If one asks persons sympathetic to the causes of Arabs and Arab governments—a group including the vast majority of Western academics specializing in the subject—about the reason for the generally high levels of violence and poverty in Arab lands, one frequently hears a variation on the following theme:
The cause of this violence and poverty is the constant conflict within the Arab world which in turn is caused by the fatally flawed borders drawn up by Mark Sykes, representing the British government, and Francois Georges-Picot, representing the French government, in 1916. If they had done a better job, the Arab world would today enjoy Swiss levels of peace and prosperity.
Hence, the fault for Arab troubles lies with Westerners. To atone for that fault, which still carries such grievous consequences today, Westerners and Western governments owe Arabs and Arab governments aid sufficient to raise them to Swiss levels and forgiveness whenever Arabs—in understandable frustration that such aid is not forthcoming—commit minor transgression such as the ones of September 11, 2001.
Parts of this argument are surely right, or at least plausible.1 It would be surprising if Western bureaucrats in colonial offices far removed from the scene had drawn the borders most conducive to the well-being of the people who actually live there. Moreover, one can certainly imagine situations in which badly-drawn borders would lead to conflict. For example, if an ethnic or sectarian group was left a small and oppressed minority in one country, while the same group is the majority and controls the government across the border, war between those two countries seems a possible consequence. And, if not outright war, the relations between the countries will likely be sufficiently hostile as to support armed insurgent groups within each other's jurisdiction.
The problem with the argument is that a century has passed. If there were generally recognized better borders, Arabs could easily consent amongst themselves to switch to these better borders. They certainly would not need Western help or approval for that. Nor need they worry that the armies of the West descend upon them if they should dare to tamper with the handiwork of Messrs. Sykes and Picot.
To this one might respond that, of course, Arabs cannot agree on any better set of borders. Given the countless ethnic and sectarian rivalries between intermingled groups, such a better set of borders would be nigh-impossible to find.
Maybe so. But if a better set of borders cannot be agreed upon by the people living in the area after a hundred years, it seems rather much to ask Messrs. Sykes and Picot to have found them in an afternoon. That they failed at an almost impossible task is no great fault.
In that case, the ultimate cause of Arab misery lies not with foreigners, but with a combination of group rivalries and a mixed pattern of settlement. The former would have been almost entirely beyond the power of the colonial governments to fix. Fixing the latter would have required a level of ethnic cleansing throughout the Arab world that is hard to imagine being endorsed by those who blame the borders.
In either case, the causes of Arab suffering—a genuine enormity—are not Westerners, but other Arabs. This is of course the conclusion that the Sykes-Picot-Made-Us-Do-It argument tries so strenuously to avoid.
PS: That the miseries of the Arab world are caused by Arabs does not imply that there is nothing that Westerners could or should do to alleviate it. The overthrow of the Iraqi regime in 2003 was a major good-faith attempt to do so which, at the time, I supported. But that this attempt appears to have failed is powerful empirical evidence that Westerners cannot do much to alleviate Arab misery.
1 This argument, however, does not appear to be the prevailing opinion in Arab lands. Rather, Arab governments heatedly insist that their borders are sacred and inviolable; that they would rather draft and see die on the field of battle every single young man within their jurisdiction than see the border shift as much as an inch. Patriots of the various Arab countries fervently endorse that same position.2 If that is so, one wonders why there are no annual holidays in Arab countries celebrating Messrs. Sykes and Picot for so perfectly and effortlessly divining just the right borders.
2 In fairness it has to be admitted that so do almost all governments and the patriots of all nations.