It was 90 years ago, this past week, that then-President Woodrow Wilson delivered a speech elaborating his commitment to the principle of self-determination.
Speaking on the Fourth of July, 1918, Wilson addressed what he called the four great "ends for which the people of the world are fighting." One of these, he said, required that "the settlement of every question, whether of territory or sovereignty, of economic arrangement, or of political relationship, [should be determined] upon the basis of the free acceptance of that settlement by the people immediately concerned, and not upon the basis of material interest or advantage of any other nation or people which may desire a different settlement for the sake of its own exterior influence or mastery." Though, Wilson, himself, was not always consistent in the pursuit of this goal, his anti-colonial instinct put him at odds with U.S. allies, the British and the French.
In the aftermath of World War I, those two U.S. allies had declared their ambitions to carve out "spheres of influence" in the Arab East. Having already concluded a pact between themselves to divide up the vast regions of East, Britain and France sought international support for their goals.
Wilson challenged the allies with a proposal to ascertain the desires of the Arab peoples, commissioning two prominent Americans, Henry Churchill King and Charles R. Crane, to go to the region and survey Arab attitudes. King and Crane set out to determine: what Arabs wanted as their political future, whether to be independent or subordinated to a foreign power; and how Arabs viewed both British and French plans to divide their region, and the intention of Britain to support the Zionist movement’s goal of establishing a "Jewish Homeland" in Palestine.
Since my brother John and I have long been involved in polling in the Arab world, the work of the King-Crane Commission is of special interest, as it was the first-ever survey of Arab public opinion.
First and foremost, King and Crane recognized that opinions mattered. As per Wilson’s principle, they recognized that imposing policy, without the agreement of the affected people, would not work, since it would only generate resistance.
Traveling throughout the Arab East for six weeks, the King-Crane Commision interviewed over 1,800 Arabs in the region that was to become Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan. What they found was that, among the residents of what was to be Palestine, "if… the wishes of Palestine’s population are to be decisive as to what is to be done with Palestine, then it is to be remembered that the non-Jewish population of Palestine – nearly nine-tenths of the whole – are emphatically against the entire Zionist program. …There is no one thing upon which the population of Palestine were more agreed upon than this." That same feeling was shared by the broader population of the entire Arab East covered by their survey. The King-Crane report continued, "only two requests – that for a united Syria and independence – had larger support."
The British and French were unimpressed. Countered Lord Balfour, the British Foreign Minister, "[I]n Palestine, we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the permanent inhabitants of the country, though the American commission has been going through the form of asking…. Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the decisions and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land."
Facing strong dissent from isolationists in the Republican-led Senate, pressure from his European allies and, plagued by his own inconsistency, Wilson waffled. The British and French had their way.
In the end, the Arab East was, in fact, carved into "spheres of influence" for Britain (Jordan and Palestine) and France (Lebanon and Syria). And many of the problems that plague the Middle East, until today, have their origin in that act.
This could have turned out differently. If the King-Crane findings had been heeded, the Zionist program could have been modified (not disbanded), and ways would have been found to seek early reconciliation between those who sought a Jewish refuge and the aspirations of the indigenous people of the Arab East. This was not done and, instead, force was used to dismember the East and impose policies on an unwilling population.
Wilson’s initial instinct was right. Opinions do matter. They did then, and still do today. Ignoring them, and implementing policies that do not have broad public support, only invites disastrous consequences. That was true then, and it is still true now.