The New York Times Ted Widmer’s Opinion is that A Century Ago, the Modern Middle East Was Born. Lots could object to that statement but reading his Christmas Day article republished here with our thanks, could be as enlightening as perhaps the Messiah’s birth anniversary.
At the end of 1919, Woodrow Wilson still wanted the region to decide its future. Britain and France had other ideas.
As 1919 came to a close, people around the world were celebrating the holidays, grateful for the return of peace on earth after the convulsions of the Great War. “Peace on earth” was a relative concept; there was still fighting in Russia. But for the most part, the soldiers were home, and their families were looking forward to a new decade, free of conflict.
In Paris, there were long lines outside of restaurants, as the French celebrated the holiday with gastronomic exuberance. In Berlin, Vienna and Budapest there was less Christmas cheer, thanks to food shortages and inflation, but the people flocked to cafes and did their best to revive the old holiday traditions. In Washington, there was no snow, but Woodrow Wilson issued a flurry of proclamations, including one on Christmas Eve that relinquished federal control of the railroads, a wartime measure that was no longer necessary.
But for all the Christmas cheer, there was a general restlessness as the long year 1919 drew to a close, without the clarity that so many hoped would follow the war’s end. An elaborate treaty was signed at Versailles on June 28, ending hostilities between the principal powers, but creating a host of new problems. Germans were furious when they realized the scale of the reparations imposed on them. New and dangerous political actors were quick to seize upon the public’s hunger to find scapegoats as the political mood turned dark.
Wilson’s thoughts must have been conflicted this Christmas season. As the son of a Southern Presbyterian minister, he had many reasons to rejoice at the arrival of Christmas, including the fact that he was sometimes compared to Jesus, with his “sermonettes” about the new era that was approaching. As a young man, he had written an essay on “Christ’s Army,” and it must have felt at times that he was in charge of this organization, with all of his schemes for human betterment. But as the year progressed, the comparisons to Jesus began to turn sardonic, as Wilson’s perfectionism grated on his allies.
Mistakes were plentiful as the world’s leaders contemplated missed opportunities in the great reshuffling of 1919.
A year earlier, Wilson strode the world like a colossus. On Christmas Eve 1918, he was in Paris, enjoying the last night of his first visit to France, where he received a tumultuous welcome as the embodiment of the people’s hopes. A year later, he was significantly diminished, by the flawed treaty, by the Senate’s refusal to approve the League of Nations, and by the stroke that had crippled him in October, as he brought his case to the American people.
He never lost his religiosity, and for that reason, the arrival of another Christmas may have felt reassuring. But the year had taken a severe toll. He said, “If I were not a Christian I think I should go mad, but my faith in God holds me to the belief that he is in some way working out his own plans through human perversities and mistakes.”
Mistakes were plentiful as the world’s leaders contemplated missed opportunities in the great reshuffling of 1919. Three enormous empires — the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian — had folded within the last two years, sweeping away centuries of dynastic privilege, but leaving a gaping void.
Then there was the Ottoman Empire, reeling from a series of catastrophes, but not quite defunct. From their palaces in Constantinople, sultans had once exercised sway over huge stretches of the lands stretching in all directions from Asia Minor. Even further afield, they commanded the loyalties of hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world as the caliphs of Islam.
But in recent years, sultans were struggling to maintain control of their own administrators. The Ottomans had backed the losing side in the war, then horrified the world with a genocidal campaign against the Armenian people. They were also losing credibility in other ways. In the years before the war, European powers had gobbled up nearly half a million square miles of former Ottoman territory. Then, during the war, an Arab revolt stoked by the British had removed large portions of what we would now call the Middle East.
Wilson even contemplated an American mandate over Armenia, the Dardanelles and the Bosporus.
With Christmas approaching, the English and French were negotiating over the fate of what remained. Earlier in the year, they had dutifully nodded as Wilson articulated his idea of a new diplomacy that would show respect to small countries, and affirm the rights of all peoples to something called “self-determination.” There would be fewer colonies, although some “mandates” would be allowed to exist, in which Western powers would act as benevolent caretakers for peoples who were “not yet ready” for self-determination. So idealistic did the word sound that Wilson even contemplated an American mandate over Armenia, the Dardanelles and the Bosporus.
But there had been a number of shocks to his idealistic vision. One came on March 20, 1919, when Wilson learned that his French and English allies had secretly agreed to carve up the Ottoman Empire as soon as the war ended, and were continuing to scheme both with and against each other. That seemed very much like the old diplomacy. A 1916 understanding, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, promised to give each side what it wanted in the region, with little regard for anyone’s right to self-determination.
