Divide-and-rule — not the borders — is the imperial scar that still afflicts the Middle East

Nick Danforth writes: “There’s nothing the Arab respects more, John, than a strong steady white hand drawing arbitrary lines betwixt there ridiculous tribal allegiances,” John Oliver said recently while dressed as a 19th-century British explorer.

[Daily Show clip preceded by 30-second commercial.]

Recently the Daily Show joined the growing consensus of commentators declaring that arbitrary, carelessly drawn imperial borders are to blame for all that’s wrong with the Middle East today. In doing so, they demonstrated that it’s easy to be incredibly funny and dangerously wrong at the same time. There’s plenty to criticize about the legacy of colonialism, but dwelling on colonial borders only increases the risk that our future interventions in the region will further undermine its already fragile states.

The idea that better borders, drawn with careful attention to the region’s ethnic and religious diversity, would have spared the Middle East a century’s worth of violence is especially provocative at a moment when Western powers weigh the merits of intervention in the region. Unfortunately, this critique overstates how arbitrary today’s Middle East borders really are, overlooks how arbitrary every other border in the world is, implies that better borders were possible, and ignores the cynical imperial practices that actually did sow conflict in the region. [Continue reading…]

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