, they’d be left to improve this.
After say 20 years, hold a plebiscite in those regions seeking to find out if those regions wanted to become permanently part of their regional protectors’ nations, run by the UN. That would give these nations motivation for doing a good job – if they screwed up, they’d lose potential territory they might have gotten without military action, and they might end up losing their own sovereignty under occupation. So they’d behave better out of self-interest.
Iraq is a basket case now, and is going to be a failed state no matter what happens hereafter, but this might end up a model for how national boundaries in a region can change without conflict to offer a more “natural” division of ethnic groups. The central region could remain under a UN police force until things resolve. It won’t solve everything, but it could resolve the worst excesses of ethnic rivalries in that region.
This is not like the “New MIddle East” maps first floated in the Armed Forces Journal by Maj. Ralph Peters a while back (see article here, with map). That involves the imposition of ethnic boundaries on many states that are unlikely to like having their territories rearranged by external powers once again – sovereign borders generate their own power structures and interests. It is a way to let the region determine, without war and minimising terrorism, their own futures.
Of course, if this is all about oil, then the Coalition might not, in this case, be willing. But it can’t be that now, can it.
My apologies for imposing my own political ruminations upon you all. Science and philosophy are coming, I promise.