Friday, November 28, 2014

The End of the Arab State

DENVER – In a region where crises seem to be the norm, the Middle East’s latest cycle of violence suggests that something bigger is afoot: the beginning of the dissolution of the Arab nation-state, reflected in the growing fragmentation of Sunni Arabia.

States in the Middle East are becoming weaker than ever, as traditional authorities, whether aging monarchs or secular authoritarians, seem increasingly incapable of taking care of their restive publics. As state authority weakens, tribal and sectarian allegiances strengthen.

What does it mean today to be Iraqi, Syrian, Yemeni, or Lebanese? Any meaningful identification seems to require a compound name – Sunni Iraqi, Alawite Syrian, and so forth. As such examples suggest, political identity has shifted to something less civil and more primordial.

With Iraq in flames, the United States-led invasion and occupation is widely blamed for unwittingly introducing a sectarian concept of identity in the country. In fact, sectarianism was always alive and well in Iraq, but it has now become the driving force and organizing principle of the country’s politics.

When sectarian or ethnic minorities have ruled countries – for example, the Sunnis of Iraq – they typically have a strong interest in downplaying sectarianism or ethnicity. They often become the chief proponents of a broader, civic concept of national belonging, in theory embracing all peoples. In Iraq, that concept was Ba’athism. And while it was more identified with the Sunni minority than with the Shia majority, it endured for decades as a vehicle for national unity, albeit a cruel and cynical one.

When the Ba’ath party – along with its civic ideology – was destroyed by the US occupation, no new civic concept replaced it. In the ensuing political vacuum, sectarianism was the only viable alternative principle of organization.

Sectarianism thus came to frame Iraqi politics, making it impossible to organize non-sectarian parties on the basis of, say, shared socioeconomic interests. In Iraqi politics today (leaving aside the Kurds), seldom does a Sunni Arab vote for a Shia Arab, or a Shia for a Sunni. There is competition among Shia parties and among Sunni parties; but few voters cross the sectarian line – a grim reality that is unlikely to change for years to come.

Pointing the finger at the US for the state of affairs in Iraq may have some validity (although the alternative of leaving in place a Ba’athist state under Saddam Hussein was not particularly appealing, either). The same could be said of Libya (though the US did not lead that intervention). But the US did not invade any of the other countries in the Middle East – for example, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen – where the state’s survival is also in doubt.

There are many reasons for the weakening of Arab nation-states, the most proximate of which is the legacy of the Arab Spring. At its outset in 2011, Arab publics took to the streets seeking to oust authoritarian or monarchical regimes widely perceived to have lost their energy and direction. But those initial demonstrations, often lacking identifiable leaders and programs, soon gave way to old habits.

Thus, for all of the initial promise of the political transition in Egypt that followed the demise of Hosni Mubarak’s military-backed regime, the result was the creation of a Muslim Brotherhood government whose exclusionary ideology made it an unlikely candidate for long-term success. From the start, most observers believed that its days were numbered.

When the military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power a year later, many of the Egyptians who had been inspired by the Arab Spring democracy movement approved. Egypt retains the strongest sense of nation-statehood in the region; nonetheless, it has become a shattered and divided society, and it will take many years to recover.

Other states are even less fortunate. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s evil buffoonery in Libya has given way to Bedouin tribalism that will be hard to meld into a functioning nation-state, if Libya ever was such an entity. Yemen, too, is beset by tribal feuding and a sectarian divide that pose challenges to statehood. And Syria, a fragile amalgam of Sunni, Alawite, Kurdish, Christian, and other sects, is unlikely ever to be reconstructed as the state it once was.

These processes demand a broader, far more comprehensive policy approach from Western countries. The approach must take into account the region’s synergies and not pretend that the changes that are weakening these states are somehow unrelated.

The US, in particular, should examine how it has handled the breakdown of Syria and Iraq, and stop treating each case as if there were no connection between them. America called for regime change in the former while seeking regime stabilization in the latter; instead, it got the Islamic State in both.

  • Contact us to secure rights


  • Hide Comments Hide Comments Read Comments (20)

    Please login or register to post a comment

    1. Commentedhari naidu

      The fear I hear from those who know and understand what under way in the region is (1) dissolution of Iraq and (2) Libya.

