The 80-Year Problem

By David Warsh, October 14, 2001

Not many have paid attention to Osama bin Laden's explanation last Sunday for why ''the sword fell on America after 80 years.'' He mentioned that periodization not once but twice. ''What America is tasting now is only a copy of what we have tasted,'' he said. ''Our Islamic world has been tasting the same humiliation and degradation for more than 80 years, its sons killed, their blood is shed, its sanctuaries are attacked, and no one hears and no one heeds.''

So what happened 80 years ago? It was roughly then that the conclusion of World War I brought about the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. That in turn ended 600 years of religious rule in provinces that stretched from the lower Balkans and Constantinople to Yemen at Arabia's southern tip eastward to the Persian Gulf. That much is indisputable. Various commentators have speculated in the last week about precisely what bin Laden might have had in mind. For example:

The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 drew up the plans for dividing the Arab lands of the Middle East among the French and British empires, noted Slate's Chris Suellentrop, who last week formulated a lively discussion of the 80-year problem in his webzine ''Explainer'' column.

Britain's mandate to govern Palestine, granted by the League of Nations, took force officially in 1922 - on Sept. 11, no less, according to Jim Phillips, a Mideast analyst for the Heritage Foundation.

Almost exactly 80 lunar years in the Islamic calendar (each slightly shorter than a year in the West's Gregorian calendar) have passed since the caliphate was outlawed in 1924 by a Turkish government bent on Western-style modernization, according to other scholars. Caliphs were religious leaders viewed as the successors of the prophet Mohammed. Their influence in the Ottoman Empire was more pervasive than that of corresponding Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian popes.

All such turning points may tempt a terrorist with a taste for anniversary commemorations. And all are easily understood in terms of the Balfour Declaration, the British government communique in 1917 that called for establishment of a homeland in the Holy Land for the Jews. Israel finally was created in 1948, and Arabs - the Palestinian Arabs, in particular - have been furious ever since that their own claims to the same land have been ignored.

But there were other things besides politics going on 80 years ago. Many of them had to do with oil.

The latter part of World War I saw a serious worldwide oil crisis, especially acute in England and France. Something like 65 percent of the world's petroleum came from the United States; German submarines were taking a terrific toll on shipments to European allies. Pleasure driving was banned in England in 1917. A joint Inter-Allied Petroleum Conference was established to coordinate oil supplies and shipping the following year.

Then after the war ended in 1918, demand for petroleum products surged dramatically around the world as the automobile came into its own as a consumer item. But US oil reserves were dwindling. The director of the US Geological Service warned of a ''gasoline famine,'' and exhorted American companies to emulate their European rivals and explore abroad.

So what were Messrs. Sykes and Picot thinking when they went about carving up the remains of the Ottoman Empire and awarding present-day Syria to France, and most of Iraq and Iran to Britain? Not the claims to the political unity of Islam, that's for sure. In his page-turning bestseller ''The Prize'' (from which these few details are drawn), historian Daniel Yergin noted that by the time the British Army captured Baghdad in 1917, control of Mesopotamian and Persian oil supplies had become a major British war aim.

Within weeks of the war's end, French Premier Georges Clemenceau and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George had divided up the spoils. ''The Great War had made abundantly clear that petroleum had become an essential element of the strategy of nations,'' writes Yergin. ''Politicians and bureaucrats, though they had hardly been absent before, would now rush headlong to the center of the struggle.''

The patchwork quilt of nations in the Middle East emerged from European conference rooms during the next few years. In bin Laden's view, it seems, everything else is a footnote.

It may make sense to limit the dissemination of future tapes made by Osama bin Laden - assuming there are future tapes - to edit them and curtail his ability to incite hatred and cruelty. His grievance in no way justifies the bombing. But we ought not close our ears to its essence, which is that the West has placed its business interests over popular sovereignty in the Middle East for 80 years. There is no way of turning back the clock to 1920, nor would we want to. But Middle Eastern oil will be important for another 80 years. With 1 billion followers of Islam in the world, listening to the other side has never been more important.

David Warsh can be reached by email at

This story ran on page E2 of the Boston Globe on October 14, 2001.


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