One of the many infamous bits of collective memory that linger from the Vietnam War is the remark by an American officer trying to explain the utter devastation of Ben Tre, a provincial capital, in 1968: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” said the unnamed major.
Now, it would seem, some American military analysts think the same reasoning should apply to the whole Middle East. In June, retired lieutenant colonel Ralph Peters, an essayist and thriller writer, published a provocative column in the Armed Forces Journal—with an even more provocative map attached —and it has been cropping up in policy debates ever since like a bomb in a Three Stooges movie.
Under the headline “Blood Borders,” Peters argued that “the greatest taboo in striving to understand the region’s comprehensive failure isn’t Islam but the awful-but-sacrosanct international boundaries worshipped by our own diplomats.” The fault for the present mess lies with the colonial powers of the early 20th century, those “Orientalist” experts from London and Paris who drew many of the present borders in the region to suit their own administrative needs and not those of the people on the ground. The solution, Peters proposes, would be to make way for the “cheated” nationalist aspirations of “the Kurds, Baluch and Arab Shia” by allowing fresh new countries to be carved out of the rotten old ones.
Unless the borders in the region are redrawn “between the Bosporus and the Indus,” Peters boldly declares, “we shall never see a more peaceful Middle East.” The map accompanying the essay shows what this new region might look like. Iraq would be dismembered. This process is now under way, and Peters is right to underscore that fact. It was started by Washington’s interventions dating back to 1991, and it’s not something American troops can stop now. But Peters goes further. In his view Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran—the most powerful regional players, three of which are vital allies of Washington—would also be hacked into pieces.
Curiously, two states that were unquestionably imposed on the map by colonial fiat—Kuwait and Israel—survive the Peters plan inside their current internationally recognized borders. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, a largely Churchillian construct created after World War I, would grow for some unexplained reason. And the Palestinians? They’d be left, as ever, with only scraps on the West Bank and in Gaza to call their own, sort of.
The Peters principles are in fact historically preposterous and hysterically overstated. Peters must know himself just how bloody his prescription would become: an orgy of sectarian, racial and tribal slaughter putting the future of Pakistan’s nukes and all the oil of the Persian Gulf up for grabs. When the retired colonel throws in a cynical aside about the consequences—“Oh, and one other dirty little secret from 5,000 years of history: Ethnic cleansing works”—you get the sense he’s just trying to get a rise out of his audience.
That much he’s achieved. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack flatly dismissed this and “other maps” (apparently there are many) as “drawn by individuals” and in no way reflecting U.S. policy. “Certainly we have been very forthright and plain-spoken in talking about the territorial integrity of Turkey and the territorial integrity of Iraq,” said McCormack. After the first wave of angry letters to the Armed Forces Journal (which is a private, not a government, publication) Peters claimed that he was misread. He said the article was only meant “to sober the American political establishment, not to inspire it to extravagant deeds.” Indeed, no responsible policymaker in the United States or Europe would take this chart seriously as a blueprint for peace.
But, then, we haven’t seen a lot of responsible policymaking in the Middle East lately. The Bush administration has been a sucker for what amounts to its own brand of Orientalism, which the late scholar Edward Saïd called “a confusing amalgam of imperial vagueness and precise detail.” Given Bush’s record of dreaming his way to disaster, while the Pentagon embraces self-serving academic rationalizations about the region instead of the inconvenient realities, anything seems possible. So, many in the Middle East are puzzled, provoked and perhaps even violently inspired by Peters’s sweeping vision.
NEWSWEEK’s Michael Hastings first heard the article being discussed at a dinner party in Amman, Jordan, while he was on his way into Iraq last summer. “I saw it next in a Sunni mosque in Baghdad,” Mike wrote me over the weekend. “The imam had actually printed the map and put it up on the bulletin board with an article in Arabic attached explaining it was the American-Zionist plan to shaft the Sunnis.” A couple of weeks ago, Mike was on the trail of the Kurdish guerrillas of the PKK (branded terrorists by Ankara and Washington), who are fighting to break off a big chunk of southeast Turkey. He found them holed up in the quasi-independent Kurdish portion of Iraq. “They were talking about the same map,” says Hastings.
At the NATO Defense College in Rome last month, another American colonel reportedly presented Peters’s cartographic fantasy for discussion, only to have the Turkish officers in the lecture walk out. According to the Turkish press, after a flurry of high-level phone calls between Ankara and Washington, the commander of the college said the incident was unacceptable and suggested that academic freedom had its limits. (Asked by NEWSWEEK for comment this week, the Defense College said that it did not have anybody available.)
In fact, the map should be debated because it should be refuted, lest other colonels—or Donald Rumsfeld and his suits—squirrel it away in their drawers to consult as a valid intellectual picture of the region and its possibilities.
What Peters fails to consider is that “nationalism”—Kurdish, Baluch, Arab Shia or any other kind—was essentially a 19th-century invention. Cornell University professor Benedict Anderson, in his 1991 book “Imagined Communities” ( Verso ), describes in wonderful detail the way European conquerors used the census, the map and the museum to try to manufacture collective identities in their newly acquired territories. The old colonial powers had an enormous urge to classify, to create what our neocolonials call “metrics,” racially and linguistically, religiously and geographically. “The effect of the grid was always to be able to say of anything that it was this, not that; it belonged here, not there,” Anderson writes. “It was bounded, determinate, and therefore—in principle—countable.”
But the real instincts of the region are at once more narrow, based on family and tribe, and much grander than what the Europeans offered. When the old colonial era ended, what many in the Middle East wanted was not a collection of ever-smaller “nation-states” that would be, in the memorable phrase of an Egyptian diplomat, “tribes with flags.” They wanted to construct a superstate embracing all of the Arab world. That model crumbled after the traumatic military defeat by Israel in the Six Day War of 1967.
But pan-Arabism is now being replaced by the even older dream of a pan-Islamic entity, which was for many centuries a historical reality. The idea of the collective umma , the community of the faithful including all believers, is integral to Islam. The notion of its potential grandeur lingers in the hearts of many moderate Muslims. Pan-Islamic ambitions are a natural reaction to Orientalist musings about dividing conquered lands—and they are at the core of Al Qaeda’s extremist ideology.
After the United States’ experiment destroying many parts of Vietnam in order to save them, you’ll recall, the country was unified by Washington’s bitterest enemies. Rationalizations for fracturing the Middle East could well have the same results.