Ottoman Empire map with partitions, part of the memoranda for the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. CREDIT: <a href="">Stanfords Geographical Establishment London/Public Domain</a>
Ottoman Empire map with partitions, part of the memoranda for the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. CREDIT: Stanfords Geographical Establishment London/Public Domain

The Crack-Up: The Birth of the Modern Middle East, with Ted Widmer

Jan 31, 2020

At the end of World War I, colonial powers carved up the Ottoman Empire and the reverberations are still being felt today. Historian Ted Widmer discusses the circumstances that led to this fateful episode and why Woodrow Wilson wasn't able to extend his principle of "self-determination" to the Middle East. How should we think about the Trump-Netanyahu peace plan in the context of what happened in Palestine in 1919?

ALEX WOODSON: Hello, I'm Alex Woodson from Carnegie in New York City. Today we're doing a Crack-Up, Global Ethics Weekly combination podcast.

I'll be speaking with historian and Carnegie-Uehiro Fellow Ted Widmer about his New York Times article "A Century Ago the Modern Middle East Was Born. "

This article was published on Christmas Day and is part of the 1919: The Year of the Crack-Up series that has been appearing on The New York Times op-ed pages for the last year. The articles and accompanying podcasts are about the events of the year 1919 and the way they still shape our lives. You can find many more, the rest hosted by Ted, at

For now, here’s my talk with Ted Widmer.

It's great to see you, Ted.

TED WIDMER: You, too, Alex. My pleasure.

ALEX WOODSON: You wrote an article about a month ago called "A Century Ago the Modern Middle East Was Born," and it's part of the "Crack-Up" series in The New York Times.

TED WIDMER: That's right.

ALEX WOODSON: What is the condensed version? What happened in 1919 that created the Middle East that we know today?

TED WIDMER: I start in the piece—which appeared on Christmas Day—with a reflection of how Woodrow Wilson was feeling on Christmas a hundred years earlier. I thought he probably was not feeling too good because his grand global vision for a world that would be more democratic was not really coming together. The U.S. Senate had rejected once—and it would again—the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. Wilson also could just see that the old patterns were coming back, that the big powers in Europe were acting in a pretty colonial way, and that was not supposed to happen. According to Wilson, we were moving past the colonial era into a more democratic age.

Plenty of people have poked holes in Wilson's application of his own theory. He was more democratic when talking about certain parts of the world than about others. He didn't ever talk about Asia in a very meaningful way. Nevertheless, his vision inspired millions of people around the world.

But in the Middle East it was a very chaotic situation as England and France, being strong after the end of the war and having a long historic interest in the Middle East, were basically getting ready to do what they always did: they were carving up the pieces of a defeated enemy. In this case it was the Ottoman Empire, a very important European and Asian power that had been around a long time and had done very badly in World War I. They had chosen to ally with the Central Powers—Germany and Austria-Hungary. So they had lost, but also they had acted in a genocidal way against the Armenian people, so their reputation was diminished for that reason also.

So basically, France and England were just imposing the will of victors on the Ottoman sultans, who were reeling. They had already agreed basically to what they wanted. England wanted Palestine, a province of the Ottoman Empire, and the areas that would become the country of Iraq. It did not yet exist, but it would be the modern nation of Iraq, including the city of Mosul, which had not ever been included in the area that the British were trying to take for themselves. But they were very interested in Mosul because they knew it had oil, and oil had become incredibly important during the fighting of World War I because airplanes needed it and, like gasoline, its use was becoming more evident and important.

France was also really interested in the region. They had a historic interest in the shore of Lebanon, where they had been sending crusaders for hundreds of years, and they liked the city of Beirut, and they were also very interested in Syria. The definition of Syria has changed a lot over the centuries, but they would like a kind of zone that includes what is now Lebanon and what is now Syria. Those two countries have a strong relationship. They had some interest in Mosul also, and together these two European powers are going to be very powerful in the new postwar Middle East.

But they're confusing. They're confusing to Wilson. They're saying out of one side of the mouth that they believe in his democratic principles, but then they're acting in a very colonial way. They're confusing to each other. They're cheating each other as they're also cheating everyone else on all sides of them.

And in other ways they're confusing. The British are encouraging Arab plans for independence from the Ottomans while they're also encouraging Jewish aspirations for a Zionist homeland in Palestine, but it's not clear where in Palestine it will be. They're also encouraging Arabs to expand, including into Palestine. So the British foreign policy at this period is a bit of a mess, and I argue in the piece that the messiness of the Middle East today owes a fair amount to the mess of 1919.

ALEX WOODSON: I definitely want to talk about the comparisons to today. I just have a few more questions about that time period.

