Decisions have consequences, as the ongoing Iraq conflict illustrates. The current unrest there has its roots in decisions made more than eighty years ago.
In 1919, global leaders gathered in Paris to decide how to divide up the earth after end of World War 1. University of Toronto historian Margaret MacMillan tells their captivating story in her critically acclaimed bestseller, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World.
The cast of characters in this drama was diverse. The Big Three were leaders of the principal Allied nations: U.S. president Woodrow Wilson and the prime ministers of France and England, Georges Clemenceau and David Lloyd George. Joining them was a vast array of "statesmen, diplomats, bankers, soldiers, professors, economists and lawyers from all corners of the world."
Lawrence of Arabia was there, the mysterious English scholar and soldier wrapped in Arab robes and promoting the Arab cause. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, not yet leaders of their governments, played supporting roles. A young Asian man who worked in the kitchen at the Paris Ritz asked the peacemakers to grant independence from France for his tiny nation. Ho Chi Minh - and Vietnam - got no reply.
Wilson, Clemenceau and Lloyd George considered exhausting appeals for land and power from people around the globe. At times, they found themselves crawling across a large map spread out on the floor to investigate and determine boundaries. The challenges were immense. Clemenceau told a colleague, "It is much easier to make war than peace." Consider just one of their many decisions that still influences headlines today.
Eminent British historian Arnold Toynbee, who advised the British delegation in Paris, told of delivering some papers to his prime minister. To Toynbee's delight, Lloyd George forgot Toynbee was present and began to think out loud. "Mesopotamia," mused Lloyd George, " yes oil irrigation we must have Mesopotamia."
"Mesopotamia" referred to three Middle Eastern provinces that had been part of the collapsed Ottoman Empire: Mosul in the north, Basra in the south, and Baghdad in the middle. (Is this beginning to sound familiar?) Oil was a major concern. For a while back then, no one was sure if Mesopotamia had much oil. Clues emerged when the ground around Baghdad seeped pools of black sludge.
Mesopotamia's British governor argued that the British, largely for strategic security reasons, should control Mosul, Basra and Baghdad as a single administrative unit. But the three provinces had little in common. MacMillan notes, "In 1919 there was no Iraqi people; history, religion; geography pulled the people apart, not together." Kurds and Persians chafed under Arabs. Shia Muslims resented Sunni Muslims. (Now is this sounding familiar?)
Eventually geopolitical realities prompted a deal. In 1920, the Brits claimed a mandate for Mesopotamia and the French one for Syria. Rebellion broke out in Mesopotamia. Rebels cut train lines, attacked towns and murdered British officers. In 1921, England agreed to a king for Mesopotamia. Iraq was born. In 1932, it became independent.
Iraq still boils with religious, ethnic and cultural dissent. Certainly many decisions in intervening years have affected this hotspot, but seeds of conflict were sown in Paris in 1919.
Decisions have consequences. "You will always reap what you sow!" exclaimed one biblical writer. This applies to nations and individuals. We all face decisions about what food to eat, career to pursue, faith to follow and life partner to select. National leaders face choices - many now concerning Iraq - involving war, peace, security and the economy. Eighty years from now, how will history view their decisions?
Rusty Wright is an author and university lecturer with Probe.org who has spoken on six continents.
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