Tag Archives: Middle East

Two cheers for Barack Obama

The Conversation

Mark Beeson, University of Western Australia

Barack Obama’s presidency was always bound to be something of a disappointment. Few presidents can have entered office with such great expectations, not least because of what went before him.

Indeed, when we try to make sense of the significance of Obama’s term in office, we need to remember the truly appalling legacy he inherited from his predecessor.

Not only did George W Bush begin an entirely unnecessary and disastrous conflict in the Middle East – the consequences of which continue to destabilise the region to this day – but he also helped trigger a major economic crisis that threatened to bring down the international banking system.

The massive spending – and deficits – required by Bush’s ruinously expensive war in Iraq contributed to America’s economic problems. But the efforts of the Bush administration to wind back a painstakingly constructed, largely effective, regulatory framework that exercised some degree of control over the banking system and its self-destructive pathologies was another entirely avoidable incidence of self-harm on an epic scale.

The first thing Obama had to do on taking office, therefore, was to stop the international financial sector from falling off a cliff and prevent icons of American manufacturing like General Motors from going bust.

The fact that the sky didn’t fall in tends to be forgotten or wilfully ignored by Obama’s growing army of critics. If he did nothing else, though, staving off the world’s second Great Depression looks pretty good on the CV.

He might have done much more if he hadn’t been so initially bogged down with cleaning up someone else’s mess, not to mention dealing with a hostile, ideologically recalcitrant Congress that remained implacably opposed to everything he did. Whatever else the Trump presidency has to deal with, the domestic institutional roadblocks should be easier to navigate.

That Obama managed to get his signature healthcare reforms through Congress is a minor miracle, although one that is likely to rapidly dismantled on ideological grounds – not to mention the fact that “big pharma” will be enthusiastically backing its repeal.

Bizarrely, some of the people who actually benefit most from Obamacare – poor, white and working class – are also the most hostile to Obama and his “socialist” policies.

It is testimony to just how difficult it is to have a rational, much less an informed, debate about key elements of public policy in the US that such counter-intuitive outcomes are possible.

It is not necessary to be a conspiracy theorist or even a critical Marxist to recognise that there’s something odd, rather sad and deeply troubling about people voting against people and policies from which they might have been the principal beneficiaries.

Sadly, the domestic agenda, disappointing as it has been in many ways, was arguably Obama’s strong suit.

Critics argue that procrastination and an unwillingness to use America’s undoubted military might decisively has made the situation in the Middle East even worse. Red lines were crossed by the likes of Bashar al-Assad with no consequences, something that encouraged Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping to test America’s commitment to maintaining its primacy, the arguments go.

Perhaps so. And yet, “don’t do stupid stuff” is not the worst strategic doctrine the world has ever seen. Indeed, when contrasted with Bush in particular, it looks entirely reasonable and in keeping with a highly complex and unstable international order that defies quick fixes.

More pointedly, we actually know what happens when American administrations are determined to do stupid stuff, no matter how implausible such a strategy may be.

If we’ve collectively learned anything over the course of the last few decades – indeed, the last few millennia – it ought to be that wars are a lot easier to start than they are to finish. They generally don’t have happy endings either.

Perhaps a few carefully calibrated surgical strikes would have made a difference in Syria, but the record of American intervention over recent years is not encouraging. The motto “if you break it you own it” is worth keeping in mind.

We will soon have the opportunity to compare and contrast Obama’s presidency with someone who is altogether more impulsive and apparently determined to act decisively.

Whether the Hulk is preferable to Hamlet we shall have to wait and see. But that we came through one of the more troubled periods in recent history more or less in one piece is perhaps as much as “we” – privileged denizens of what’s left of the Western world – can hope for.

Donald Trump may rapidly discover that there are no tweet-sized solutions to the world’s problems. Winston Churchill’s famous aphorism may prove alarmingly prescient:

Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted all other possibilities.

Obama’s great attribute was that he recognised in advance how dangerous and counterproductive certain actions could be. There is absolutely no guarantee that his successor does. The Obama presidency may yet go down as a relatively sane and sober period bookended by the two worst presidents in American history.

The ConversationMark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Explainer: what is the 100-year-old Sykes-Picot Agreement?

The Conversation

Stephen Pascoe, La Trobe University

To mark the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, we’ve got a package with an explanatory article about the secret accord (below), an argument the accord still underlies the discontent in the Middle East and the counter-view that its influence is overstated.


The Sykes-Picot accord was conceived at a high point in Britain and France’s imperial power. Hammered out in the midst of the first world war in anticipation of an Entente victory (the Russian Empire, France and the United Kingdom) over the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria), it was concerned with distributing the territorial spoils of Ottoman defeat.

France and Britain, along with most other European powers, had been convinced of the inevitable demise of the Ottoman Empire for decades. The image of the Ottomans as the “sick man of Europe” was one of the defining images of 19th-century diplomacy.

The accord was also a product of France and Britain’s newfound friendship. In their respective bids for global supremacy during the 1881-1914 Scramble for Africa, the two powers had nearly come to war in the Sudan in 1898, in a military standoff that became known as the Fashoda Incident.

Calmer heads in London and Paris saw that accommodation was preferable to open conflict and sought alliance. The 1902 Entente Cordiale provided for precisely the kind of gentlemanly negotiation over respective “spheres of interest” as embodied in Sykes-Picot.

Dividing the spoils

Both powers had existing interests in the region that they wished to protect and expand.

