What fun it is stitching nations together, wrote Gertrude Bell in the 1920s, as she wove together the fabric of what would become the modern nation of Iraq (named for the city of Uruk, the oldest of the ancient city-states excavated in Mesopotamia).
Bell, born as a decent English lass and disappointed in love, had studied Arabic and then Persian in England. By the time she added Turkish to her accomplishments, she was one of the most significant linguists in Edwardian England. That wasn’t enough for her, and she added archaeology to her skills, and then set off on expeditions to explore the empty quarter of the Arabian peninsula. The first westerner to do so, Sheikhs treated her with courtesy for the simple reason that she was so far out of their experience and understanding that they could not summon hostility against her. More pertinently, she was less full of western supremacist bullshit than the men they encountered, listened to what they said and established real relationships with them.
Like everyone in the Middle East at the end of World War I, she was pressed into service in trying to carve out a system for the region after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. The Brits and the French had promised the Arabs nationhood in return for rising up against the Turks (as our brave boys died at Gallipoli to keep Turkey out of the South Pacific) and promised the Zionists a homeland, partly to keep bank credit flowing for the war effort. Behind that they had drafted the Sykes-Picot agreement, detailing how the French and British would carve up Arabia along the current Syria-Iraq border. But in 1919, after the British had spent 18 months trying to destroy the Russian Bolshevik government, the British embassy in Moscow was invaded and a draft document of Sykes-Picot was found and published to the world. The modern pan-Arabist movement began from there, and that would yield Baathism, Nasser, Suez, the Palestinian resistance — and its opposition, embodied in Sayyad Qutb and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hezbollah.
History records that Bell — who also founded the National Museum of Iraq, the repository of the West’s heritage, which the Bush administration allowed to be destroyed — created Iraq by combining the Ottoman provinces of Basra (Shia), Baghdad (Sunni) and Mosul (Kurd), with the late thought that it might be easier if Mosul was just given to the new Turkish Republic. But it was more than that — through years of meetings, she signed up hundreds of sheikhs and clans to the new project, promised them an evolving independence and created a nation-state out of clan affiliations. She was eventually seen as too pro-Arab and was bumped off by a cabal of friends and enemies, not least among them St John Philby, father of Kim. Bumped off literally. She was “erratic” — read, manic depressive — and Britain’s post World War I Arab role was shaped by her wild over-enthusiasm and optimism. Squeezed out, she took an overdose.
The recent arrival in Mosul of the ultra-Islamist group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), marks the final collapse of that dream. It is impossible to overstate its significance — it marks not merely the end of the Iraq War, but of World War I. It is as much a death-knell for the pious hopes of Marxist pan-Arabism, as it is for the naïve triumphalism of the neocons.
At the heart of a region, with Turkey, Iran and Russia in easy ambit, there has been the triumph of a group whose beliefs are as incommensurable and uncompromising as the movements of the 20th century, Bolshevism, Fascism, Maoism and Western neoconservatism. They have hollowed out Iraq, which now does not functionally exist. They could march on to the boutique statelet of northern Iraq, run by the Kurds for the US. That puts them in direct contact with Turkish troops, representatives of a state run by a party that wants to restore Ottoman era regional dominance.
Russia cannot now be indifferent to their progress; nor can Shia Iran, since ISIS detach from Al-Qaeda — the moderates! — by their determination to bring violence to the Shia, whom they see as the ultimate apostates. Syria no longer exists, really; Afghanistan is the hinterland of Kabul and little more. Pakistan is bankrupt, corrupt, and its state apparatuses both fight and aid the Taliban. The whole region has been de-stated, and the US has decidedly renounced any intention of playing its usual role of re-stating it. That’s over, the projection of British power is over, and the Right of both states is so riven by pro- and anti- “intervention” factions that they are unable to mount a coherent line. Western publics are with the Obama line, no matter how dithery it seems: under no circumstances contribute troops to the debacle.
Small beer, but this is the final and utter discrediting of the neocon project. From Wolfowitz to Dubya to John Howard to Greg Sheridan and lower orders of tame flunkies (and no I do not include assistance to the Libyan revolution in this ambit), it is clear now that their role was to speed up western loss of unipolar power by a decade or more, and kill half a million or so into the bargain. That’s what they did with their lives.
This is a day as significant as 9/11 in its way. We are faced with a force inimical to all modern values, but whose legitimacy has been created by the chaos we brought to their region. Now the threads have been pulled apart, and it is all to do again, but not in the same way. Today, you lived through the end of World War I, the Iraq War and the hegemonic west. It will be something to tell your grandkids, whatever country they find themselves citizens of. Ask not for whom the Bell tolls…