There is much to admire about the 1919 King-Crane Commission, created by then US president Woodrow Wilson, to assess how the people of the Arab world wanted to be governed in the post-First World War era. The British and French had designs on the Arab world, but Wilson, though an arch-segregationist at home, declared that the newly liberated Arabs should shape their own destiny and that any post-War settlement regarding “territory [or] sovereignty [should be determined on] the basis of the free acceptance of that settlement by the people immediately concerned".
Wilson, therefore, sent a team headed by two prominent Americans – Henry King, a theologian and educator, and Charles Crane, a well-known businessman and Arabist – to conduct the first-ever survey of Arab public opinion. They travelled throughout the Arab world receiving petitions from thousands of organisations and meeting hundreds of political, religious, cultural and social groups. The results were clear: more than 80 per cent wanted the entire area to be given independence as a unified state and more than 85 per cent rejected the British/Zionist proposal to separate Palestine from “Greater Syria".
The King-Crane Commission concluded that imposing a settlement that violated the will of the population would generate huge resistance. Not only was this the first modern poll of Arab opinion, but like a number of polls that would follow, its findings about Arab opinion were ignored – with dire consequences.
The then British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, famously replied to King-Crane: “We do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country.” And so the British and the French – old hands at the colonial game – were undeterred. Instead of independence, the Arab world was dismembered, carved into separate states under British and French control. Regimes and systems of governance were imposed, resistance was violently squashed, and a century of instability followed. Instead of understanding their paternity, the West blamed their victims, claiming that violence and instability were endemic to the Arab world.
The chief outcomes of this paternity are the depressingly familiar developments unfolding (or not) in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine-Israel and Iraq even to this day.
Lebanon, still on the brink of economic collapse, can’t form a fully functioning government because sectarian elites seem intent on sucking the last bit of marrow from the country’s dying bones. Sectarian gridlock, enforced by Hezbollah’s threats, prevents accountability for past crimes and has resulted in shortages of basic services, fuel, food and money. Even if the Lebanese succeed in winning control of gas fields in the Mediterranean, they have legitimate fears of a power grab by sectarian elites who will drain the proceeds to serve their own interests and not those of the country.
Syria is still at war with itself, with Russian, Iranian, Turkish and American interests colliding and sometimes colluding in different combinations over the future of the tragic mess they (and the Assad regime) all helped to create. While this game of nations continues to be played, millions of Syrians remain destitute, either internally displaced or as refugees fearful of returning to their homes.
Iraq is paralysed, owing to the “genius” of the Americans whose “gift” to the Iraqi people was to mimic the French-created sectarian-based system of governance that proved so disastrous for Lebanon. Even though our polling in Iraq (as in Lebanon) makes clear that most want a non-sectarian unified country independent of any foreign power, the elites backed by their militias – many Iran-supported – are unwilling to surrender control. Paralysis and the threat of renewed civil war could yet destroy Iraq, but Iran and its minions are unwilling to move towards non-sectarian governance.
Speaking of “gifts", the one that continues to roil the region was Balfour’s decision to implant the Zionist movement in Palestine to serve British interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. This act and seven decades of political protection and huge military and economic aid from the US has led the region to where it is today – an Israeli state that operates with impunity flaunting international law and violating Palestinian rights.
Now in the midst of their fifth election in four years, Israel’s politics, as a result of US coddling, has moved so far to the right that there is a unique form of gridlock in the country. At issue isn’t peace with Palestinians, but whether the next right-wing government will be led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The dysfunctions plaguing the Palestinians result from decades of occupation. But Palestinians also suffer from a lack of leadership capable of developing a strategic vision and the tactics to realise that vision. What they have been left with are repressive patronage systems in Gaza and the West Bank that have been reduced to repressive dependencies – relying on Israel and international donors for support.
Various threads tie all these dysfunctions together. Main among them are the evil of sectarian and ethnic divisions, promoted and exploited by external powers. It’s tempting to ask how different the region would be today if the British and French had deferred to the will of the Arab people and if the Americans had not played this same imperial game, updating it to serve their interests.
This mustn’t be the end of the story. Several years ago, I met with a leader of the Syrian opposition. As he was leaving my office, he turned at the door and asked a poignant question: where will the region be in the next 10, 20, or 50 years? I urged him to return, and we spoke for another hour about the region’s need for visionary thinking that would ask just that question.
While it’s true that the West bears responsibility for dismembering and distorting the political development in several parts of the Arab world, Arabs can’t just continue to blame the failings on the machinations of others. It is time for them to take their destiny into their own hands and develop a vision that unites and inspires citizens to free themselves from the shackles of sectarianism, corruption, extremism and defeatism.