Nasr: Sectarian violence in Iraq can be traced to 'arbitrary boundaries' drawn after WWI

The ongoing sectarian strife in Iraq that recently prompted U.S. military intervention can be traced to "arbitrary boundaries" drawn nearly 100 years ago by European diplomats, writes Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., in an op-ed published in The New York Times over the weekend.

In his article, "Crisis a Century in the Making," Nasr contends that the maps of the Arab world formalized after World War I "left these new Arab states open to perpetual internal clashes based on rivalries among tribes and religious sects," like the current upheaval in Iraq.

America's tentative return to the battlefields of Iraq, however reminiscent it is of unfinished American business there, is also a deadly reminder that the Arab world is still trying to sort out the unfinished business of the Ottoman Empire, a century after it collapsed.

After World War I, the region's Arabs were not allowed a proper foundation on which to build stable, functional nations. And in more recent decades, they have been largely unsuccessful in doing so on their own.

Those painful facts are most obvious now in Iraq, where sectarianism has been undoing all of America's past efforts to forcibly plant a pluralistic democracy in soil made arid by longstanding grievances, inequities, tribal identities and violence.

These tribal and sectarian differences have bubbled to the surface, says Nasr—a Middle East scholar and the author of seven books, including his 2013 release, "Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat"—in the wake of the failure of Arab Spring, giving rise to the Islamist State in Syria, northern Iraq, and elsewhere.

"For most of the last century, this tension was kept at bay by dictatorship, in a regional order most recently backed by the United States," Nasr writes. "But now, both Arab dictatorship and the order that sustained it have lost their moorings—first because of America's state-shattering in Iraq, and then because of popular rebellions. Now the whole post-World War I regional order has come under question from extremists who blend Islam with populism, nationalism and anti-imperialism. The West and its Arab allies are merely playing catch-up, and not very well."

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