One of Wilson's main points is self-determination, one of his strongest beliefs. As you said, he didn't really talk about that too much in terms of Asia. Did he believe in self-determination also for the Middle East? Maybe this is too much of a question to ask at one point, but if the Middle East were to have self-determination, what would that have looked like at the time?

TED WIDMER: It's a really good question. There are so many peoples in the Middle East. That is a feature of the Middle East historically. It's probably less true today than it was for most of its history. There were always pockets of Jewish people living throughout the Middle Eastern kingdoms and Ottoman domains and the various Sharif domains. There were small Jewish and Christian settlements in all of those places for thousands of years. There are a lot of different kinds of Christians, and you have Greek Orthodox. Among the Muslims, you have different kinds of Muslims as well.

To protect all of the different peoples of the Middle East is certainly a worthy goal, but when you get into the details it becomes very complicated, especially when you start to promise national sovereignty to people, which gives them the right to exclude other people, and that is what was beginning to happen in 1919. The war was over, and this giant empire, the Ottoman Empire, was collapsing in slow motion. The British and French felt they could get a lot of it for themselves.

They were willing to let a certain amount of the Turkish heartland, Anatolia, remain Ottoman with a sultan on the throne, but it was going to be so reduced an Ottoman Empire that many people within that empire, many Turks, couldn't believe it was happening and began to fight back for their country against their own Ottoman overlords. So Atatürk begins to rebel against everybody, including the Ottomans. It's Turk versus Turk for a while until he begins to win, and then as he is winning he begins to represent the Turkish people more clearly.

There are several different treaties that the Turks sign over these years. One is a kind of humiliating one, in which England and France impose their will on the sultan, and then three years later Atatürk forces them to sign a second one which is much better for Turkey, and they keep most of the Turkish land. But as your question implies, it's really hard to promise national sovereignty to these huge and diverse clusters of people living amongst each other in all of these different places.

ALEX WOODSON: As you write in the piece for The New York Times it goes back to the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916.

TED WIDMER: That's right, yes.

ALEX WOODSON: And these plans were executed in secret?

TED WIDMER: They were at first secret, and then they were coming out as the allies met in 1919 in Paris, as they were getting ready for the Versailles Peace Treaty to be signed. They were sharing their plans with Wilson, and he was horrified to hear the extent of their plans to carve up the region because he had been loudly promising in his famous Fourteen Points that a more democratic world would come into existence.

One of the Points basically calls for the end of the colonial era. The language is a bit vague, and in fact the French and English empires did not really end. In Africa and in Asia British colonies continue as they always have; French colonies too, for that matter. There was a French colony called Vietnam that some Americans may have heard of.

Also, they invent a new word—"mandates"—to cover the Middle East, and that is supposed to be a more idealistic term to avoid the taint of colonialism, but it's not a whole lot different. It's slightly different but not terribly different. A mandate is supposed to be a temporary kind of protective period where the colonial power runs schools and hospitals and helps local people govern themselves toward a day in the future when they will ultimately be independent, but it was a pretty vague period, and they seemed a lot like the old colonial administrations had been.

One of Wilson's Fourteen Points calls for an end to colonial thinking and a sharing of power with peoples who live in all regions. Another point specifically called for "autonomous development of the peoples of the Ottoman Empire." Again, it's a little bit of a vague phrase, but if you're using a word like "autonomous," it means you can't just snuff out the aspirations of a people living there. So the creation of the mandates was in many ways a violation of Wilsonian thinking.

But so many things were happening so fast that, at one point in 1919, the Americans were even thinking of their own mandate. They ultimately didn't do one, but there was a period in which the Americans were contemplating a U.S. mandate over Armenia and possibly over Constantinople and the straits, the straits being the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. So the United States would have had a pretty significant chunk of modern Turkey, the part that most people see when they go to Turkey; modern Istanbul, where Erdoğan comes from, would have been an American zone.

Interestingly, a lot of Turks wanted that to happen because this was the beginning of "the American Century," and Americans did not yet have the reputation they later would have of coming in and taking over. Now we have more of a colonial reputation than the British or the French; a hundred years ago it was exactly the opposite. There were people on the ground who wanted that to happen, but Wilson looked at the situation and thought it wasn't right for the United States.

ALEX WOODSON: Was there anything more that Wilson could have done to stop this from happening?

TED WIDMER: There are a lot of books on Wilson and the end of World War I. There are a lot of books on him, period. There is a great book by Margaret MacMillan called Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World. If listeners to the podcast want just one book on the mess of diplomacy after World War I, that's the book. It's fascinating, it's beautifully written.

