The Ottoman Swede
By ROGER COHEN
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.