Yes, you read the headline right. The Ottoman Empire. And, yes, it is making Obama’s life miserable eighty-eight years after its unceremonious dissolution.
For six hundred years, the Ottomans straddled Europe and Asia, stretching from Algiers to the Persian Gulf to the gates of Vienna. It was a colossus, the last and maybe greatest center of political authority in the Muslim world.
Then it declined, limped along for decades and disintegrated in the wreckage of World War I. Like the Habsburgs and the Kaiser and the Russian czar, you would think that it would have only a tangential impact on American policy today. Yet it doesn’t.
So why does it matter to Obama, as he tries to pass things like health care reform and revive the economy? Let us count the ways.
Iraq - They are counting ballots in Iraq - an Ottoman territory for centuries - right now. And for all the bluster that this means victory (Thomas Friedman here and a Newsweek cover “Victory at Last” with this slightly more reasonable story) or that it means nothing, what it really means is a total mystery (though I like this take from Progressive.org).
Come back to me in 20 years. Iraq is too complicated and too uncertain and in too dangerous a neighborhood. This means Obama will never be free of Iraq, no matter how much he wants to be.
And why is Iraq a mess? Well, it did not help that the victors in World War I created an illogical country out of some Ottoman provinces. And the Ottomans were also not concerned enough with ethnic purity, so they left behind all these territories of mixed religions and races. Could have been a good thing. Did not turn out that way.
Israel/Palestine - Joe Biden is cursing somewhere right at this very moment. His trip to Israel to restart the peace process turned into a disaster with the announcement of new settlements in East Jersusalem. Oops, said the Israelis. And now they have closed off the West Bank, according to CNN, to try and quiet unrest stemming from the decision. This issue is all about the Ottomans - Palestine was drawn up out of the wreckage of the empire, and Jewish settlements in the area started well before the Ottomans fell.
Turkey/Armenia - Turkey has now withdrawn its ambassadors from the U.S. and from Sweden because their respective legislatures (or committees in them) called the death during World War I of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Armenians and other groups a “genocide.”
I am not even going to get into this one. How do you wade into so much blood and hate in a few paragraphs?
I do not know how any two countries (plus the powerful Armenian diaspora) get past the death of so many people. But these two countries need to do it. This issue holds Turkey back in its quest to join the West. It completely cripples Armenia, which would rather stay poor and isolated, than come to terms with Turkey.
Greece - Greece is in the throes of massive strikes and general chaos, as workers protest an austerity budget meant to get the country on semi-stable financial ground. The Greek budget mess threatens the core financial stability of the European Union and has riled world markets.
Why is Greece such a financial mess? Well, it does not help that the country was ruled by the Ottomans for centuries, fought a war of independence, stayed obsessed with Turkey for generations, had to take in millions of Greek refugees after Turkey won independence and defeated an overstretched and overambitious Greek army, then was ruled by the military for even longer, partially because of the Turkey obsession. Greece has never really been a western European state - more Bulgaria than Belgium.
Maybe what Obama really needs is a hotline to the Sultan …
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