      Hill is knowledgeable about what happened in N Korea and in Iraq under his tutelage. Yet it seems possible that GWB misunderstood the invasion and colonization (it was a colonial governor!) of Iraq...and at what cost!

      ISIS is likely to target the Wallabies - what then?

    2. CommentedCharles Crawford

      I really dislike this sort of argument as it plays to Arab-style and wider professional victimhood. The idea that, say, Libya and Iraq and Syria are as awful as they are now mainly because for decades the US/UK have led an ‘aggressive campaign of marginalisation and frustrated colonialism’ against them is little short of insane. The problem is in fact the exact opposite: the calming cooperative influences of Western pluralism and integration have had almost no role there at all. Instead they have had weird home-grown versions of corrupt and cruel national socialism, variously supported from Moscow, leading to the deaths of countless thousands of Arabs/Muslims and oppression of millions.

    3. CommentedPeter Mason

      It wasn't unwitting, it was witless: the Yanks didn't care what harm they did. This article is attempting to shift blame from the main culprit. Destroy countries and you will get chaos. If you happened to have pursued an aggressive campaing of marginalization and frustrated colonialism against the whole region for a century before, as the U.S. has, the chaos will be all the greater.
      There is not a conflict in the Middle East that does not have U.S. foreign policy as a MAJOR causal factor (I admit that they inherited the role from my own country).

        CommentedCurtis Carpenter

        I would certainly not hold American foreign policy blameless Mr. Mason -- but calling it a MAJOR causal factor for every conflict in the Middle East strikes me as a bit of hyperbole. What about regional demographic, economic, cultural and religious factors? Surely American foreign policy's influence pales relative to those?

        The notion that U.S. foreign policy is a MAJOR contributing factor in every crisis on the planet has, I think, become a cliche' in many quarters -- and gives that policy far more credit (for better and for worse) than it deserves.

    4. Commentedkiers sohn

      This is a nice spin for the more blunt phrase "birth pangs of a new middle east". US Policy. Global Instability.

    5. CommentedTodd Clay

      Not all that different from the Democrats and Republicans.

        CommentedMichael Harrington

        In certain respects, I agree. This is what happens when identity drives politics. The Western idea was to create a secular state where identity was national, but that seems to have degenerated by choice - there seems to be little desire for e pluribus unum these days.

    6. CommentedJohn A Werneken

      Oxymoron, Arab State. Been Arab Fiefdoms and Arab Caliphates, but afaik, no Arab states, Lebanon perhaps excepted. This is how States are crated, after all: violence, chaos, and war.

    7. CommentedMark Rothschild

      Ambassador Hill, Thanks for your thoughtful observations. I would like to broaden the conversation a little by proposing that the weakening of the state is not restricted to the Arab world, nor is it restricted to traditional societies with pronounced communal fissures such as Syria and Iraq.

      The weakening state is a nearly world-wide phenomenon with various manifestations such as civil war in Ukraine, and devolution in the United Kingdom and Catalonia. In the USA we see analogues tendencies in the Tea Party and the libertarian movement.

      I suggest that a new paradigm of state legitimacy is aborning; broad currents of change running just under the surface are weakening existing states and I see no evidence that sectarianism is the cause, but rather the result of decline.

      What do you think?

        CommentedMichael Harrington

        @Mark Rothschild,
        I agree you propose a deeper insight into the logic of the nation-state. We are seeing a change in how people perceive themselves in relation to others and thus they are challenging nation-state allegiance and identity. This seems to be occurring all over the developed democratic world, as well as in the undemocratic societies. One can only speculate where this leads. US politics is riven by these divisions, as some other commenters have noted. Our politics are very conflictual and technological progress has made people far more autonomous.

