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September 13, 2007

The Ottoman Swede

By ROGER COHEN

STOCKHOLM

As members of Congress mull what to do next in Iraq, they might glance at a League of Nations report of July 16, 1925, on the new Middle Eastern state then being carved by the British from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire.

The report said that despite “the good intentions of the statesmen of Iraq, whose political experience is necessarily small, it is to be feared that serious difficulties may arise out of the differences which in some cases exist in regard to political ideas between the Shiites of the South and the Sunnites of the North, the racial differences between Arabs and Kurds, and the necessity of keeping the turbulent tribes under control.”

And it warned: “These difficulties might be fatal to the very existence of the State if it were left without support and guidance.”

So much for things changing. They don’t, or only slowly, when attempts are made to carve sustainable nation states from multiethnic empires.

This 82-year-old document was handed to me by Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, a man of dry humor and quick tongue who can claim to be the world’s authority on messes in post-Ottoman areas. “From Bihac to Basra,” he said, referring to towns in western Bosnia and Southern Iraq, “these things take time and benchmarks don’t count for much.”

Bildt recently returned from Baghdad where Sweden has much to discuss given that 20,000 Iraqi refugees are expected to arrive here this year, a number that dwarfs the trickle of fleeing Iraqis into the United States. This imbalance is shameful, but that’s another story. Iraqis have no special desire to trade desert for pine forest, but Sweden has the merit of letting them in.

In the Iraqi capital, Bildt heard divergent political visions from Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, the Shiite prime minister, and Tariq al-Hashemi, the Sunni vice president. The notion of give-and-take, of compromise reached rather than domination imposed, is a Middle Eastern novelty.

Give-and-take has not been a big Balkan thing either, and it was in the Balkans, as a special European Union envoy, that Bildt cut his teeth on post-Ottoman mayhem. He sees “massive parallels” between Yugoslavia’s violent dismemberment once dictatorship ended and Iraq’s turbulent deliverance from tyranny.

Both states were invented in the post-World War I years in areas long under complete or partial Ottoman dominion. Both were beautiful inventions, bridges between divergent cultures and religions and ethnic groups, mosaics beneath a national flag. Both had the drawback of tending toward their own self-destruction in the absence of a strongman to resolve contradiction through force.

Freedom is a funny thing. Life without it is misery. But a glance at the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia or now Iraq is a sufficient reminder that distinct peoples forcefully gathered into a dictatorial state will react in the first instance to liberty by trying to get free of each other rather than trying to imagine a liberal democracy.

As Miroslav Hroch, the Czech political theorist, has observed, ethnic or religious nationalism easily become the “substitutes for factors of integration in a disintegrating nation.” That’s where we are in Iraq. In plotting a social revolution, the ushering to power of a subjugated Shiite majority through the overthrow of a minority Sunni dictatorship, the Bush administration did not ponder or plan for these realities.

That’s unfortunate, indeed unforgivable, but it’s done.

Bildt, Balkan-hardened, takes the long view. “If you take the Ottoman areas, they were Muslim but tolerant with an array of different cultures and their replacement with different versions of the 19th-century nation state has proved very difficult, be it in the Balkans, in Cyprus or the Middle East.”

He cannot imagine a quick American exit. “Iraqi leaders will want some sort of exit perspective, but a long-term one,” he says. As long as Iran and Saudi Arabia see Iraq as a Shia-Sunni battlefield, peace will be elusive.

The Balkan analogy is interesting. Yugoslavia’s breakup saw four years of war, then another war in Kosovo four years later. Only regional pressure — the bait of European Union membership — and a large European and American military presence have brought calm. The question of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia remains explosive.

This fragile stability is where the 16-year arc from the eruption of the Balkan wars in 1991 has led. Given that regional realities make an Iraqi breakup unthinkable, the architecture of the Yugoslavia-in-miniature in Bosnia is probably the most helpful guide for Baghdad: a fig-leaf national government presiding over a loose federation.

If the United States meets the responsibilities its invasion engaged and the region can be coaxed to help rather than hinder, we may attain such fragile stability 16 years from Saddam’s fall: that would be 2019, just over a century after the Ottoman collapse.

