Saturday, February 27, 2016

Wars Cast Long Shadows (Part I: World War I)

Wars can and do end on the battlefield, and the diplomatic tables.  But they leave fingerprints behind for years, even decades.  In the lives that were meant to be lived, but were lost.  And in the fates of nations and their various peoples, whose lives, if not destroyed, are disrupted and dislocated in many ways.  Sometimes, nations disappear, only to reappear later.  Sometimes, their boundaries are transformed, perhaps forever.  And sometimes, they are simply created by fiat, because another nation has decided that doing so is politically and economically useful, so long as the new nation is essentially a vassal state.

Putting it more simply with regard to the third category, I'm talking about former colonies.  To be even more specific, I'm referring to the former colonies of former imperial powers in Europe that were created in the Middle East and all across Africa.  These "nations," for the most part, were cobbled together with little if any real regard for the cultures, religions and other traditions that were indigenous to the colonized peoples.  Some groups, such as the Kurds, were split apart among multiple nations, while others were herded together in states that gave them nothing to unite around except a deep-seated hated for the colonizing powers.  To those powers, none of this mattered; only the need for cheap natural resources to feed their imperial ambitions mattered.  As for the peoples that came along with the resources, from the colonizers' perspective, they created no danger that couldn't be successfully addressed by bullets.

If you're up on your history of the early 20th century, you know that a single gunshot in Sarajevo was the beginning of the end of all that.  World War I was the end of the German colonial system, as well as the Russian, Austrian-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires, and the beginning of the end for the systems of the other imperial powers.  True, Great Britain and France emerged from the war with expanded empires, as they moved in to fill the void left by the Turks in the Middle East.  But both countries found that they got far more than they bargained for, when it came to civil and religious unrest.  Ultimately, they were relieved to relieve themselves of their acquisitions.  (Neocons, take note, if you can).

Logically, the end of colonial period should have been a time when the local populations should have been given a chance to find their voice, develop their own national identities, and ultimately form nation-states that respected local cultures and traditions.  Unfortunately, that didn't happen. Perhaps it was a sense of over-confidence by the departing Western powers in the lessons of democracy they had hoped to leave behind.  Perhaps it was the fact that multinational corporations quickly filled the economic void that the departing nations left behind--and those corporations had their own reasons for accepting and evening wanting those boundaries.  Perhaps it was a combination of both.  But the results are painfully familiar:  almost all of these states have descended into dictatorial chaos and kleptocracy poverty, as ruthless rulers exploit the lack of unity and sense of belonging among the peoples they rule.

It remains to be seen whether anything will ever change in Africa.  Nations such as Kenya and South Africa offer faint glimmers of hope, but they are isolated cases at best on a continent dominated by craven and cruel "governments."  And, from the U.S. perspective, Africa poses far less of an existential threat than does the Middle East, where the "nations" of Syria and Iraq are falling apart at the hands of Islamic terrorists unleashed by the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq.  Each of these nations is composed of various ethnic/national/religious groups that deserve to have a peaceful chance to determine their own destinies, within boundaries that respect their ancient and current differences.

Which is why I was glad to see this article on Slate.  It discusses an idea whose tires have been kicked a number of times over the decades.  But, as other ideas have come and gone, maybe, just maybe, this time this one has a chance.

So, come on, John Kerry.  Find your inner Sykes, or Picot, and get it done like you did with Iran.  It may be the overdue turning of history pages left in place for far too long.  Like the boundaries that so desperately need to be changed.

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