For the British, that meant Palestine and a region that they were calling “Mesopotamia,” including the Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Mosul and Basra. For the French, it was a generous slice of the eastern Mediterranean, around the city of Beirut, and an internal corridor stretching to Damascus, Aleppo and beyond.
Neither of these zones were natural countries. The Ottomans had considered Mosul a different region from Baghdad, but the British coveted the oil that was beginning to spurt out of the earth. Eventually, this awkward assemblage of provinces would receive a new name, Iraq, when the British succeeded in placing an Arab ally on its throne. In Arabic, the word means “deeply rooted,” but the new country was anything but that. The French went along, in return for some of the oil, and an agreement from the British to let them pursue their own intrigues in Lebanon and Syria.
Wilson responded by piously expressing his belief in “the consent of the governed,” and his hope that the wishes of local peoples would be taken into consideration as the European powers prepared to carve up the Middle East. He also proposed that a commission be created for that purpose, to earnestly inquire what form of government the locals wanted.
The French and British immediately shelved his quaint idea, but Wilson stuck with it, and appointed two commissioners, Henry Churchill King, the former president of Oberlin College, and Charles R. Crane, the scion of a family that had made a fortune from plumbing parts. They worked quickly and made a tour of the region, spending 42 days in what would later be Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank, Jordan and Syria. On Aug. 28, they submitted a report that confirmed Wilson’s sense that no one in the region wanted European powers to come in and colonize them. It may have been the first time anyone asked local Arabs what they wanted.
But events were happening quickly on the ground, and the old diplomacy refused to give up the ghost. Throughout the spring and summer, the French and British continued to divide up the Middle East as if they were shopping at a spice bazaar.
In his Fourteen Points, Wilson had tried to assure the peoples of the region that they would be free to pursue “autonomous development.” But that was a confusing concept as the victors made overlapping promises to Greeks, Italians, Armenians, Lebanese Christians, Arabs, Kurds and an increasingly vocal group of Zionists, mostly from Eastern Europe. As they clamored for their pieces of the Ottoman Empire, these disparate populations remembered a great deal of history. The Crusades, Constantine and the Roman Empire, the Greek wars against Persia, the Babylonian Captivity — all of it could be summoned in an instant to justify a historic claim to an attractive parcel of land. That didn’t sound like new diplomacy at all.
In the Ottoman lands, a curious version of self-determination was beginning to take place, without permission from Wilson.
Wilson might have done more to push back against the land grab, but he was having problems of his own. After he returned to the United States, he received a hard lesson in self-determination when the Senate killed his vision in November. In a sense, his defeat was shared by the peoples of the Middle East, still looking for a champion.
But in the Ottoman lands, a curious version of self-determination was beginning to take place, without permission from Wilson, the allied leaders, or even the Ottomans. As the sultan, Mehmed VI, conceded point after point to the Allies, an angry Turkish soldier began to take matters into his own hands. Mustafa Kemal Pasha had already shown a great military aptitude during the war, particularly during the Turkish victory at Gallipoli. Throughout 1919, Kemal (later to be known as Ataturk) traveled across Anatolia, organizing Turkish resistance to the dismemberment of his country. Increasingly, it became clear that he was creating a new country — Turkey — that would no longer be headed by the sultans.
In other ways, as well, the victors discovered that the lines on the map were not as easy to redraw as they had first thought. In some places, like Palestine and Israel, a state of near-constant violence has persisted among peoples who wish to exercise self-determination at the same time, in the same place. In other places, too, we see how much we still live with the decisions made at the negotiating table in 1919. Russia continues to seethe against its limits and its neighbors, and is pressing up close against the old Ottoman borderlands. Certain boundaries in the Middle East appear to be in flux again — most recently, the southern border of Turkey. Self-appointed “Caliphs” continue to appear and disappear, suggesting that a void remains unfilled since the last sultan occupied that role. In retrospect, the new maps of 1919 were something of a palimpsest.
But at least it was quiet in one place as night descended on Christmas Eve a century ago. Bethlehem was a small town in what had been the Ottoman province of Palestine, but its future was uncertain as the armies of different powers ranged closer, and the cartographers kept redrawing the maps in Paris. Still, it had endured a very long time by showing the right level of respect to the old diplomacy, even as the new diplomacy was coming in. Chapter Two of the Book of Luke records that Jesus was born there because of a census, ordered by the Roman Empire, requiring heads of families to return to their native villages. Diligent administrators, the Romans believed that “all the world should be registered.” As Woodrow Wilson learned, that was harder than it looked.
Sources: Ray Stannard Baker, “Woodrow Wilson and World Settlement”; Harry N. Howard, “Turkey, the Straits and U.S. Policy”; Margaret Macmillan, “Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World.”
Ted Widmer is a distinguished lecturer at the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York and a fellow of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.