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Quotations

  • Simon Blackburn: An Unbeautiful Mind
    Polkinghorne holds the belief that unless some things last forever, everything is futile, a "meaningless empire of accident." This would wipe the smile off the face of many scientists. For science is not good about "forever." It paints a different picture of the world in which we find ourselves. Science teaches that the cosmos is some fifteen billion years old, almost unimaginably huge, and governed by natural laws that will compel its extinction in some billions more years, although long before that the Earth and the solar system will have been destroyed by the heat death of the sun. Human beings occupy an infinitesimally small fraction of space and time, on the edge of one galaxy among a hundred thousand million or so galaxies. We evolved only because of a number of cosmic accidents, including the extinction of the dinosaurs some sixty-five million years ago. Nature shows us no particular favors: we get parasites and diseases and we die, and we are not all that nice to each other. True, we are moderately clever, but our efforts to use our intelligence to make things better for ourselves quite often backfire, and they may do so spectacularly in the near future, from some combination of manmade military, environmental, or genetic disasters.
  • Roger Scruton: The West and the Rest
    "It is thanks to Western prosperity, Western legal systems, Western forms of banking, and Western communications that human initiatives now reach so easily across frontiers to affect the lives and aspirations of people all over the globe. However, Western civilization depends on an idea of citizenship that is not global at all, but rooted in territorial jurisdiction and national loyalty. By contrast, Islam, which has been until recently remote from the Western world and without the ability to project its message, is founded on an ideal of godliness which is entirely global in its significance, and which regards territorial jurisdiction and national loyalty as compromises with no intrinsic legitimacy of their own. Although there have been attempts to manufacture nationalisms both appropriate to the Islamic temperament and conducive to a legitimate political order, they have fragmented under the impact of sectarian or tribal allegiances, usually giving way to military dictatorship or one-man, one-family, or one-party tyranny. Islam itself remains, in the hearts of those who live under these tyrannies, a permanent call to a higher life, and a reminder that power and corruption will rule in this world until the reign established by the Prophet is restored."
  • Adam Smith: Wealth of Nations 1776
    The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature as from habit, custom, and education. When they came into the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were perhaps very much alike, and neither their parents nor playfellows could perceive any remarkable difference. About that age, or soon after, they come to be employed in very different occupations. The difference of talents comes then to be taken notice of, and widens by degrees, till at last the vanity of the philosopher is willing to acknowledge scarce any resemblance. But without the disposition to truck, barter, and exchange, every man must have procured to himself every necessary and conveniency of life which he wanted. All must have had the same duties to perform, and the same work to do, and there could have been no such difference of employment as could alone give occasion to any great difference of talents.
  • Kishore Mahbubani: Freedom
    But freedom does not only solve problems; it can also cause them. The United States has undertaken a massive social experiment, tearing down social institution after social institution that restrained the individual. The results have been disastrous. Since 1960 the U.S. population has increased 41 percent while violent crime has risen by 560 percent, single-mother births by 419 percent, divorce rates by 300 percent and the percentage of children living in single-parent homes by 300 percent. This is massive social decay. Many a society shudders at the prospects of this happening on its shores. But instead of traveling overseas with humility, Americans confidently preach the virtues of unfettered individual freedom, blithely ignoring the visible social consequences.
  • Harold Pinter: Nobel Lecture
    There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.
  • Charles Darwin: The Descent of Man
    As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.
  • Earnest Becker: The Denial of Death
    We have to go the way of the grasshopper even though it takes longer.
  • Johnson, Samuel: Rambler # 121 May 14, 1751
    "To learn is the proper business of youth; and whether we increase our knowledge by books or by conversation, we are equally indebted to foreign assistance."
  • Murray Rothbard: Education Free and Compulsory
    It is evident that the common enthusiasm for equality is, in the fundamental sense, anti-human. It tends to repress the flowering of individual personality and diversity, and civilization itself; it is a drive toward savage uniformity. Since abilities and interests are naturally diverse, a drive toward making people equal in all or most respects is necessarily a leveling downward. It is a drive against development of talent, genius, variety, and reasoning power. Since it negates the very principles of human life and human growth, the creed of equality and uniformity is a creed of death and destruction.
  • J. M. Cameron: Review of Becker's Denial of Death
