Could and should America have made an Ottoman Republic in 1919?

Author:Carrington, Paul D.

Generations of American school children have memorized the words of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. Its evangelical spirit was echoed in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and scores of other presidential addresses. Partly on that account, numerous Americans, perhaps especially American lawyers, have since the 1780s presumed to tell other peoples how to govern themselves. In 2006, that persistent impulse was echoed once again in an address to the American Bar Association by a Justice of the United States Supreme Court. (1)

The purpose of this Essay is to question the wisdom of this evangelical ambition. Sometimes cited as examples of successful political evangelism are the constitution of Japan and the Basic Law of Germany. (2) Both of those constitutions were for numerous reasons congenial to the existing local cultures and traditions. (3) The 2003 invasion of Iraq was in important respects a product of the notion that orderly democratic government can be imposed almost anywhere, an idea that seems to have had special appeal to the militant "neo-conservatives" who expressed their hopes and expectations in the Statement of Principles of the Project for a New American Century, an instrument that should be read and remembered with remorse for centuries to come. (4)

The missionary impulse to change the political cultures of other peoples by force that is expressed in that Statement is often misguided, hopeless, and even counterproductive. But just possibly there are times and places when cultural change can be externally imposed. One of the limits of our human condition is our preoccupation with recent experience that sometimes teaches the wrong lesson. As a possible example, this Essay considers whether a democratic regime could or should have been imposed on all or parts of the former Ottoman Empire in 1919, after its collapse following World War I.


    Before addressing the question posed, one should note the resemblance of legal evangelism to imperialism. Andrew Bacevich has vigorously urged Americans of the "neo-con" persuasion (5) to try to see themselves as others do: as overbearing imperialists. (6) He followed Reinhold Niebuhr, who noticed long ago that Americans "frantically avoid[] recogni[zing their own] imperialis[t] impulses." (7)

    This American tendency was prefigured by other imperialists who long explained their military initiatives as a service to the peoples they subjected to conquest. The Spanish explained their imperial search for precious minerals as a dissemination of the Christian faith, (8) just as Moors had earlier justified their conquest of Spain as necessary to inform the vanquished that Muhammed was a prophet sent by God. (9) Wise and learned Germans professed in 1914 the belief that the German people were called to defend the humane values of western civilization against the evil threat of Czarist Russia and its craven French ally. (10) Gladstone, that most eminent Victorian, oblivious to the class-ridden nature of Victorian law, explained the aims of the British Empire as equally benign:

    We think that our country is a country blessed with laws and a constitution that are eminently beneficial to mankind, and if so, what [is] more ... desired than that we should have the means of reproducing in different portions of the globe something as like as may be to that country which we honor and revere? (11) Earlier evangelical imperialists were also sometimes warned of their failure to see themselves as others did. Long before Jefferson wrote the Declaration, John Milton cautioned his fellow legislators that they should not "[l]et ... England [] forget her precedence of teaching nations how to live." (12) And in 1899, James Bradley Thayer, then the most eminent scholar of American constitutional law, would echo Milton:

    [We Americans have] an opportunity to illustrate how nations may be governed without wars and without waste, and how the great mass of men's earnings may be applied, not to the machinery of government, or the rewarding of office-holders, or the wasteful activities and enginery of war, but to the comforts and charities of life and to all nobler ends of human existence,--so, I say, to our country ... that [the] solemn warning of Milton, "God-gifted organ-voice of England," might well have come [to us]: "Let not America forget her precedence of teaching nations how to live." (13) The lesson Milton and Thayer sought to teach was substantially learned by many Americans in the two decades that followed his utterance. And the United States adhered to that teaching in 1919 when the future of the collapsed Ottoman Empire was open to consideration. But might not a little cultural imperialism in 1919 have spared the United States and the people of the Middle East from the grief being experienced in 2007? Maybe Milton and Thayer are sometimes wrong.