It basically presents a situation that was exciting but also unmanageable. Wilson had a huge amount of political capital. He was popular. The United States had helped France and England to win. They had lost a lot of men but not nearly as many as England and France, so they were in a comparatively strong position, and Wilson's vision of a democratic world was very attractive. Even if the leaders of England and France did not always agree with that vision, the peoples of those countries did, so Wilson had a lot of political power. He could go out in the streets of Paris, and everyone was crazy for Wilson.

So the allies had to pay some lip service to Wilson, and they did. I think it could be said that a more democratic world did come into existence with the Treaty of Versailles. The League of Nations came out of the Treaty of Versailles, and that created something that never had existed, which was an international tribunal for countries to come and argue their grievances to each other.

Historians now dismiss the League of Nations for its weakness, its uselessness, and the fact that it totally failed to prevent World War II, but I'm not sure that was Woodrow Wilson's fault. He wanted desperately for the United States to come in. There are a lot of reasons on the U.S. side that it didn't. Wilson made some mistakes presenting his own treaty to the U.S. Senate, and the Senate made some mistakes in the way it went about ratifying it. The result was a failure to ratify, and so the United States didn't come in.

If the United States had come in, I think it would have been a much stronger League of Nations. It's interesting to contemplate how history would have turned out: Would the League of Nations have been strong enough to prevent the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany? I don't know. It's hard to say that anyone knows that. But I think the reaction of the Western powers to the rise of Hitler would have been less feeble than it was with a stronger League of Nations.

Some good things came out of Wilsonian diplomacy, and the peoples of the world heard his message. They got it. They were ready for self-government; they wanted democracy. And I don't think anyone would fault Wilson for awakening a feeling among the globe's hundreds of millions and billions of people in places like India, Africa, and Southeast Asia that they could govern themselves and deserved to govern themselves. Those are principles that we absolutely take for granted a hundred years later.

But Wilson's reputation is still very complicated. It's convenient to dismiss him as an idealist or a bad politician or a kind of dreamer with his head in the clouds who couldn't get things done. None of those are really that true. He was a good politician. He had a real vision for the world that largely came true with the creation of the United Nations.

And he was a pretty good politician at home and abroad, but I think he was trying to take on an enormous amount. He had only the partial agreement of his main allies, and he had a fair amount of opposition from people who didn't want the world to change—kings who liked their kingdoms, old aristocrats who liked their ways of doing things, and even in the United States a lot of political opposition to him just because he was Woodrow Wilson. He was the president, and presidents always have to face opposition in Congress.

So he lost, and he lost big. He signed a Treaty of Versailles that wasn't as good as it could have been. It had a lot of problems. It demanded immense payments from Germany to the victors so extensive that it crippled the German economy. Germany couldn't even pay them and didn't pay them. It paid some of them but not a lot of them, and immediately there was a right-wing reaction in Germany against the Treaty that included and led to the rise of Hitler. So the treaty was bad for a lot of reasons.

Wilson tried so hard to sell the treaty in America. He failed to sell it in the Senate, so he tried to take it over their heads to the American people, and he basically killed himself through overwork, trying to go out on the road and give speeches to get the people worked up to support his treaty.

He had a series of strokes that caused blood clotting in his brain and paralysis in half of his body and the slowing down of his speaking ability. He basically was pretty close to a crippled man in the final year and a half of his presidency, so much so that it's remarkable that the American people did not really discover the extent to which their president was not able to serve in office.

We hear a lot about—impeachment obviously is happening all around us, and we've heard about the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. It did not exist then. There are problems in our Constitution and in our democratic system because our founders couldn't anticipate every problem. That's always going to be true. New problems are always—the rise of Facebook; how do you manage that? It's not in the Constitution.

Wilson's stroke, collapse, and loss of mental and physical power was a really serious problem at the end of 1919. So his vision of the world was fading from his fingertips, and he could barely open a piece of mail and read it. He also lost a lot of his vision. So he was a shadow of his former self, and it's a terribly sad tragedy of the presidency and of the U.S. relationship with the rest of the world. You could say the mess in the Middle East and the rise of Hitler and World War II were all aftershocks of Wilson's failures in 1919 to secure the vision he wanted.


We're talking a day after Trump and Netanyahu presented their version of the Israel-Palestine peace plan. It has gotten a lot of criticism from a lot of different sides, probably most notably from the Palestinians, who don't seem interested in it at all.

How do you think about this in the context of what we have been speaking about? How do you think about the peace plan and the Israel-Palestine tensions as they are today in the context of 1919 and how colonial powers just divided up the Middle East?

