June 28th marks the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which, of course, became the catalyst that ultimately led to World War I.
Today, the United States is debating on what measures, if any, to take in Iraq, where the Sunni-aligned Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) have been toppling weak defense forces of the Shia government, are are slowly making their way toward Baghdad.
Though the assassination of Franz Ferdinand has long past, it is certainly not forgotten, and it most certainly still has a major impact on today’s geopolitical events. So how can we connect Franz Ferdinand to the current ISIS-led sectarian violence in Iraq?
1) Archduke Franz Ferdinand
Colonialism by the major world powers shaped the world political order in the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th century. Overshadowed by its larger neighbors, Germany (or the Germanic states, to be more precise) and Italy, Emperor Francis Joseph I of Austria came to an agreement with Hungary to join forces, and thus, the Austria-Hungary Empire was created.
As a result of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877, Austria-Hungary gained control of Bosnia and Herzegovina, much to the dismay of the Serbians, who made up the bulk of the Bosnian population.
Heir to the Austria-Hungary empire, Ferdinand was killed in Sarajevo in June, 1914, by a group of Serbian nationalists. When Austria-Hungary declared war on Bosnia-Herzegovina, other countries were pulled in to defend either side, mandated by previously drawn up treaties. Germany backed Austria-Hungary, while the Triple Entente of Russia, France, and the United Kingdom stepped in to defend Bosnia and Herzegovina, who were aligned with the Russian, in particular.
2) Woodrow Wilson
Wilson, as President at the end of World War I, was the American representative in structuring the Treaty of Versailles at the Paris Peace Conference.
While the Treaty of Versailles dealt with the German side, the Treaty of Sevres partitioned the Ottoman Empire.Though the treaty was never signed by the U.S., the territory controlled by the Ottoman Empire, which stretched from its home in Turkey as far west as Greece and Hungary, throughout Northern Africa, and throughout the entire Middle East, was effectively chopped up by the treaty’s European architects, with seemingly little though for any cultural or ethnic considerations. Says historian David Andelman,
You have to understand that the men advising President Wilson on the Middle East at the Paris talks had little current expertise in the region. The leader of this group was a specialist on the Crusades. That meant his knowledge ended in the 1300s. They had no understanding of who they were putting together in the country that became Iraq.
3) Saddam Hussein
After a transitory occupation of Iraq by Britain after World War I, the Kingdom of Iraq was established in 1932, which began a series of transition governments, mostly via military coup, until the 1968 Baathist-led coup, which brought to power General Ahmed Hasan al-Bakr, and his close associate, Saddam Hussein.
Hussein led the Sunni-dominated Baathists through a series of regional conflicts, including those with Iran, Iraq’s ethnic Kurds, and Kuwait. Hussein continued his ever-present pursuit of power within the region through defense infrastructure and developing nuclear, chemical, and biological weaponry capabilities. That is, until 2002…
4) George W. Bush
Not much more can be written about America’s dealings with Hussein in the first part of the 2000’s (for reference, Peter Baker’s account of the Bush presidency, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House, gives a phenomenal fly-on-the-wall telling of exactly how and why Bush and Cheney decided to finally intervene militarily). As The Economist wrote at the time, in a piece titled, The case for war,
And yet it is not simply in his record of aggression, cruelty and recklessness that the peril to the wider world resides. If that were all the story, the danger might be easily contained. The unique danger in Iraq is that this country’s advanced technology and potential oil wealth could very soon give this aggressive, cruel and reckless man an atomic bomb.
Of course, U.S. troops invaded Iraq in 2003, and from then on, the Bush presidency was defined by the Iraq War.
5) Nouri al-Maliki
Maliki was installed as the prime minister of the newly liberated, democratic Iraq in 2006, which brought together the Shia and Kurdish political factions, but left the Sunnis out of any sort of power. However, the coalition between the Shia and Kurds partners was never exactly strong, which left the country fractious. That doesn’t even include the ineptitude of the Maliki government. As The Economist recently described,
Iraq’s Shias, for their part, have largely flocked behind rabble-rousing, unscrupulous politicians. Those men, including the prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, during his eight years in office, have done little to build sound or just institutions. Instead they have played political games, packing offices with cronies and siphoning cash from the oil geysers that Iraq sits on top of. This system of spoils has signally failed to lessen the misery of most Iraqis.
Of course, that has become an untenable situation, especially as the civil war in Sunni-dominated Syria, right next to Iraq, incensed and empowered those Sunni Iraqis who had been completely deprived of any say in the new “democratic” government.
So now, the Maliki’s government must deal with ISIS, who have been slowly making its way toward Baghdad. The Islamist ISIS, who were essentially driven out of Syria due to clashes with other rebel groups, have now focused their cause on Iraq, taking Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, earlier this month. And as Maliki scrambles to figure out how to stem the potential onslaught, Iran, America, and other potential partners have adopted a “wait-and-see” tactic in aiding the Iraqi government (or at least adopted a strategy of intervening indirectly through vetted Syrian forces), while Iraqi Shiites have begun their own campaign to oust Maliki.
100 years of geopolitical events, from Archduke Franz Ferdinand to today’s ISIS crisis, can be quite linearly tied together. There are no short-term solutions in geopolitics – the 1919 Paris Peace Conference has clearly proven this, as decisions made a century ago, alliances and treaties that have since dissolved, and the occasional bumbled decision to intervene with military force, are continuing to cause our major geopolitical risks today.