    The great Ottoman Empire, it may be recalled, was the successor to the great Byzantine Empire. (14) Seljuk Turks had gained control of the Greek imperial capital of Constantinople in 1453. (15) That city, earlier known as Byzantium, had been since 305 the seat of the emperor Constantine and his successors who long ruled the more stable eastern half of what had been the Roman Empire. (16) The Turks renamed it Istanbul as the capital of a Turkish empire that they then extended to include the valleys of the Danube, Tigris, and Nile Rivers and much of the shores of the Black and Mediterranean Seas, reaching to the gates of Venice and Vienna and to the Straits of Gibraltar. (17) Thus, for about 1400 years, the city was the seat of the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth. (18) However, by 1900 the Sultan's dominion no longer extended across the Balkans or Africa, but was limited to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, and the Arabian peninsula. (19)

    1. American Relations with the Empire

      The relationship between the Ottoman Empire and the United States opened in the eighteenth century with the piracy practiced on American ships by the forces of Ottoman satraps or beys ruling Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli as subordinates to the Sultan in Istanbul. (20) The United States waged a successful naval war on those pirate states in the first years of the nineteenth century. (21)

      Thereafter, the Empire became the object of Americans' religious concern. With occasional exceptions, it had long been a place of religious and ethnic tolerance for almost every variation of Christian, Judaic, and Muslim faiths, more tolerant indeed than contemporaneous European empires. (22) Turks, Kurds, and Arabs were divided among many diverse forms of the Islamic faith. (23) In addition to many adherents of the ancient Orthodox faith long centered in Constantinople and along the Aegean coast, there were hundreds of thousands of Armenian Christians spread through the realm. (24) A substantial community of Maronite Christians loosely associated with French Catholicism, who answered to the Pope in Rome, was centered in Lebanon. (25) And there was a vestige population of observant Jews in Palestine, the place to which all manner of Christian pilgrims had been drawn since the fourth century. (26)

      By 1818, American Protestants were increasingly ambitious to bring the world to their faith. (27) They would begin by correcting the failures of the Crusades to recover the Holy Land for those of correct beliefs. (28) Missionaries went forth from the Old South Church in Boston to take their faith to the Holy Land of Palestine. It was, however, viewed by the Sultan as a capital offense to attempt to convert a Muslim away from the Islamic faith. (29) Since they were not allowed to convert Muslims, they would start with the Jews, Maronite Christian, Orthodox, and Armenian populations in the region and bring all of them to the Protestant faiths. It was also envisioned that Jews in other lands could be brought back to their place of cultural origin and converted to Christianity. (30)

      American religious missionaries were at first resisted by the Sultan. This was changed by the revolution in Greece that ended in 1827 with the separation of that nation from the Empire. (31) Many Europeans and Americans had lent support to the Greek revolutionaries, but the United States Navy had, unlike those of England, France, and Russia, stood aside lest its involvement undermine the hope of the United States to isolate the world's hemispheres that it had expressed in the Monroe Doctrine. (32) In 1830, the Sultan rewarded American disengagement in the Greek Revolution with a trade agreement. (33)

      Meanwhile, the Sultan's former state of Egypt occupied the neighboring territories of Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon. (34) When the Europeans forced the Egyptians to restore the Sultan to power in that area, the Sultan promised greater freedom with regard to religious practices. The result was a steady and sustained effort of American Protestants to convert the population of the region to their faith. The missionaries came from diverse sects. The first Mormon missionaries, for example, arrived in 1844, (35) decades before they settled Utah. Congregationalist missions were established in distant Mesopotamia and in Armenia.

      Very little success was achieved in converting either the Jewish or Arab population of Palestine to any Protestant faith. (36) More progress was made in Lebanon and Syria, primarily among those of other Christian faiths. Education became the primary means of spreading the word. These efforts had the support of the United States government to the extent of providing occasional protection for missionaries by numerous consular officials spread about the Empire, and on a few occasions by the United States Navy.

      Not everyone was impressed with this missionary enterprise. William Makepeace Thackeray encountered the American consul in Jerusalem. Learning of the scheme to make Palestine and Syria an...

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