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The Only Thing Worse Than Making Things Up…

October 22, 2010

…is people taking you seriously. And boy, when you start publishing maps and have Condi Rice quote you, people take you seriously.

There was all of this talk of “The New Middle East” back in 2006 back in the United States. It was a heady time for the U.S. establishment: Iraq was not yet a bloodbath, Afghanistan was pretty much forgotten, and “Mission Accomplished” was not a punchline. That was the zeitgeist that made a certain Lt. Col Ralph Peters, ret. produce this:

I remember seeing it at the time and Not Getting it. I remember seeing it on one of the security blogs, either On Violence or Ink Spots, and thinking “wow, that makes no sense, why are people [not the OnV or TdH folks, of course] taking it seriously?” And then just this week it came up in a discussion of Turkish-U.S. relations as “proof” that the Treaty of Sevres is alive and well. Needless to say, its a powerful image in the wrong hands. Strange Maps would be proud. But we need to do some provenance on it.

So who is Ralph Peters, our bold cartographer? He has a wikipedia page which is strangely proud to note his ethnicity. It also mentions his military background and 10 years in military intelligence. He’s pretty much from the America-first, America-always school of thought. Which is cool, I mean, I like America more than any other country, too. But the world has changed, and things like the following can’t really be taken seriously anymore:

We needed to smash our enemies and leave. Had it proved necessary, we could have returned later for another punitive mission. Instead, we fell into the great American fallacy of believing ourselves responsible for helping those who’ve harmed us.

What’s funny is that the “War-is-War“ers have all of their evidence based in the past, not in the current. But I digress…the point is that our cartographer looks at things from an American perspective, proudly displaying his disregard for anyone living on the wrong side of the Atlantic and Pacific. This is our starting point.

Why did he decide to make this map? Mostly because people in intelligence are required to think outside boxes, think of creative solutions. A lot of these solutions are honestly pretty insipid, but the point is just to get the conversation going. They’re not supposed to see the light of day. They’re supposed to be just uniformed versions of the kind of “drinking around a fireplace” form of brainstorming. But this one was selected to see the light of day.

Why? Because man, in 2006 the U.S. was on top of the world. You could legitimately discuss things like “we need to redraw the map unilaterally” and be taken seriously. It was a heady time for intelligence operators, especially old, legacy, dudes who can use their old-war medals to project their new-world theories. It didn’t work very well, but it was a symptom of the time. We wanted to end all of the Middle East issues at once. And, yknow, a map seemed like a decent way to do it.

So in June, 2006, Peters wrote this in the Armed Forces Journal. Like many other intelligence analysts, he loves bombast and is immune to irony. So you delve into Peters’ world with this:

The most arbitrary and distorted borders in the world are in Africa and the Middle East. Drawn by self-interested Europeans (who have had sufficient trouble defining their own frontiers), Africa’s borders continue to provoke the deaths of millions of local inhabitants. But the unjust borders in the Middle East — to borrow from Churchill — generate more trouble than can be consumed locally.

First of all, I love how all of the violence and general heaping piles of sad in South America get ignored by US audiences. Even when we live side-by-side with the refugees of these things. But that’s probably another issue. What I love far more is his denigration of borders drawn by “self-interested Europeans (who have had sufficient trouble defining their own frontiers)” and lack of understanding that he is a self-interested American who probably falls on one side or the other of the current immigration crisis. Like his empire is somehow more selfless then the French’s. Let’s see how long that’ll take to fall.

For Israel to have any hope of living in reasonable peace with its neighbors, it will have to return to its pre-1967 borders — with essential local adjustments for legitimate security concerns

NOBODY IS ARGUING THIS. It’s the “essential local adjustments for legitimate security concerns” that everybody is having trouble understanding.

The most glaring injustice in the notoriously unjust lands between the Balkan Mountains and the Himalayas is the absence of an independent Kurdish state….Worse, Kurds have been oppressed by every government controlling the hills and mountains where they’ve lived since Xenophon’s day

OK, leaving aside the fact that the Kurds have had many decent governments (defined however loosely) in the past 2,500 years [Akkoyunlu were pretty chill. Tamerlane tended to have bigger issues. Salahadin and his empire was actually Kurdish!], I myself have no problem entertaining the concept of a Kurdish state. It’s one of those fun drinking discussions that is fun because I have no actual responsibility. It’s armchair quarterbacking for foreign affairs nerds. But then there’s this:

And by the way: A Free Kurdistan, stretching from Diyarbakir through Tabriz, would be the most pro-Western state between Bulgaria and Japan.

So ok, for one, Tabriz isn’t Kurdish. Azeri, maybe. But not Kurdish. And that whole “we’re not being self-interested” thing? Yeah, well fuck that. Even if it is true (and it’s not: Jordan, Israel, Georgia, Armenia, Kuwait obviously, and probably a few more, too), it’s intellectually dishonest. You’re just proving your another imperialist.

And despite a few other historical gaffes of astounding temerity (“The rise of the Saudis to wealth and, consequently, influence has been the worst thing to happen to the Muslim world as a whole since the time of the Prophet, and the worst thing to happen to Arabs since the Ottoman (if not the Mongol) conquest.” is categorically unprovable and besides, Ottomans were really NOT BAD AT ALL for Arabs. Esp. compared to the Mongol’s rape and pillage of Baghdad and besides, the English and French were no great shakes either which is your thesis, right?) that is basically my point.

This map, this article, are nothing. They are a symptom of their era, 2006 United States, and have nothing to do with the Middle East and nothing to do with anything current-day. Getting upset about this is like getting upset about “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead” or some other vagary of the imperialist age.

This map was made by a fool. A fool who is now unemployed, save for writing books with ugly, ugly, covers. I realize it was only four years ago, but what a four years its been.

If you’re going to get upset about this sort of thing, realize: it would be like me getting upset about Bulent Ecevit’s mismanagement of the economy. If you’re going to cite this map, please only do so in a historical context.

I’m not even going to take my time destroying the map, or asking why Peters has such hatred towards the Arabs he is trying to somehow save (?) and why Kuwait gets off free. It’s just a quaint historical relic. Treat it as such.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 4, 2010 7:00 pm

    First use of “war is war”er off of On V, that’s pretty cool…thanks for the shout out. We tweeted this post as well.

    On the map, we discussed failed states maps, but not this one. I think your assessment is pretty much on the mark.

    anyway, cheers.

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