The Middle East That Might Have Been

Nearly a century ago, two Americans led a quixotic mission to get the region’s borders right.

Interactive map: How the King-Crane Commission envisioned the Middle East (Karl Sturm and Nick Danforth

By Nick Danforth

In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson dispatched a theologian named Henry King and a plumbing-parts magnate named Charles Crane to sort out the Middle East. Amid the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, the region’s political future was uncertain, and the two men seemed to provide the necessary combination of business acumen and biblical knowledge. King and Crane’s quest was to find out how the region’s residents wanted to be governed. It would be a major test of Wilson’s belief in national self-determination: the idea that every people should get its own state with clearly defined borders.

After spending three weeks interviewing religious and community leaders in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and southern Turkey, the two men and their team proposed that the Ottoman lands be divided as shown in the map above. Needless to say, the proposals were disregarded. In accordance with the Sykes-Picot Agreement Britain and France had drafted in secret in 1916, Britain and France ultimately took over the region as so-called mandate or caretaker powers. The French-administered region would later become Lebanon and Syria, and the British region would become Israel, Jordan, and Iraq.

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