Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Monday, May 16, 2016

A Cornucopia of Sykes-Picot Counterfactuals

Yesterday's New York Times included an interesting article, "Could Different Borders Have Saved the Middle East?" that contains many "what ifs?" pertaining to the Anglo-French division of the Middle East during World War I. 



The Sykes-Picot Agreement is currently marking its 100th anniversary and has long been derided as having laid the groundwork of much of the contemporary Middle East's political dysfunction.  According to generations of scholars, the Agreement drew arbitrary political boundaries that corresponded only imperfectly with the region's ethnic and sectarian realities.

The implication is that without the Agreement, history would have turned out better.

But would it have?

In a perfect illustration of good counterfactual methodology, the Times articles explores alternate proposals for dividing up the region in order to show how things would have, well, turned out more or less the same.  As the article puts in (in a deterministic counterfactual): “whatever problems those schemes have caused, the alternative ideas for dividing up the region probably weren’t much better. Creating countries out of diverse territories is a violent, imperfect process.”

To cite one concrete example:



In March 1920, Faisal bin Hussein, who led the Arab armies in their British-supported revolt against the Ottomans during World War I, became the leader of the independent Arab Kingdom of Syria, based in Damascus. His ambitious borders stretched across modern-day Syria, Jordan, Israel and parts of Turkey. (But not Iraq.)

Would Faisal’s map have been an authentic alternative to the externally imposed borders that came in the end? We’ll never know. The French, who opposed his plan, defeated his army in July.  But even if they hadn’t, Faisal’s territorial claims would have put him in direct conflict with Maronite Christians pushing for independence in what is today Lebanon, with Jewish settlers who had begun their Zionist project in Palestine, and with Turkish nationalists who sought to unite Anatolia.”

An equally interesting example is an American plan from 1919. In that year, “President Woodrow Wilson sent a delegation to devise a better way to divide the region. Henry King, a theologian, and Charles Crane, an industrialist, conducted hundreds of interviews in order to prepare a map in accordance with the ideal of national self-determination.”



“Was this a missed opportunity to draw the region’s “real” borders? Doubtful. After careful study, King and Crane realized how difficult the task was: They split the difference between making Lebanon independent or making it part of Syria with a proposal for “limited autonomy.” They thought the Kurds might be best off incorporated into Iraq or even Turkey. And they were certain that Sunnis and Shiites belonged together in a unified Iraq. In the end, the French and British ignored the recommendations.”

And then my favorite part of the entire article:

“If only they had listened, things might have turned out more or less the same.”

This concluding sentence perfectly illustrates what happens when you cross a “missed opportunity counterfactual” with a “deterministic counterfactual.”

The punch line is not particularly funny, but that does not make it any less true. It epitomizes what happens when an idealist is mugged by a realist.  

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Case of Gregor Mendel as a "Silver Lining Counterfactual"

I’m still bogged down writing about the Fourth Reich, but I thought I would make a passing reference to the latest instance of a journalist using a counterfactual as a “hook” to grab readers’ attention.

In her recent New York Times review of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book, The Gene: An Intimate History, Jennifer Senior writes:

“Thank heavens Gregor Mendel was a lousy priest. Had he shown even the faintest aptitude for oratory or ministering to the poor, he might never have determined the basic laws of heredity. But bumbling he was, and he made a rotten university student to boot; his failures drove him straight to his room, where he bred mice in secret. The experiment scandalized his superiors.”


 “A monk coaxing mice to mate to understand heredity was a little too risqué, even for the Augustinians,” writes Siddhartha Mukherjee in “The Gene: An Intimate History.” So Mendel switched — auspiciously, historically — to pea plants. The abbot in charge, writes the author, acquiesced this time, “giving peas a chance.”

Senior’s reference can be seen as a “silver lining counterfactual,” a “what if?” scenario that allows us to see how the seeds of success can lie latently within failure.  I will keep my eye out for other examples of how important historical figures might never have arrived at their subsequent achievements had they not first endured initial setbacks.