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The Danger of Analogical Myths: Explaining the Power and Consequences of the Sykes-Picot Delusion

  • Toby Dodge (a1)

Extract

Even before its hundredth year anniversary on 16 May 2016, the Sykes-Picot agreement had become a widely cited historical analogy both in the region itself and in Europe and the United States. In the Middle East, it is frequently deployed as an infamous example of European imperial betrayal and Western attempts more generally to keep the region divided, in conflict, and easy to dominate. In Europe and the United States, however, its role as a historical analogy is more complex—a shorthand for understanding the Middle East as irrevocably divided into mutually hostile sects and clans, destined to be mired in conflict until another external intervention imposes a new, more authentic, set of political units on the region to replace the postcolonial states left in the wake of WWI. What is notable about both these uses of the Sykes-Picot agreement is that they fundamentally misread, and thus overstate, its historical significance. The agreement reached by the British diplomat Mark Sykes and his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot, in May 1916, quickly became irrelevant as the realities on the ground in the Middle East, U.S. intervention into the war, a resurgent Turkey and the comparative weakness of the French and British states transformed international relations at the end of the First World War. Against this historical background, explaining the contemporary power of the narrative surrounding the use of the Sykes-Picot agreement becomes more intellectually interesting than its minor role in the history of European imperial interventions in the Middle East.

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References

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1 Mezzofiore, Gianluca, Iraq Isis Crisis: Is This the End of Sykes-Picot?, Int’l Bus. Times (June 30, 2014, 3:54 PM).

2 See Jumblatt presents Nasrallah with Sykes-Picot book, The Daily Star Lebanon (July 29, 2014, 2:36 PM) and Fisk, Robert, The old partition of the Middle East is dead. I dread to think what will follow, Independent (June 13, 2014).

3 See, e.g., Vali R. Nasr, A Crisis a Century in the Making, Int’l N.Y. Times, (Aug. 10, 2014) and Ashdown, Paddy, Western intervention over Isis won’t prevent the break-up of Iraq, The Guardian, (Aug. 14, 2014 , 5:41 PM).

4 Wright, Robin, Imagining a Remapped Middle East, Int’l N.Y. Times Sunday Rev., (Sep. 28, 2013) and Wright, Robin, How the Curse of Sykes-Picot Still Haunts the Middle East, The New Yorker, (Apr. 30, 2016).

5 James Barr, Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that shaped the middle east (2011).

6 Id. at chapter 2.

7 See Toby Dodge, Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied 5-41 (2003).

8 Quoted in id. at 13.

9 Rosati, Jerel A., The Power of Human Cognition in the Study of World Politics, 2 Int’l Stud. Rev. 45, 5156 (Autumn, 2000).

10 See Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu and Vietnam Decisions of 1965 10-13 (1992).

11 For a short account of this argument see Gelb, Leslie H., The Three-State Solution, Int’l N.Y. Times, (Nov. 25, 2003) and Gelb, Leslie H., Divide Iraq into three states, Int’l Herald Tribune, Nov. 26, 2004 . Peter W. Galbraith develops the argument at greater length in Galbraith, Peter W., How to get out of Iraq, N.Y. Rev. Books (May 13, 2004) and Peter W. Galbraith, the End of Iraq: How Amer Ican Incompetence Created A War Without End (2006). For the policy proscriptions that arise from this approach see Joseph R. Biden Jr., & Leslie H. Gelb, Unity Through Autonomy in Iraq, Int’l N.Y. Times (May 1, 2006).

12 Ashdown, supra note 3, and Nasr, supra note 3.

13 See Amatzia Baram, Culture, History and Ideology in the Formation of Ba’Thist Iraq, 1968-89 (1991) and Eric Davis, Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq (2005).

14 Pierre Bourdieu & Loic J. D. Wacquant, An Invitation To Reflexive Sociology 97, 101, 104 (1992) and Bourdieu, Pierre, The political field, the social field and the journalistic field, in Bourdieu and the Journalistic Field 30 (Benson, Rodney & Neveu, Erik eds., 2005). On this concept’s application to Iraq, see Sami Zubaida, Islam, the People and the State: Political Ideas and Movements in the Middle East 145-150 (1989), Zubaida, Samit, Community, class and minorities in Iraqi politics, in the Iraqi Revolution of 1958. The Old Social Classes Revisited 207 (Fernea, Robert A. & Louis, Wm. Roger eds., 1991).

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The Danger of Analogical Myths: Explaining the Power and Consequences of the Sykes-Picot Delusion

  • Toby Dodge (a1)

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