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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Democracy and Self-Determination

Imagine the world in 1776. Rather than the history we have come to know, a foreign country imposes arbitrary boundaries around a fledgling conception of the United States of America to serve its own purposes. The European white settlers, imported African slaves and indigenous local native American Indian population are not consulted. They are thrown together in a haphazard arrangement of mercantile expediency, told they are a nation and admonished to get along as equals.

Democracy is self-rule, freedom in its purest collective sense. Self-determination is a process by which a country determines its own statehood and forms its own allegiances and government. Individually, it is a process by which a person controls their own life.

If only democracy were to be so simple.  Perhaps once upon a time it was simple.  But, today, when one nation’s economic “foreign policy” interests clash with a people’s right to self-determination in some other place, near or far, it gets complicated.

A New York Times editorial flashes across the screen with the nebulous title, Iraq’s Cycles of Revenge. Laying out the peoples and interests which comprise present day Iraq, the piece paints a worrisome picture of chronic behavior which is difficult to modify. Unfortunately, the piece merely scratches the surface of what may really be going on there.

For a better view, one need go back at least a hundred years. If it were only to be about democracy and self-determination, as President Wilson had envisioned at the Palace of Versailles peace table, to settle the differences which remained (among Western powers) at the end of World War I.

Long planned by Great Britain and France from the early days of World War I, the balance of the former Ottoman Empire was “partitioned.” Though not completed at Versailles, the partitioning facilitated the creation of the modern Arab World. The League of Nations then-governing world body granted the United Kingdom mandates over Mesopotamia and Palestine and Jordan. Out of the former, the nation of Iraq was conceived.

The British navy’s conversion to oil during World War I had provided the critical military advantage over its German rival, which was still using coal.  Consequently, absent its own domestic source of oil, Great Britain’s “Mandate for Iraq” was, purely and simply, a plan to implement a foreign policy initiative whose goal was to secure a safe, abundant domestic oil supply.  First and foremost, the oil would be used to power the royal navy in continued military domination of world shipping lanes.

The administration of the plan facilitated a secure supply of Arabian oil over land to Western EuropeBritain identified the lines of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers as the most favorable supply routes from the cities of Mosul and BasraBritain then struck upon a set of arbitrary lines around the physical arrangement, through which it could administer both efficiently and productively, and called it “Iraq.”

Suffice to say the local inhabitants were not consulted.  Consequently, it mattered little to Britain that the new nation would have a Shiite Muslim population in the south and east, Sunni Muslims in the west, and the nomadic Kurds in the north.  The latter group also had a significant population north of the arbitrary border, in southern Turkey.  As between the Shiites and the Sunnis, the Sunnis (Saddam Hussein’s people) were the decided minority, so Britain decided to arm and provide them with the local ruling authority under the mandate.  Some called it “nation building 101.”

These three disparate groups had little in common otherwise, with claims of Holy War made as early as 1920, when Muslim leaders began to organize an insurgent effort.  A fatwa (religious ruling) was then issued, which pointed out that it was against Islamic law for Muslims to countenance being ruled by non-Muslims.  Muslim leaders thereafter called for a jihad (holy war) against the British.  Following World War II, with the torch of leadership of Western Civilization effectively passing from the British to the Americans, the phenomenon of Iraq officially became “our” problem.

In the aftermath following the toppling of its former dictator in 2003, the idea of an “Iraqi revolution” seems absurd, given the arbitrary nature of Iraq.  Let’s face reality: The indigenous population is no more “Iraqi” than we Americans are from Mars.

If it is about American core values of democracy and promoting human rights, what part do national energy security and our economic dependence on the commodity of oil play?  Are stewardship of the environment and the common duty to pay forward for future generations primary considerations?  How vital are American core values of equal protection of the laws coupled with freedom of worship as against thorny moral issues of race, color, creed and gender distinctions?  What is the relative importance of countering extremism, regardless of cause?

Above all, what part is to be played by ordinary citizens?  Who is to serve as our guide?

-Michael D’Angelo