    Life, for Becker, is a desperate business, in which a steady heroism before the terrors of existence is in general the only thing to be commended.
  • Mark Lilla: The Politics of God
    In the end, though, what happens on the opposite shore will not be up to us. We have little reason to expect societies in the grip of a powerful political theology to follow our unusual path, which was opened up by a unique crisis within Christian civilization. This does not mean that those societies necessarily lack the wherewithal to create a decent and workable political order; it does mean that they will have to find the theological resources within their own traditions to make it happen. "Our challenge is different. We have made a choice that is at once simpler and harder: we have chosen to limit our politics to protecting individuals from the worst harms they can inflict on one another, to securing fundamental liberties and providing for their basic welfare, while leaving their spiritual destinies in their own hands. We have wagered that it is wiser to beware the forces unleashed by the Bible’s messianic promise than to try exploiting them for the public good. We have chosen to keep our politics unilluminated by divine revelation. All we have is our own lucidity, which we must train on a world where faith still inflames the minds of men. NYTimes Magaziine, 8/19/2007
  • Richard Fields: The Land of Opportunity
    Immigration to the United States is not a problem. It is a phenomenon. The only way the United States can stop this phenomenon is by destroying the capitalist economy that draws immigrants here. We need to move in the direction of more open immigration, not in the direction of militarized borders fit only for a police state. Though it's been obscured by layers of cynical campaign rhetoric, the issue of immigration comes down to whether we want to restrict individual liberty to native-born Americans or offer it to everyone. If freedom works for us — and it does — what possible moral reason do we have to offer it to those born in San Diego, and deny it to those born inches away in Tijuana?
  • Edward O. Wilson: Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, 1998
    On the surface it would seem, and was so reported by the media, that the Rwandan catastrophe was ethnic rivalry run amok. That is true only in part. There was a deeper cause, rooted in environment and demography. Between 1950 and 1994 the population of Rwanda, favored by better health care and temporarily improved food supply, more than tripled, from 2.5 million to 8.5 million. In 1992 the country had the highest growth rate in the world, an average of 8 children per woman. Parturition began early, and generation times were short. But although total food production increased dramatically during this period, it was soon overbalanced by population growth. The average farm size dwindled as plots were divided from one generation to the next. Per capita grain production fell by half from 1960 to the early 1990s. Water was so overdrawn that hydrologists declared Rwanda one of the world's twenty-seven water-scarce countries. The teenage soldiers of the Hutu and Tutsi then set out to solve the population problem in the most direct possible way. Rwanda is a microcosm of the world. War and civil strife have many causes, most not related directly to environmental stress. But in general, overpopulation and the consequent dwindling of available resources are tinder that people pile up around themselves. The mounting anxiety and hardship are translated into enmity, and enmity into moral aggression. Scapegoats are identified, sometimes other political or ethic groups, sometimes neighboring tribes. The tinder continues to grow, awaiting the odd assassination, territorial incursion, atrocity, or other provocative incident to set it off. Rwanda is the most populated country in Africa. Burundi, its war torn neighbor, is second. Haiti and El Salvador, two of the chronically most troubled nations of the Western Hemisphere, are also among the most densely populated, exceeded only by five tiny island countries of the Caribbean. They are also arguable the most environmentally degraded.
  • Murray Rothbard: Rights of Animals
    There is, in fact, rough justice in the common quip that "we will recognize the rights of animals whenever they petition for them." The fact that animals can obviously not petition for their "rights" is part of their nature, and part of the reason why they are clearly not equivalent to, and do not possess the rights of, human beings. And if it be protested that babies can't petition either, the reply of course is that babies are future human adults, whereas animals obviously are not.
  • Dr. Kenneth R. Miller:
    When asked, “What do you say as a scientist about the soul?” Dr. Miller's answer is always the same: “As a scientist, I have nothing to say about the soul. It’s not a scientific idea.” Dr. Mller, a Roman Catholic and biologist at Brown University is the author of, “Finding Darwin’s God” (Harper, 1999)
  • Richard Rorty:
    "...if we can work together, we can make ourselves into whatever we are clever and courageous enough to imagine ourselves becoming.”
  • Richard J. Herrnstein:
    "It is easy to lie with statistics, but it's a lot easier to lie without them."
  • Michael Slackman: Quiet Revolution in Algeria
    In Algiers there is a whole class of young men referred to as hittistes — the word is a combination of French and Arabic for people who hold up walls.
  • Albert Einstein:
    Common sense is nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down by the mind before you reach age 18.
  • Neil Postman:
    "Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see."

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