Friday, December 12, 2003

Reassessing Iraq and other colonial handiwork

Feedback to:

The following piece is the work of Rami G. Khouri, Executive Editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. It is posted here with permission and thanks.

The former president of the US Council on Foreign Relations, Les Gelb, has sparked a spirited debate with his suggestion that the best possible solution for Iraq’s future could be to split up the country into three states, comprising the predominantly Kurdish north, Sunni center, and Shiite south. I am not for or against the specific suggestion, whose fate is for Iraqis themselves to determine in the end. I have been to Iraq a few times, but do not know the country well enough to presume to weigh in on the best configuration for its future sovereignty. I trust the Iraqi people enough to know that they will make a sensible decision if they are given the opportunity to determine their own national fate.
But this is the big question that haunts Iraq today and that has traumatized much of the modern Arab world: Will the Iraqis be given an opportunity to decide their own fate? This is not a frivolous question. The fact is, the Iraqis did not have a choice or a voice when their country was manufactured by the British colonial office early last century. Perhaps this is why, for the second time in a century, the British Army is in Basra again, ruling an occupied people and contemplating their future condition.
More significant than the fascinating issue of whether Iraq makes sense as one or three countries is how this fits into the picture of the larger Middle East. It would be wrong to debate whether we should have one or three Iraqs if we do not carry through that discussion to the rest of the Arab countries. The creation of modern Iraq was not done in a vacuum, but rather as part of a larger process of European colonization, decolonization, some recolonization, and now some neocolonization of parts of the Middle East.
The hard truth is that few if any modern Arab states were created according to the will of their own citizens. That’s why Arab national sovereignties, identities, and viabilities are so thin in most Arab countries, while concepts of tribalism, ethnic identity, Christian and Islamic religion, pan-Arabism, and other transnational identities remain so strong everywhere. And even after Arab states were created as artifacts of colonial state-craftsmanship, the citizenry rarely had an opportunity after independence to engage in the formative debates of statehood and sovereignty. The birth of the new Iraq today at the hands of the American midwife is a reminder of how most Arab countries were created by Western military powers and were endowed with governance systems largely defined by the West, reflecting European rather than indigenous values and traditions.
It is fascinating and relevant that the world rejoiced when the map of the former Soviet Union and the wider Soviet Empire was redrawn radically after the collapse of Communism. The world cheered as Soviet-dominated and -defined countries split into smaller units and some countries were reborn.
The map of Soviet political sovereignties turned out to be a historical hoax that was not worth preserving. New sovereignties and national configurations were established according to the democratic will of the people involved. A great enterprise of liberation and self-determination swept the former slave states of the Soviet Empire, and the world applauded, rightly.
At the same time, Western Europe has been moving in the other direction: Individual states come together in the European Union and form or share larger sovereignties, rather than splitting up into smaller ones. In both cases, national borders and their meaning are changing, according to the free will of the citizens involved.
I wonder if the people of the Arab world might expect a similar opportunity to define themselves and their nationalities, nationalisms, sovereignties, citizenships, and states? I am careful not to prejudge any outcome of such an exercise or to propose that some states close shop and others amalgamate or expand. This is up to the people of these states to determine.
What I do say, though, is that many of the fundamental distortions and disequilibria that plague the modern Arab world and lead to many chronic regional tensions ­ especially in fertile land, population, water, energy, markets, and minerals ­ can be traced back to the very colonial, largely self-serving, often whimsical, and slightly dysfunctional manner in which European powers drew lines on maps and manufactured Arab countries of very peculiar shapes, sizes, and resource endowments.
Iraqis themselves must respond to Les Gelb’s provocative suggestion that Iraq might better be recreated as three countries. I think it would be legitimate to expand this debate to the entire Arab world, whose citizens and people have never had the exhilarating opportunity of determining their own national configurations. It’s possible that in their wisdom they would decide to keep things just as they are. Or they might make radical or minor changes. They deserve that right. They deserve to experience the thrill of hearing the world applaud them as they define and redefine themselves, and configure and reconfigure their sovereign states.