NEW YORK - The swift victories of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq bring to mind the prescient words of John Buchan in his famous 1916 spy novel “Greenmantle”: “There is a dry wind blowing through the East, and the parched grasses wait the spark.”
Buchan was writing about the wildfire of revolt and secession running across the old Ottoman Empire, which had for centuries enjoyed suzerainty over much of the Middle East. Propped up through the late 19th century by Britain and France, the sick man of Europe was finally put out of his misery after World War I, his possessions divided by his erstwhile patrons.
Under the Sykes-Picot agreement, the French share of the old Ottoman territory was to include Mosul; Britain then discovered the region had oil and placed it inside British Iraq. A ferocious band of fanatics aiming at a caliphate in both Iraq and Syria captured the city last week, signaling that the conveniently neat map drawn by European imperialists at the height of their power may finally be erased.
The caliphate remains a delusion; at most, ISIL may help formalize the de facto partition of Iraq. But the flow of arms and fanaticisms across porous borders raises the specter of anarchy in many places that were once exposed to European divide-and-rule. Such evidently pre-modern phenomena as tribalism and piracy, too, are rampant from Somalia to Libya to Nigeria.
This should not force us into any nostalgia about the pseudo-Westphalian “peace” of Asia and Africa. Clumsy deceit and arrogance tainted, from the very beginning, the secret Anglo-French plan to partition Ottoman Syria and Mesopotamia after World War I.
The Syrians, who desired unity, were divided. Mesopotamia’s various communities — Sunnis, Kurds, Shiites, all of whom wanted to preserve the autonomy they enjoyed under the Ottomans — were corralled into the new kingdom of Iraq. Evidently “London either was not aware of, or had given no thought to, the population mix of the Mesopotamian provinces,” as David Fromkin wrote in “A Peace to End All Peace.”
Such stability as existed in the Middle East after formal decolonization was achieved at a high price in blood and terror. Only ruthless despots, helped by the secret police and rival foreign powers, could keep their nonmelting pots of ethnic and religious communities from boiling over.
The Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003 shifted the country’s internal balance of terror, empowering the Kurds and the Shiites at the expense of the Sunnis. In 2011, a politicized young population then doomed the status quo everywhere else in the Arab world, exposing societies from Bahrain to Libya to fresh turmoil and, as in Egypt, unreconstructed dictatorship.
These unanticipated effects of the Arab Spring and a war waged ostensibly for freedom and democracy confirm that, far from making history with decisive moves and moral clarity, human beings are entangled in many ambiguous histories. Their actions continually generate their own set of unpredictable consequences.
However, the most commonplace response among Western commentators, if not a war-weary public, to the ongoing remapping of the Middle East has been narcissistic: shock and despair, followed shortly thereafter by breast-beating and accusations that American and European leaders are not doing enough. Low-intensity recriminations grow into a hysterical clamor for airstrikes whenever some obviously bad guys are sighted.
There is almost no examination of the antiquated assumptions of order and control that underpin laments about Western apathy and indecisiveness. These mainly derive in Britain and France from their prettified imperial ventures, and in the U.S. from the successful invasion and occupation of Japan and Germany.
Both projects of geopolitical and human engineering were attempted in historical circumstances very different from ours. It is sobering to remember that swords were turned into plowshares in Japan and Germany only after they had completed their destructive work — that is, after turning many countries into wastelands.
The world today is much less amenable to rational manipulation than it was in 1918 or 1945. Globalized elites hold that economic self-interest motivates humans everywhere, and that the Internet, mobile phones and cheap air travel are helping all of us escape old, parochial identities.
The reality is that imbalances of power, wealth and productivity are magnified many more times in our age. One result is that ethnic and religious loyalties, and notions of honor and dignity, have become more seductive than iPhones and elections.
Meanwhile, despots in nation-states such as Iraq and Syria have lost the monopoly of force even within their own territories.
The resulting mayhem won’t be ended by the sole international power that enjoys a global monopoly of force. At best, the U.S. can contain some of the violence, and then only, it turns out, with the help of regional powers — a despised old enemy (Iran) and the erratic successor of the Ottoman Empire (Turkey). Swords unsheathed as a century-old dispensation collapses in the Middle East can’t be alchemized into plowshares anytime soon.
Pankaj Mishra, a Bloomberg View columnist, is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” among other books.