Blood Borders

Ralph Peters: Thinking the Unthinkable?

Ralph Peters’s “Blood Borders: How a Better Middle East Would Look” is more than a troubling and provocative work. The article and the controversies surrounding it illustrate the central paradox of contemporary geopolitical discourse: as malformed as existing borders may be, mere talk about changing them can be harmful. Peters prods us to “think the unthinkable,” but to write the unthinkable is to provoke fast fury abroad.

For all of Peters’s miscues, many of his core ideas are sound. His initial assertion – that misplaced boundaries often generate injustice and strife – is spot on. And he is right to point out that the foreign policy establishment refuses to acknowledge the violence engendered by geopolitical misalignment for fear of opening a Pandora’s Box of separatist demands. Because of that fear, any suggestions for alternative arrangements tend to be dismissed out of hand. Such a stance, Peters argues, is intellectually dishonest. New countries sometimes do appear on the map without ruffling the international order. Think of Montenegro, 2006. Such neophyte states must, however, come into being through the channels of global diplomacy if they want international recognition. Should they emerge on their own, their existence will be denied by the powers that be. In this way the system of international diplomacy that Peters mocks can indeed become a masquerade. Grant diplomatic recognition to Somaliland, the only effectively administered territory in the bedlam called Somalia? Impossibly destabilizing: surely anarchy would be loosed across the Horn of Africa!

The existing geopolitical framework—the division of the world into recognized sovereign countries—is indeed, in many areas, an unwholesome mess. Misplaced boundaries, stateless nations, and nationless states spawn perennial violence or repression. Iraq does not mend, regardless of the lives lost and the monies squandered. But if Iraq is, as Peters argues, “a Frankenstein’s monster of a state sewn together from ill-fitting parts,” does his conclusion necessarily follow: that Iraq should therefore be divided in three? That is a different question altogether. But even if the answer is a firm “no,” surely one would allow that the case for partition can at least be made. Should we not question poorly functioning structures, asking how they might be improved? Might curiosity not lead us to entertain alternative schemes of geo-division? Aren’t scholars, if not diplomats, almost duty-bound to “think the unthinkable” when confronting a quandary like Iraq?

Yet almost any suggestion for changing a particular geopolitical structure will generate troubles of its own. However problematic they may be for the larger society around them, all existing state boundaries serve one or more interest groups, which are bound to fight change. Moreover, modifying geopolitical structures to resolve one ethno-national dispute often spawns another. Hitherto stateless nations gaining sovereignty frequently find their own minority groups pining for independence or union with another state, as happened with the Serbs in Kosovo. There are good reasons, in other words, for deeming certain ideas unthinkable.

Going beyond merely imagining geopolitical restructuring to actually advocating it raises the stakes, especially when such recommendations come from a former U.S. military intelligence officer. For Ralph Peters to remap the polities of the Middle East was a perilous undertaking. The publication of “Blood Borders” intensified anti-American sentiments across the greater Middle East, especially in Turkey. Telling the Turks that justice demands ceding a quarter of their country to Kurdistan was bound to rouse fury. According to one poll, Turkey—a NATO ally traditionally known for its Western orientation—is now one of the most anti-American countries in the world. Only 12 percent of Turks reportedly maintain favorable views of the United States—a figure below even than that of Pakistan, another ostensible U.S. ally that Peters would seek to dismember.

Yet as Ralph Peters reminds us, borders do change and new countries do appear, regardless of what diplomats want and are willing to acknowledge. The world political map seemed stable enough in 1990, but how many new countries have emerged since then? The number is 26, higher than most people realize. In addition to the fifteen republics that gained independence with the breakup of the Soviet Union, seven new countries appeared in the space of the former Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia gave rise to two, Eritrea split from Ethiopia, and East Timor hived off from Indonesia. Countries also disappear occasionally; South Yemen, for instance, was annexed by Yemen in 1990 (although many South Yemenis seek its rebirth). In all probability, the official map will continue to change; next year may see the birth of Southern Sudan. But any changes that will occur will likely be piecemeal and gradual, worked out not by audacious scholars ready to redraw the map at one stroke but by cautious government officials, persistent separatist leaders, and wary international diplomats, negotiating on a case-by-case basis. Wholesale restructuring of the kind envisaged by Peters is a pipedream. As the response to his thought-experiment has shown, imagining alternative geographies may be a useful exercise, but trumpeting any single alternative as a blueprint for change is something else altogether.

Next week we will examine Somaliland, the real but unmapped country that exists within the unreal but mapped country of Somalia. But first we must take one more look at the Iranian-Azeri issue that initiated this discussion of Ralph Peters. Why do Iranian Azeris identify so much more closely with Persians than with their fellow Azeris of Azerbaijan?

Blood Borders and Their Discontents

In 2006, Armed Forces Journal published a short, map-illustrated article by retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel, novelist, and pundit Ralph Peters. In “Blood Borders: How a Better Middle East Would Look,” Peters argued that “unjust borders” drawn by “self-interested Europeans” were generating many of the Middle East’s problems. Changing state boundaries to reflect the “organic frontiers” of religion and ethnicity, he suggested, would reduce tensions and enhance justice. Peters insinuated that only radical remapping would allow the United States to withdraw its military: “If the borders of the greater Middle East cannot be amended to reflect the natural ties of blood and faith, we may take it as an article of faith that a portion of the bloodshed in the region will continue to be our own.”

