Mapping the Future of the Middle East

by Chris Borgen

Following up on my previous post on the evolution of state borders in Eurasia, see also this animated map charting the imperial history of the Middle East and this PBS interactive map that includes historical political borders, natural resources, and religious populations (use the tabs at the bottom).

But, regarding the Middle East, the big question is what will the map of the region look like twenty-five years from now? The short answer is, your guess is as good as mine. Or Norman Podhoretz’s. (Actually, our guesses are probably better than his.)

In any case, Jeffrey Goldberg has written an essay for The Atlantic called After Iraq that is full of big picture views and on-the-ground reporting. Goldberg is trying to envision the medium and longer term consequences of the Iraq war on the state system in the Near East. He writes about “first-order consequences”: a possible Middle East wide conflict between Sunnis and Shiites for supremacy. This could either be a proxy conflict through transnational networks or possibly a direct fight between Saudi Arabia and Iran. He notes the complexities of the situation, such as the fact that Jordan, a Sunni country, has a majority Palestinian population, many of whom support Hamas, which is sponsored by Shiite Iran. You try and figure out what the result of such a conflict would be.

He also considers “second order consequences” such as increased Kurdish nationalism and possible US military conflict with Iran.

“Third order consequences” are a bit farther down the timeline, perhaps in twenty years or so. Here he looks at how the map of the Middle East may be redrawn by the events in the first two sets of consequences. He describes possible future secessions and the new states that may exist.

This section was in part influenced by a controversial 2006 article by Ralph Peters (Lt. Col, Ret.) from the Armed Forces Journal called Blood Borders, which describes a thought-experiment of what a less arbitrary map of the Middle East could look like. The article, unfortunately without the map, is available here. (See also the Atlantic Monthly piece for a humorous description of how Peters just free-handed a “new map” with a crayon for publication with his essay, but some observers thought it was part of a secret US plan to redraw the borders and began debating Peters’ boundaries.)

Peters wrote in his Armed Forces Journal essay:

Yet, for all the injustices the borders re-imagined here leave unaddressed, without such major boundary revisions, we shall never see a more peaceful Middle East.

Even those who abhor the topic of altering borders would be well-served to engage in an exercise that attempts to conceive a fairer, if still imperfect, amendment of national boundaries between the Bosporus and the Indus. Accepting that international statecraft has never developed effective tools — short of war — for readjusting faulty borders, a mental effort to grasp the Middle East’s “organic” frontiers nonetheless helps us understand the extent of the difficulties we face and will continue to face. We are dealing with colossal, man-made deformities that will not stop generating hatred and violence until they are corrected.

As for those who refuse to “think the unthinkable,” declaring that boundaries must not change and that’s that, it pays to remember that boundaries have never stopped changing through the centuries. Borders have never been static, and many frontiers, from Congo through Kosovo to the Caucasus, are changing even now (as ambassadors and special representatives avert their eyes to study the shine on their wingtips).

Oh, and one other dirty little secret from 5,000 years of history: Ethnic cleansing works.

Building on this, Goldberg’s Atlantic Monthly article is also commendable for picking away at accepted truths. First, he takes on the neoconservative orthodoxy that the Iraq War would quickly spread democracy in the region. For a disheartening snapshot of neoconservative ignorance of the issues of the region, consider the following vignette:

Nor were neoconservative ideologues—who had the most-elaborate visions of a liberal, democratic Iraq—interested in the Kurdish cause, or even particularly knowledgeable about its history. Just before the “Mission Accomplished” phase of the war, I spoke about Kurdistan to an audience that included Norman Podhoretz, the vicariously martial neoconservative who is now a Middle East adviser to Rudolph Giuliani. After the event, Podhoretz seemed authentically bewildered. “What’s a Kurd, anyway?” he asked me.

But then, Goldberg also critiques the view that the region is falling into a post-Westphalian perpetual war due the President Bush’s foreign policy:

It is conceivable, if paradoxical, that the actual outcome of the recent turmoil in the Middle East could be a new era of stability, fostered by realists in this country and in the region itself. This might be the most unlikely potential outcome of the Iraq invasion—that it turns out to be the Seinfeld War, a war about nothing (except, of course, the loss of a great many lives and vast sums of money). Everything changes if America attacks Iranian nuclear sites, of course—but the latest National Intelligence Estimate, which came out in early December and reported that Iran had shut down its covert nuclear- weapons program in 2003, makes it unlikely that the Bush administration will pursue this option. And the next one or two U.S. presidents, who will be inheriting both the Iraq and Afghanistan portfolios, will probably be hesitant to attack any more Muslim countries. It’s not impossible to imagine that, in 20 years, the map of the Middle East will look exactly like it does today.

“We tend to underestimate the power of states,” Robert Satloff, the director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me. “The PC way of looking at the 21st century is that non-state actors—al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, general chaos—have replaced states as the key players in the Middle East. But states are more resilient than that.” He added that a newfound fear of instability might even buttress existing states.

(Goldberg is concerned that the “Seinfeld War” scenario is unlikely, though.)

Besides a tour of the various contested lands and fracture points of the Middle East, Goldberg’s article has a lengthy discussion of the Kurdish question, including interviews with Kurdish leaders. He argues cogently that the US should not give-up on democracy in the Middle East, but rather understand that it is a fifty year game, not a five year one. And it is a process that is more about “building stong universities and independent judiciaries” than invading countries.

An excellent, thoughtful, article.

One Response

  1. FYI, the images are still available at this mirror of the original article.

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