In 1919, the world humbly bore the loss of one of its most imaginative diplomats, when 39-year-old Mark Sykes succumbed to the Spanish flu in his well-appointed Paris hotel room. Sykes died a happy man, having created (with his boon buddy Francois Georges-Picot), a “New Middle East, complete with Octavian-era place names: Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia and Iraq.
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 Sykes is not that he died at such a young age, or that his great hope (to serve as foreign minister remained unfulfilled, or even that he died bereft, childless, unmarried, alone. 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 mix 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 behind who search for a unified theory of diplomacy that makes the Muslim world explicable, that will explain it all. In the summer of 2004, Washington’s policymaking elites were 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 discussion 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, expand 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 writes. Thomas Friedman must have been miffed. Barnett’s prescription for spreading “core values 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.
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, in 2003 Sunni opponents of America’s invasion of Iraq went out to do battle with the defenders of Silicon Valley in Anbar and Baghdad. 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 others in the world.
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 we can divide or sketch new boundaries that will 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 deemed 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 rejecting the new flat world of global markets. The US is the “turtle of the modern era, which would rather pull in its head than admit that its 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.
Mark Perry is co-director of Conflicts Forum and is based in Washington DC. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter