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"There is still no solution to how to divide the former Ottoman Empire," says Robert Kaplan, whose compelling new book, The Revenge of Geography, raises the possibility that those neat, straight-line borders you see on maps of the region may not be permanent. "We're not sure who will have the power to control which territories, whether you'll have new tribal and sectarian lines. Today's Syria and Iraq, for example, represent separate, age-old agricultural zones, but those borders were never clearly drawn." Indeed, Iraq was a Churchillian fantasy cobbled together from three satrapies of the Ottoman Empire. On the day before the President's U.N. speech, the New York Times reported that Iraq's Sunni minority was finding common cause with Syria's Sunni-majority rebels. Six years ago, long before the carnage, Syria's Bashar Assad told me he was extremely worried that "his" Kurds would break off and join Iraq's semiliberated northern province to form a greater Kurdistan. Who knows how the Kurds in Turkey and Iran would react to such an entity?
This is the real challenge the U.S. faces in the region that stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the Hindu Kush. The problems in Afghanistan have their roots in a line drawn by the British in 1893 that amputates Pashtunistan--like Kurdistan, a coherent region--into Afghan and Pakistani pieces. The patch of sand called Jordan was a gift to Britain's Hashemite allies in World War I. Israel, too, is a figment of the Western imagination, although--contra Ahmadinejad--it does have ancient roots in the region and has transformed itself into one of the world's strongest democracies, a real place, a true nation (as is Iran, by the way).
It would be nice to have a real discussion about these issues, which may define the next era of U.S. foreign policy. Obviously, the presidential campaign is no place to have it. But I thought Romney announced a very promising idea on the morning of Obama's U.N. speech. He proposed "prosperity pacts" that would reach past local governments to assist small-business people and nonprofits working to improve schools and justice systems in these fragile states. For once, Romney's remarks were untainted by the anger and ignorance demanded by his party's base. He spoke knowledgeably about the world while adhering to his conservative principles. He seemed, for a moment, a plausible candidate for President.
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