The Middle East that might have been

The King-Crane report is still a striking document—less for what it reveals about the Middle East as it might have been than as an illustration of the fundamental dilemmas involved in drawing, or not drawing, borders. Indeed, the report insisted on forcing people to live together through complicated legal arrangements that prefigure more recent proposals.

Among other things, the authors concluded that dividing Iraq into ethnic enclaves was too absurd to merit discussion. Greeks and Turks only needed one country because the “two races supplement each other.” The Muslims and Christians of Syria needed to learn to “get on together in some fashion” because “the whole lesson of modern social consciousness points to the necessity of understanding ‘the other half,’ as it can be understood only by close and living relations.”

But the commissioners also realized that simply lumping diverse ethnic or religious groups together in larger states could lead to bloody results. Their report proposed all sorts of ideas for tiered, overlapping mandates or bi-national federated states, ultimately endorsing a vision that could be considered either pre- or post-national, depending on one’s perspective. In addition to outlining several autonomous regions, they proposed that Constantinople (now Istanbul) become an international territory administered by the League of Nations, since “no one nation can be equal to the task” of controlling the city and its surrounding straits, “least of all a nation with Turkey’s superlatively bad record of misrule.” Although the authors had been tasked with drawing borders, it seems that once they confronted the many dilemmas of implementing self-determination, they developed a more fluid approach to nationhood and identity.