Fundamentally Freund: Why World War I continues to haunt us

A BBC feature that ran back in February, entitled, “10 interpretations of who started World War I,” clearly shows how unsettled questions about that period continue to command attention and interest.

WWI Australian Army 311 (photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)
WWI Australian Army 311
(photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)
This coming Saturday, June 28, will mark the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, an event that precipitated a cascade of unanticipated developments that finally engulfed Western civilization in the bloody conflict known as World War I.
In coming months, the United States and various European countries will mark the centenary of the start of the war. A slew of tomes designed to disentangle and describe the complicated forces that gave rise to the war have already hit bookstores.
A BBC feature that ran back in February, entitled, “10 interpretations of who started World War I,” clearly shows how unsettled questions about that period continue to command attention and interest.
For most of us, this might seem like little more than a reason to yawn. After all, does a century-old war whose protagonists long ago passed from this earth really matter? The answer, of course, is that it most certainly does, if only because much of the current unrest in the Middle East is a consequence, directly or not, of the terrific clash of Great Powers.
An important lesson for Israel also derives from those long-ago events.
Take, for example, the unraveling of Iraq now occurring. The success of fanatical jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in capturing large swaths of the country threatens to tear the country apart, and points to the likelihood that Iraq will finally split into three regions controlled by Kurds, Sunnis and Shi’ites, respectively.
Iraq as we know it is a modern-day invention. The area now known as Iraq was once part of the Ottoman Empire which reached its peak in the 16th century and declined since, but it was captured by the British in 1917. Under terms of the secret Sykes-Picot agreement between France and Britain (May 1916), Iraq and its borders were arbitrarily chiseled out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire with little thought given to the ethnic make-up of the emerging country.
Britain and France had their eyes on ensuring their own spheres of influence in the region; they couldn’t be bothered to grapple with the long-standing ethnic tensions among disparate indigenous groups.
Iraq now finds itself descending into a sectarian civil war, thanks largely to the short-sightedness and sheer stupidity the British and French displayed at the height of World War I nearly a century ago.
As if to underline the point, ISIS terrorists recently produced a photo series entitled “The Destruction of Sykes-Picot,” which makes clear that they aim for nothing less than to redraw the borders of the Middle East. Reports indicate that the hashtag #SykesPicotOver has recently been trending on Twitter feeds favored by radical jihadists.
Other countries in the region, such as Kuwait, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and their entrenched autocratic systems of government, also trace back to foolhardy decisions made by British and French colonial officials during and after World War I.
Just imagine, for example, how different history would have been had the British not installed the Hashemite Kingdom in Jordan, but created a nascent Palestinian democracy instead. Or what if the British had not created modern Kuwait in 1921 by slicing it off of Iraq, giving Saddam Hussein an excuse to invade nearly seven decades later? Clearly, the consequences of World War I continue to haunt the Middle East. The conflict deemed “the war to end all wars” at the time has in fact turned into “the war that continues to spur endless war.”
Nonetheless, the West does not seem to have learned any lesson from attempts to redraw Middle Eastern borders in a heavy-handed fashion.
Decision-makers from Washington to London to Paris continue to press Israel to put a pen to paper to redraw its boundaries, showing virtually no concern for the biblical, historical, moral and security reasons justifying the Jewish state’s control over areas such as Judea and Samaria.
They may not be driven by the colonialism of a century ago, but the Western powers risk making a critical mistake once more, the price for which will inevitably fall on those living in the region.
By trying to compel Israel to acquiesce to the establishment of a Palestinian state, which we know will be repressive, unstable and prone to violence, the West is simply repeating the error of their forebears, who attempted to purchase short-term political gain at the expense of long-term strategic interest.
So, rather than falling into a deep slumber at the mention of World War I, let’s learn a most valuable and timely lesson from it instead: sometimes, even Great Powers simply get it wrong.