It has become common currency among the punditocracy that the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire has unleashed a century of strife on the Middle East, the implication being the victorious Entente powers made a terrible misjudgement when dismembering it following World War One.  I disagree fundamentally with this line of reasoning. If we are supposed to learn from history, such an endeavour is made harder by sloppy revisionism.

The American classical historian Lewis H. Lapham suggested that others of his profession ‘tend to prefer the solemn calm of empires to the crowd noises of the unruly provinces,’ noting also that: ‘[A] similar prejudice informs the writing of the contemporary diplomats and foreign policy analysts who mourn the absence of “transnational institutions” capable of managing the world’s affairs with the sang-froid of the old Roman empire [sic].’  The same applies to our conceptions of the Ottoman Empire.  The arc of instability may stretch through what was Ottoman Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia but that doesn’t mean the Sublime Porte would have done any better at governing these places – and, for that matter, for how long was the Ottoman Empire supposed to survive?  Forever?

The Ottoman polity was every bit as brutal as the Roman imperium it sought to emulate, except what was acceptable in A.D. 1 or A.D. 1,000 was offensive to Western sensibilities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  The Eastern Roman Emperor (or Basileus) Basil II may have got the name of the ‘Bulgar-Slayer’ for his horrendous treatment of a defeated Bulgar army in 1014, but Turks slaughtering recalcitrant Bulgarians in the 1870s prompted a Russian invasion and the sympathy of the British public for the ‘poor Bulgarians’, until Disraeli won his countrymen round to a Russophobic position again. However, while the likes of Julius Caesar may have carried out something equivalent to genocide in building Rome’s greatness, the ‘Bulgarian Atrocities’ were emblematic of Ottoman weakness.  Between 1805 and 1882, Istanbul lost 40 per cent of its territory. Fearful of the influence of non-Turkish groups in the shrunken realm, the rulers acquiesced in a series of pogroms against Armenians, with possibly hundreds of thousands dying in 1895-6.

Labelled ‘the sick man of Europe’, by 1875 the state became virtually bankrupt; after Sultan Abdul-Aziz agreed to supervision of his treasury by European bankers in 1881, it was dependent on foreign governments who preferred a decrepit entity to, as Professor Geoffrey Parker phrases it, ‘the dangerous power vacuum that would follow Turkish collapse.’  This implies the Middle East embarking on its current internecine patterns forty years earlier than what transpired. However, as Realists would say, it boils down to ‘vital interests’.  The power vacuum would be dangerous not from what would emerge but from the scramble of the leading imperial powers to secure their own positions – through resources, defensible land and prestige – against the others.  The probability of such a mad dash to set off a major conflagration is all too obvious.  An enfeebled Ottoman polity kept each power in check as a form of buffer zone.  Witness the Russian fury in 1908 at the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina without any slice of the cake allotted for Moscow.  This humiliation led to World War One as revolution in Russia might well have come in 1914 had Tsar Nicholas II stood by and let the same thing happen to Serbia.

Also in 1908, a nationalistic backlash throughout the Ottoman provinces led to the ‘Young Turks’ coming to power. Despite their opposition to any further surrender of territory, between 1908 and 1913, the empire lost 30 per cent of its remaining possessions.  Their nationalistic antagonism led to a further massacre of up to 30,000 Armenians at Adana in 1909 and then the ‘administrative holocaust’ (as Churchill put it) of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915-16, helped by Kurdish militia whose peshmerga descendants are also struggling against the Islamic State today.  The Arabs were most displeased with the aggressive Turkishness too and were about to revolt before the Great War gave them the ideal opportunity to realise this.

So there we have it.  Armchair analysts who say that the termination of the Ottoman Empire was a mistake know nothing of it and little about the thirty years that followed it, preferring to focus on the cataclysms that followed World War Two, following the retreat of the empire – but whose imperium was diminished?  That of the maligned British and French.  The panjandrums who seek to lecture the public, lament the dismantling of a failed state whose remaining method of governing was through ferocious slaughter of ethnic minorities yet their academic indoctrination as to the evils of Western empires blinds them to the fact that strife followed the Western departure (bar terrorism from a few fanatical Jewish groups that were unrepresentative of Jews, just as Hamas is unrepresentative of Palestinians).  If they bewail imperium, they should do so for the British and French empires.  A similar argument to the Ottoman Preservation Theory used to be offered up as to the proliferation of strongmen in the region – that Arabs were incapable of democracy and needed a firm hand to guide them.  This latter idea is rightly denounced as racism.

So why this position?  Two words or rather names – Sykes-Picot, that perfidious arrangement in 1917 to divide up Ottoman possessions in Arabia after World War One. This agreement is termed ‘bad’ for three reasons: (i) T.E. Lawrence saw it as a betrayal of the Arab allies to have an overarching Arab state and excoriated the agreement as such (though he was later reconciled after the ‘independence’ of Iraq); (ii) the Arab street that talks to gullible Western correspondents seek victimhood as an excuse for the failure of their leaders to build adequate institutions (not dissimilar to the Serbian national mythos emphasising a martyr mentality with the defeat at the 1389 Battle of Kosovo and everything after that); and (iii) the Anglo-Saxon establishment discourse that finds Western empire-building as a betrayal of its values (rather than a naturally occurring historical phenomenon) – certainly the French are more realistic and less squeamish.  The unrepresentative borders also come in for criticism but when much of it runs across desert it is far less destabilising than those in Africa (and the majority of African states seem somehow to cope).  Many European borders in 1919 were not representative either, but bar the interlude of fascist aggrandisement which sought to rip up everything, there was no conflagration among the new nations until 1991 and that was the state where the dead hand of Moscow did not stifle nationalistic animus in the Cold War and enjoyed relative freedom. Yugoslavia did not have the institutions to keep megalomaniacs in check and so Slobodan Milošević and Franjo Tuđman made hay in emphasising sectarian differences.

To recap, the Ottoman Empire would have crumbled sooner or later anyway but in its death throes it employed barbaric measures to suppress ‘suspect’ ethnicities – its passing should not be mourned. The Sykes-Picot pact may have brought profit to their respective metropoles but it was no worse than contemporaneous map redrawing, where for the large part elsewhere there has been no subsequent equivalent strife on a scale (if at all) comparable to that in the Middle East; and if we are to grieve about the disappearance of ‘the solemn calm of empires’, that attention should be reserved for Britain and France whose removal from the scene no longer kept passions in check by and large.

Although I have a respect for vibrant countries establishing their own identities.  Iraq may be an ahistorical polyglot construction but so was the United Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707.  Iraqis have had ninety years to build ‘Iraqi-ness’ and they do identify as such.  Subsequent Western interventions since the official departure of the British and the French have messed up the Middle East (e.g., the lack of an Ottoman Empire had no bearing on the American/British coup that overthrew the elected Mohammad Mosaddeq of Iran in 1953) but still we are resistant to the pottery barn analogy – you break it, you own it.