Foreign Policy Blogs

Mesopotamia at Versailles

World Political Leaders after Signing Treaty of Versailles

This year, the centenary of the start of World War I, has seen reexaminations of its immediate causes. Reexamination of the historic peace attempted at its conclusion, however, is even more relevant to the current crises in foreign policy. The Versailles Peace Conference was an effort by the victors — led by the U.S. — to reset national borders in a manner that acknowledged sovereignty for (some) previously subject peoples. Above all, however, it aimed to perpetuate stability at the end of an age of empires. In the process of assessing cases for national self-determination, some regions not well understood remained so; in part because they were deemed not worthy of close consideration. Other regions were seen to have emerging significance. But even an acknowledged lack of understanding of them among the powers guiding the conference did not hinder those powers from making sweeping decisions about their future. The discussion of Mesopotamia at the conference, particularly timely given Iraq’s history over the past decade, fits this latter category.

In her 2001 history of the Paris Peace Conference, Paris 1919, Margaret MacMillan recounts in detail a discussion of Mesopotamia at the conference that is worth quoting at length. “Mesopotamia,” MacMillan writes, “the term the British used loosely to refer to the old Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra — had scarcely been mentioned at the conference except as a possible mandate to be held, everyone assumed, by Britain.” Nascent recognition of the region’s oil reserves drove British interest in the region. MacMillan points to the certainty with which its post-World War I British governor, Arnold Wilson, viewed the way it should be governed, and dangers within his assumptions reverberate today:

“Wilson had firm ideas about how the area should be ruled. ‘Basra, Bagdhad, and Mosul should be regarded as a single unit for administrative purposes and under effective British control.’ It never seems to have occurred to him that a single unit did not make much sense in other ways. In 1919 there were no Iraqi people; history, religion, geography pulled the people apart, not together. Basra looked south, toward India and the Gulf; Baghdad had strong links with Persia; and Mosul had closer ties with Turkey and Syria. Putting together the three Ottoman provinces and expecting to create a nation was, in European terms, like hoping to have Bosnian Muslims, Croats, and Serbs make one country. As in the Balkans, the clash of empires and civilizations had left deep fissures…The cities were relatively advanced and cosmopolitan; in the countryside, hereditary tribal and religious leaders still dominated. There was no Iraqi nationalism, only Arab.”

MacMillan’s Paris 1919 was released before the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Since then, much has been written about Saddam Hussein’s brutality as the only force that held Iraq together prior to the U.S. invasion, the Bush administration’s overestimation of “Iraqi nationalism” and underestimation of the power and conflicting ambitions of Iraq’s tribal and sectarian leaders. The passage from MacMillan’s book quoted above provides a less acknowledged corollary to these attempts to explain the country’s continuing troubles: that the borders of Iraq are a Western creation. As such, they hold far more significance to the U.S. and the West than to the region. In effect, the West counts on Iraqi nationalism — which in MacMillan’s analysis is little more than half of a century old — to trump the regional and sectarian identities that have defined the region’s history for centuries.

Vice President (then Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair)  Joe Biden’s 2006 plan for Iraq, which allowed Sunni, Shia and Kurd groups to govern separate, autonomous regions with a central government based in Baghdad, was the clearest acknowledgment from a senior government official since U.S. involvement in Iraq that in part its ongoing problems were tied to its Western-imposed borders. Biden based his plan on the Dayton Agreement that ended the war in Bosnia. This echoes, darkly, the parallel that MacMillan draws between both Mesopotamia and the Balkans, with “the class of empires and civilizations” leaving “deep fissures” in both regions.

The Biden Plan acknowledged that the West’s historical responsibility for Iraq’s borders. There are plenty of grounds for disagreement with American policy towards Iraq — the 2003 invasion was only the most prominent of decades of U.S. actions toward the country — and the ways in which those policies were carried out. Reviewing history, however, it is more difficult to argue that America and the Western powers have no connection to the affairs of Iraq and other countries they had a role in creating. The connection began when the borders were drawn. Logically and ethically, Western powers have an ongoing responsibility to help make them work peaceably.



Michael Crowley

Mike Crowley received his MA with distinction from The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in American Foreign Policy and European Studies in 2003 and his MFA in Classical Acting from The Shakespeare Theatre Company/George Washington University in 2016. He has worked at the Center for Strategic International Studies, Akin Gump, and The Pew Charitable Trusts. He's an actor working in Washington, DC and a volunteer at the National Gallery of Art, and he looks for ways to work both into his blog occasionally.