On the French side, the arms of finance capital were heavily invested in Beirut and Mt Lebanon, alongside a battery of francophone religious and cultural institutions. French railway companies also had substantive interests in the Syrian cities of the interior, as well as in the Cilicia region of southern Anatolia (also known as Asia Minor and now the Republic of Turkey).

In an era when empires were still built on maritime power, the French foreign ministry coveted the coastal strip of the Eastern Mediterranean because of the area’s proximity to France’s North African possessions in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

Britain, for its part, was determined to have its own coastal access – both to the Mediterranean, through the port of Haifa in Palestine, as well as to the Gulf, through Basra in Iraq. The promise of recently explored oilfields also dictated British interest in Mesopotamia (roughly, modern-day Iraq).

France’s original territorial claim extended across to Mosul in northern Iraq, so as to take in some of these promised oilfields.

At the moment Mark Sykes of the British War Office and François Georges-Picot, French consul in Beirut, were negotiating, Commonwealth forces had occupied Basra and the surrounding Shatt Al-Arab region since November 1914. So, the extension of British control northward seemed logical.

Tsarist Russia, the oft-forgotten third signatory to Sykes-Picot, was promised control of Istanbul, the Turkish Straits and the territories of eastern Anatolia.

The signed Sykes-Picot Agreement map.
Royal Geographic Society via Wikimedia Commons

Other contenders

Sykes-Picot should be seen in the context of a series of secret discussions over the postwar political settlement of the Middle East.

On the Entente side, the game of territorial bartering had begun a year earlier, in March-April 1915, as the Gallipoli landing was being planned. The so-called Constantinople Agreement between the three parties rehearsed the divisions that would be formalised in Sykes-Picot.

The Entente powers were not alone in planning for victory. The Ottoman government had itself concluded a secret treaty with Germany upon entering the war in August 1914, dealing with the eventuality of a Central Powers victory.

Ottoman territorial ambitions were far more modest: Istanbul sought the return of three provinces relinquished to the Russians in 1878, along with the territories in the Balkans that had been lost to nationalist secession over the previous decades.

Local leaders were also secretly devising plans for the postwar period. Although the Arab provinces had remained mostly loyal to Istanbul throughout the nationalist turmoil that shook the empire during the 19th century, by the beginning of the 20th there were stirrings for greater autonomy or even secession among certain segments of the Arab military, civilian and religious elite.

Leaders of secret societies in Syria and Iraq, along with the influential Hashemite family of Mecca, which held the position of guardians of the holy cities, had begun in early 1915 to set out a vision of a post-Ottoman Arab state. The Damascus Protocol of May 1915 imagined all of Syria, Iraq and the Gulf – with the exception of the British enclave in Aden – forming an independent Arab state.

In November 1914, the British had began courting the Hashemites in an attempt to orchestrate an Arab revolt against the Ottoman state. In a series of letters exchanged the following year between Sharif Hussein and the high commissioner of Egypt, Henry McMahon, the British appear to give generous – if highly ambiguous – support to the establishment of an Arab state.

Another group with designs on postwar Middle East was the fledgling Zionist movement, which had begun to sponsor Jewish migration to Ottoman Palestine, but remained numerically small on the ground and had as yet no formal support from any major power.

Shifting sands

The notion that Sykes-Picot was a direct blueprint for the post-Ottoman outline of the political map of the Middle East has a seductive simplicity. But it’s not quite the full story.

The nation states of the Middle East we know today were decided on at the 1920 San Remo conference, and their borders were finalised in piecemeal fashion across the following decade.

The shifting territorial claims reflected a number of changing realities in the four years following Sykes-Picot, such as the success of Turkish nationalist troops in reclaiming most of Cilicia under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, the Ottoman general who led the beleaguered remainder of the empire’s forces to an honourable settlement. He would be dubbed Ataturk, or “father of the Turks”, upon assuming presidency of the new Turkish republic.

Another major shift in realpolitik between 1916 and 1920 was Britain’s position on the Palestine question.

Whereas Sykes-Picot had envisaged an international status given to Jerusalem (in expectation of problems between the nascent Zionist movement and the indigenous Palestinian population, as well as to head off inter-imperialist rivalry over access to the Christian Holy City), the 1917 Balfour Declaration effectively turned the tide of British support toward the Zionists.

When the Ottoman state finally lost control of its Middle Eastern territories – symbolised in the fall of Damascus to Australian troops on October 18, 1918 – control was transferred to Britain’s Hashemite allies, seemingly honouring the undertakings articulated in the Hussein-McMahon correspondence.

Sharif Hussein’s son Faisal seized the opportunity to fill the political vacuum, gathering around him former Ottoman functionaries sympathetic to the Arab nationalist cause. The brief period of Faisal’s Arab Kingdom in Damascus from late 1918 to early 1920 – despite being characterised by significant discord – contained the real hope that the Arabic-speaking populations of the Middle East might at last be masters of their own destiny.

France, unsurprisingly, protested at this turn of events and insisted that Britain honour the principles of Sykes-Picot. Britain acceded to France’s request, Faisal found himself outmanoeuvred and, at a final standoff outside Damascus in the Battle of Maysaloun, his experiment in Arab independence was quashed.

Sykes-Picot had delivered the spoils of war to Britain and France, and deferred the dreams of Arab nationalists.

The accord was arguably the last gasp of unrestrained Western imperialism, or at least of the classical imperialism of the 19th century. Twentieth-century imperialism would take less direct, more pernicious forms.


This article is part of a package marking the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Read the argument that the influence of the accord is overstated or the counter-view that it still underlies the discontent in the Middle East.

The ConversationStephen Pascoe, PhD Candidate in History, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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