The Middle East’s New Map
Bitter Lemons, December 21, 2006
In 1919, the world humbly bore the loss of one of its most imaginative diplomats, when 39-year-old Mark Sykes (the “6th baronet”) succumbed to the Spanish flu in his well-appointed Paris hotel room. Sykes died a happy man, having created (with his boon buddy Francoise Georges-Picot), a “New Middle East”, complete with Octavian-era place names: Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia and Iraq. The insipidly industrious Sykes had spent his off-hours over the previous years bent over a map, diligently erasing old boundaries and replacing them with British and French “zones”. His vision was now a matter of international law, having recently been agreed to at Versailles, just down the road from the hotel where he breathed his last. His intentions were to do good–so it is, always, with imperialists–to bring the Arabs (“those poor sots” as he once so indelicately phrased it) into the modern world.
The great tragedy of the otherwise insufferable Sykes is not that he died at such a young age, or that his great hope — to serve as His Majesty’s Foreign Minister — remained unfulfilled. Sykes’ great tragedy was that he created a map of the Middle East that had absolutely no connection to reality. His “red” British and “blue” French “zones” (as well as his pink “spheres of influence” and purple “condominiums”) were a melange of borderless intentions that took a score of decades and dozens of conflicts to sort through–and have not been sorted through yet.
Still, Sykes’ true legacy was not his vision of the Middle East, but the trail of neo-imperialists he left in his wake: wannabe semiologists and high-falutin’ intellectual cartographers who continue to search for a unified field theory of diplomacy–a political phlogiston–that will make the Muslim world explicable, that will explain it all.
In the summer of 2004, Washington’s policymaking elites were breathlessly a-twitter about a new book that continued this tradition. “The Pentagon’s New Map” was passed hand-to-hand among policymakers, appeared on Pentagon reading lists, and was the subject of endless backhall discussions at Washington think-tanks. The book’s author, Thomas Barnett, divided the world into two spheres: the “functioning core” of integrated, democratic and modern states and the “disconnected gap” of poor and poorly run states that are the breeding grounds of terrorism. That is to say, them and us. “The Pentagon’s New Map” seemed a natural follow-on to Thomas Friedman’s “The World Is Flat”, which posited an ever-expanding global economy that would, eventually and inevitably, breathlessly expand (or is it contract?) our horizons.
There was, in both of these books, a small footnote of warning. Barnett said that a robust US military was essential to providing the means necessary to bring an end to the lawlessness common among the “disconnected gap”–the US needed to create a “Leviathan” that could ensure world peace.
“Any time American troops show up–be it in combat, a battle group pulling up the coast as a reminder, or a peacekeeping mission–it tends to be in a place that is relatively disconnected from the world, where globalization hasn’t taken root because of a repressive regime, abject poverty, or the lack of a robust legal system. It’s these places that incubate global terrorism…”, Barnett says.
Thomas Friedman must have been miffed. Barnett’s prescription for spreading “core” values to “the poor sots” sounded a lot like his medicine for ending the strife between those who were all for globalization and those who thought it was threatening their way of life–between those more interested in protecting their olive trees than those who are interested in buying a new Lexus. Or, as Friedman would have it: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”
Washington wonks are not the only ones who slather over this kind of thing. Arabs and Muslims do too. Barnett and Friedman will be pleased to learn that the newest recruits to the set of “flat-worlders” are Arab salafists, who pay no attention to maps at all. Indeed, Sunni opponents (“disconnected gappers” presumably) of America’s invasion of Iraq left their olive groves in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia back in 2003, hopped in their Fiats and went out to do battle with the defenders of Silicon Valley in Anbar and Baghdad.
Now, having bloodied the not-so-hidden fist of the “Leviathan”, they’re returning home–and doing battle with Arab “moderates.” But these salafists are not just doing battle with America’s “moderate” flat-world friends, those scions of modernity (like Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah II and Abu Mazen). They are targeting the leaders of Hizballah and Hamas–and of the Muslim Brotherhood–the “Muslim extremists” of George Bush’s famous phrase.
What happens in Baghdad today is the talk of Cairo tonight, and the same “gappers” we deride for believing their olive groves are worth defending have learned the lessons of resistance from the Zapatistas–the first group to use satellite phones and the internet to break an economic embargo intended to starve their children. The first known effective “denial of service” attack was launched by the Zapatistas in 1994, and the Mexican government caved in. We might deny that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will help America in Iraq, just as we would deny that “the road to Jerusalem runs through Baghdad,” but we should not assume that interconnectedness is the sole province of the “Functioning Core” or that, Sykes-like, we can split or divide or sketch new boundaries that will somehow federate peace. Then too, our vaunted support for globalization has denied access to the global economy (the one tool we believe is the most moderating of influences) to those we deem our enemies.
The unbelievable condescension of the mapmakers has blinded them to the truth of the current conflict–that the growing resistance to American hegemony represents the first truly global and connected political movement in human history. It plays to a global audience, it accesses the global media, it subverts the strategy of “flat worlders” who would use the world economy to exact political punishment.
“The ultimate benign hegemon and reluctant enforcer” (in Thomas Friedman’s phrase) is, for political purposes, rejecting the new flat world of global markets. We are the “turtles” of the modern era, who would rather pull in our heads than to admit that our maps bear no relation to reality. Mark Sykes would recoil in horror–but he would be proud of those who he once dismissed as mere pawns in a game of “influence” and “spheres”. The “poor sots” have entered the modern world–we are the ones stuck in the past.
This article first appeared in bitterlemons-international