The States

400 years ago the emerging states of Europe faced a problem. They had just been through nearly a half century of continuous war being fought with ever more deadly weapons, war everywhere and without end. To bring an end to that situation they created a fiction: the Westphalian state. Under this fiction states were distinct, equal, and sovereign which means that they had borders and were responsible for what went on within them and should be left alone within them as long as they did the same. The plan though flawed and imperfect succeeded. It didn’t completely end wars but it ended war without boundaries or end.

Over the last century we have been undermining that fiction in innumerable ways including extraterritorial governmental agencies, breaches of the sovereignty of states, and treating non-states as though they were states.

There remain large portions of the globe that have never bought into the Westphalian system, notably large swathes from the Bosporus to the Hindu Kush, a similar and related swathe in North Africa, and large portions of the African continent. That is the context for Patrick Smith’s jeremiad over the situation in the Middle East:

The ISIS goal of reestablishing a caliphate is a declaration that it intends to send the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Anglo-French pact that led to the formation of modern Iraq and Syria, into history. Does the administration understand that in favoring the Kurds over the unity effort in Baghdad it risks encouraging the breakup of a nation?Obama cannot be blamed for all of the mess before us. When American pilots are bombing an insurgency firing American weapons and driving American vehicles, it is a reminder that things started long before he took office.But wasting time in Syria that could have been spent on a political solution, and reading Iraq wrong since American troops were ordered home three years ago—these mistakes are Obama’s and have worsened the crisis considerably.

I would add that the president’s “drone war” has contributed his own special touch to the decline of conditions bolstering states, a decline that has allowed this new “caliphate” to flourish. Among presidents only George Washington did not inherit lamentable policies from his predecessors. Bill Clinton inherited a “no fly zone” over Iraq from George H. W. Bush. George W. Bush inherited troops stationed in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of the key factors leading to the attack on 9/11/2001 from his.

President Obama has characterized the linchpin of his administration’s foreign policy as “don’t do stupid stuff” (presumably paraphrased). Refusing to acknowledge the world as it is and taking a mugwump attitude towards the Middle East is stupid stuff.

11 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    To the best of my knowledge, there was no drone war going on in Syria or Iraq before IS went to Iraq. Taking a minimalist approach to the current mess in Iraq is just fine with me. A prolonged occupation and training and arming Iraqi troops was not enough to stop the current crisis from happening. If some air support can help and if the Kurds/Iraqis are willing to fight, that should be sufficient. If not, they will need to get used to beheadings.


  • To the best of my knowledge, there was no drone war going on in Syria or Iraq before IS went to Iraq.

    And none in Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia? ISIS’s reach is wider than I thought.

  • steve Link

    The drone war in Pakistan et al fostered the IS attacks in Syria and Iraq? Not sure I really buy that. I read Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerrilla a few years ago, and I do believe that the deaths we refer to as collateral damage do contribute to the making of new insurgents/jihadists, but those are mostly local effects. The real fighting force that IS puts on the field consists of former Saddam military and disgruntled Sunnis excluded by Maliki from governance and recently attacked by Maliki. I don’t think they are fighting because we droned some guys in Yemen.


  • Go back and read what I wrote, steve.

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