Architecture Of Middle East

The Architecture of the Middle East

It has been suggested that “American strategic planners intend to attempt to replace the existing Sykes-Picot/Balfour architecture of the region, which reflected British (and French) imperial primacy during and after WWI, with a revised system that would better reflect new global realities.”

I don’t see any evidence that US planners have any notion of replacing the Sykes-Picot/Balfour architecture at all. Rather, the challenge they are launching is to the Arab nationalist revision of that architecture, largely begun in the 1950s. That was when military regimes came into power in Egypt and Iraq, and consolidated themselves in Syria. In the 1960s they tended to become ideologized, leaning toward socialism, as in Nasserism and Baathism, and were joined by Algeria and Libya. They had partial command economies and tilted to the Soviet Union.

It was Arab nationalism that sought to erase Sykes-Picot/Balfour, either through diplomatic negotiation and the establishment of new federations (e.g. Egypt and Syria’s short-lived United Arab Republic), or through warfare (e.g. Saddam’s brutal invasions of Khuzistan and Kuwait). The legacy of Western imperialism to the Arab world had been a patchwork quilt of insignificant polities, including large poor countries like Egypt and tiny rich ones like Kuwait. Only a federation of Arab states, the Arab nationalists felt, could transform the region into a powerhouse in its own right.

The U.S. succeeded in defending the post-WW I architecture of the Middle East in part by enticing Sadat’s Egypt into an American orbit. It was happy to leave the army in power, but shifted it to a purely Bonapartist regime and away from any socialist or pan-Arab tendencies. Economic liberalization and behind the scenes military autocracy combined with a localistic nationalism became an influential new model, spreading from Egypt to Tunisia and ultimately to Algeria. Qaddafi’s Libya, Baathist Syria and Iraq resisted some of these tendencies, but the rivalries among them and between them and the economic liberalizers ensured that the Sykes-Picot/Balfour architecture remained unchanged. Saddam’s butcher version of Arab nationalist amalgamation was pushed back (quite rightly) in the Gulf War.

Pan-Islamic challenges to the Sykes-Picot/Balfour architecture foundered in part because Islamist movements could never overcome their particularist origins (e.g. Khomeini’s Shi`ism or the Taliban’s Deobandism), or because they were repressed by secular regimes (Egypt, Algeria), or because they over-reached in their challenges to the West and so were either effectively contained (Iran) or overthrown (the Taliban).

I believe that the Sykes-Picot/Balfour architecture of the Middle East was a colossal failure, and both it and its American-influenced Cold War revival helps in some significant part account for the tragic development problems of the region, recently detailed by the United Nations.

The likelihood is that the US will continue to seek to divide and rule, and to back authoritarianism over democracy to achieve its geo-political aims. Since authoritarianism, the denial to the people of a voice in public affairs, and the humiliation of powerlessness in the major struggles central to Arab nationalism all contribute to the development failure and the rise of terrorism, the outlook does not appear promising.

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