“Blood Borders” did not make a major impression in the United States; few Americans have even heard of it. The same cannot be said for the greater Middle East. In the countries that Peters would pare down, his article generated widespread – and on-going – outrage. Iranian nationalists point to “Blood Borders” when arguing that the United States seeks to dismember their country. Sentiments are if anything stronger in Pakistan. A professionally produced Pakistani map entitled “Operation Enduring Turmoil” (see above) portrays a slightly modified Peters scheme as part of a conspiracy to thwart China and diminish Pakistan, allegedly masterminded by the Project for a New American Century (a defunct neoconservative think-tank). The general tenor of Pakistani public opinion is reflected in the first two sentences of a March 24, 2010 article in The Dawn: “Ralph Peters of ‘creating-the-map-of-independent-Balochistan’ and then getting it published in a Defense journal, continues to write. It seems like Mr. Peters is still living in the 80s, and can [only] see Iran and Afghanistan through the eyes of an old decrepit Cold War protagonist.”

It is worth examining the logic behind this infamous map more closely. One might imagine the “blood” in “Blood Borders” to connote genetic ties, but Peters’s groupings are founded on commonalities of language and religion, not those of genes. In his schema, four new countries would emerge: two—Kurdistan and Baluchistan—based on language, and two others—an Arab Shia State and an Islamic Sacred State—on largely religious grounds. The latter two do not have strong national roots. Very few Gulf Shiites have ever sought to build a single nation-state around their faith. Peters’s Islamic Sacred State, moreover, deviates completely from his cultural-nationalist foundation. The criterion for independence here is apparently instrumental: to remove Mecca and Medina from the Saudi state and the Wahabbi religious establishment.

Kurdistan is surely Peters’s most favored nation. The lack of a Kurdish state, he argues, is the “most glaring injustice in the notoriously unjust lands between the Balkan Mountains and the Himalayas.” Yet his own Kurdistan would do injustice to the Iranian Azeris, who would have to give the Kurds their core territory in and around the city of Tabriz. The logic behind such a maneuver is blatantly one of geopolitical advantage for the United States: “A Free Kurdistan, stretching from Diyarbakir through Tabriz, would be the most pro-Western state between Bulgaria and Japan.” Peters does not indicate what would happen to the Azeri-speaking inhabitants of the area, but he does offer a hint: “Oh, and one other dirty little secret from 5,000 years of history: Ethnic cleansing works.”

The rest of Iranian Azeri territory would go to Azerbaijan, roughly doubling its population. This “Greater Azerbaijan,” however, also has a weak national foundation. Although the northern Azeri and the southern Azeri speak the same language, they do not tend to see themselves as forming a single political community. The people of Iranian Azerbaijan, by and large, consider themselves to be Iranian, despite their irritation with Persian education. Peters’s expanded Azerbaijan would also apparently include a sizable non-Azeri region, Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh is officially part of Azerbaijan, but is currently under the control of a break-away “republic” closely linked with Armenia. Peters’s map implies that Azerbaijan should reclaim this area.

Contrary to Iranian and Pakistani claims, Peters’s geopolitical strategy is not that of the United States. U.S. foreign policy here, as elsewhere, rests on the assumption that boundaries between countries should stay as they are. Peters detests this idea: “the greatest taboo in striving to understand the region’s comprehensive failure … [is] the awful-but-sacrosanct international boundaries worshipped by our own diplomats.” In rearranging the geopolitical framework, Peters would reward several US allies, but he would punish others. Pro-U.S. Jordan would gain a substantial slice of northwestern Saudi Arabia, but Turkey, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia would suffer. Turkey would lose its east to Kurdistan – even its far northeast, which is not Kurdish speaking. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia would not so much lose territory as be dismembered. Peters views the governments of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as false friends scheming against U.S. interests while cooperating on the surface. The dissection of Saudi Arabia in particular is depicted as necessary for future regional peace and stability: “The rise of the Saudis to wealth and, consequently, influence has been the worst thing to happen to the Muslim world as a whole since the time of the Prophet, and the worst thing to happen to Arabs since the Ottoman (if not the Mongol) conquest.”

Peters’s assertion that an independent Kurdistan would be pro-US may be plausible. I am not so sure, however, that an independent Baluchistan would ally with the United States, except perhaps out of necessity. The same can be said for a potential Arab Shia State, in which anti-American sentiments would run strong. Such a country would be both wealthy and powerful, encompassing most of the oilfields of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and southern Iraq, while virtually encapsulating oil-rich Kuwait. The creation of such an oil giant would likely terrify and infuriate Sunni Muslims, as well as Persian and Turkic Shiites, across the region.

Note that Peters’s Arab Shia State also deviates from his ostensible ethno-religious basis of division. Arabic-speaking, Shia-majority Bahrain, for example, would be excluded, while substantial Persian-speaking areas would be included (in the map above, such areas are mapped as “Bandari,” speaking the coastal or port-city form of Persian).

“Blood Borders” is obviously a problematic and provocative article, as we shall see in greater detail in tomorrow’s post.