TED WIDMER: There's a lot to say about all of that. The plan announced yesterday seems to be very good for the people who announced it and not very good for the people who obviously were not in the room, the Palestinians, whose share of the map gets smaller with every peace plan. This one was a balkanized version, a piecemeal version of a country with different colors of a map all over the place and a significant chunk missing from what was understood to be the future state of Palestine in 2000, when Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak were negotiating and came pretty close, the 1967 borders.

Having said all that, it is a plan, and having a plan is better than having no plan, I think. Some people would dispute even that, but it is a plan with a map with some partial promise of a future Palestinian state, enough of a promise that Jews on Netanyahu's right are angry about that. You could say if you're getting everyone mad on all sides, you might be doing a pretty good job, but I think the way this particular plan looks is it's so pro-Israeli that it's not going to get out of the box.

It was notable to anyone looking carefully that not only were the Palestinians not there, but the Saudis were not there. The Trump administration has cultivated the Saudis like no administration in history, and if they can't get the Saudis there, then I don't think this plan has any chance at all. The Saudis owe a lot to the Trump administration, and their absence yesterday spoke volumes, that the Arab world is not behind this plan at all. And without the Arab world even having a token—there was a tiny token presence, but it was so small as to be meaningless.

ALEX WOODSON: I think some of the Gulf States were there.

TED WIDMER: Yes, three of them, but without the Saudis, without Egypt—and Egypt also owes a lot to the Trump administration for the Trump administration's relative failure to speak out about the constant human rights violations in Egypt, and we all know about the Saudi violations—I don't think this peace plan has much of a chance.

Your question was, how does it trace back to 1919? Well, it shows how we will always have winners and losers in the Middle East. We did in 1919.

One people who came close to getting a state of their own in 1919 were the Kurdish people. I should also mention the Armenian people, who now have a state. They briefly had a state at the end of World War I. There was an Armenian republic that came out of the chaos at the end of the war, and it was quickly invaded and annexed by the Russians, who have their own messy role to play in the year 1919, when they were finishing their revolution but were not quite finished. There were still White and Red Russians fighting against each other, but Lenin and his Bolsheviks had the upper hand. They had Moscow and St. Petersburg, and they were cleaning up some war operations against the White Russians on the periphery, war operations in which the Americans were actually involved in a small way—the mess of 1919 is endlessly fascinating—but the Russians were beginning to expand back toward the Ottoman lands and had taken over the Armenian state.

You see a lot of victors and losers in the long history of the Middle East. Palestinians had been part of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years, but they had been part of different powers before that. They have a long history, just as Jews themselves do. It's a very important part of Jewish history to remember the ancient Jewish kingdoms of Judea and Samaria.

There is a deep historical way of talking about the Middle East that I mention in my piece. As all of these lands became available, you have people thinking like realtors. Donald Trump is only the latest realtor in a long line to think ambitiously, Wouldn't it be nice if I had that parcel over there?

The Greeks were very interested in a lot of parts of the Ottoman Empire. They could remember when the Greeks had Thrace, which the Turks call Trakya. Thrace is the piece of Turkey that was on the European continent, north of Istanbul. They remembered the Turkish wars against the Persians thousands of years earlier.

The Italians were remembering the Roman time of having some of that. They got a piece. They got some islands that had belonged to the Turks.

The French were talking about the Crusades and how they had always come through Lebanon on their way to Jerusalem. So centuries were nothing to these people as they were carving up the Middle East.

The Palestinians lost a lot. A hundred years ago the map would have looked almost exactly the opposite; the Palestinians were in control of the entirety of Palestine. They had some military threats in the form of Arabs who were expansionist, coming with British support. T. E. Lawrence and his friends were winning victories at the end of World War I, and they were eyeing these European power moves with some skepticism.

The Palestinians had read the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which expressed the hope for a future Jewish national home, and they didn't like that, but they weren't all that worried yet because there were so few Jews in the territory of Palestine. I think about 3 percent of Palestine was Jewish in 1917, but one of the changes wrought by the end of the war was migration patterns started to change, so a lot of Jewish Zionists began to move into Palestine and continued to move there in the 1920s and 1930s, so that those population figures were changing quite a lot. At the end of World War II, the picture was quite different, so when Israel was created in 1948 the Jewish population is significantly higher.

But the Palestinians never left as the Jews came in, so that's why we have had 100 years of a headache for everybody involved in that particular piece of the former Ottoman Empire because everyone feels a lot of historic attachment. And when you have strong religious feelings added into those centuries of memory with Jerusalem, that's what you get. If everyone wants a piece of Jerusalem, then you're going to have a really difficult foreign policy entanglement.

ALEX WOODSON: Thank you so much, Ted.

TED WIDMER: Sure, Alex. My pleasure.

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