    8. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      Mr. Hill, "the end of the Arab state" may be true in cases of Iraq and Syria. A 1916 map drawn up by Britain and France in a secret carve-up of the Ottoman Empire looks like it's unravelling. States like Iraq and Syria were created with borders as we know them. Today they no longer function as unitary states and are seeing a slow disintegration. Nobody knows whether they will still exist in their current forms in five years from now.
      It's true that "States in the Middle East are becoming weaker than ever", be they ruled by "aging monarchs" or "secular autocrats". As their authority dwindles their restive subjects look to their "tribal and sectarian" identities for guidance. Yet monarchies seem to have survived the Arab Spring better than they had feared. Jordan and Morocco emerged rather unscathed. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Kingdoms - with the exception of Bahrain - had showered their own citizens with largesse to keep them happy. Low-paid migrant workers, who chafed about political rights and working conditions had been deported.
      On the other hand secular - Stalinist-style - regimes propped up by powerful military had collapsed or they are fighting for political survival. This phenomenon can be explained that people feel a degree of attachment to monarchs and are more willing to accept them as unifying figures than unelected dictators, who often usurped power by means of a coup. Perhaps the descendants of Emir Faisal, who ruled Syria and Iraq in the 1920s might be able to unite the disparate ethnic and sectarian groups. ISIS has its own self-proclaimed emir - Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who wants to fill Emir Faisal's shoes.
      The Middle East is going through the toughest period of its modern history. What had started as unarmed protests against authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, morphed into a vicious civil war with sectarian overtones in Syria. The strife between Shiites and Sunnis is the oldest division in the Middle East. The tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in many parts of the region are being played out in a proxy war in Syria between the Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.
      What surprises outsiders is the Sunni rivalry between Saudi's Wahhabism and political Islam, embraced by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Like the schism in Christianity between Protestants and Catholics, it is as much about power and identity as religion. Leaders have tried to use sectarianism as a tool to legitimise their brutal authority, just as European governments still sometimes breed nationalism to justify protectionist policies.
      The forces that had been unleashed in the Middle East are beyond anyone's control. Although the US is still a superpower, it has no influence on the events there any more. Indeed the Arab Spring had taken quite a toll on America's relationship with Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia, its strong allies in the region. Yet the Obama administration is doing the right thing by abstaining from military actions. History teaches a lesson. It warns us against the vagaries of revolutions and it takes years before the outcomes become clear.

        CommentedMonte Bohna

        Herr von Hettlingen is quite right to notice the remarkable distinction, which Ambassador Hill rather elides, between the fates of "secular authoritarians" and Arab monarchies. One possible explanation for this difference is that the Jordanian and Moroccan monarchies are both assiduous in their relations with tribal leaders, and perhaps this point suggests an emendation to Mr. Hill's idea. If the Versailles-Treaty Arab nation states are for the chop, Sunni-Shiite sectarianism may be one organizational principle, but certainly tribal loyalties and affiliations will be another. Mr. Hill alludes indirectly to the importance of tribal identity and loyalty in reference to Libya and Yemen, but those are not the only Arab states where tribal loyalties play a key role between sectarianism and nationalism. The lesson for Western policy makers may be to look to tribal ties, in the case of Arab monarchies by bolstering those institutions' links to their tribal leaders, in the case of authoritarian or former monarchies, by working through tribal fealties.

    9. CommentedVelko Simeonov

      The demise of the current geopolitical order in the Middle East seems rather inevitable. I think the real “Big Bang” will be when the die-hard islamists turn their eye on Saudi Arabia. What worries me as a European is that the same people that triggered this situation (make no mistake the US is to blame for the speed and gravity of these developments 100%) are now “spreading democracy” in the heart of Europe (Ukraine).

    10. CommentedJohn Brian Shannon

      HI Christopher,

      I enjoyed reading your analysis of the region. It is accurate, statesman-like and non-political. We can never have enough of that kind of commentary.

      When we look at the state of the Middle East prior to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq -- the state of the Arab nations ware the opposite of the situation that exists there now.

      Apart from the almost eternal back and forth between the Israelis and the Palestinians, all of MENA was a sleepy land causing no harm to anyone and little excitement. This was true even in Iran. Things were decidedly quiet pre-2003 MENA.

      Then, the Iraq War started and a guided and unguided process of destabilization began in Iraq and in the region. Sometimes with American backing, sometimes with European backing, and sometimes with regional powers playing various helpful or unhelpful roles.

      Some in the U.S. and Europe were leading well-intentioned efforts to bring about peaceful and positive regime change or at the very least, a dramatic advance of reforms and democracy throughout the MENA region.

      All in all, it was (and events have now proven this so) a recipe for failure.

      Nobody can possibly say with a serious face that life in Iraq is better now, than pre-2003. Especially for the dead Iraqis. And their families.

      The same can be said for Egypt, pre illegal coup. (The one that removed Hosni Mubarak) and the same can be said for Libya, Lebanon, Syria, even normally stable Turkey and Jordan have suffered.

      Not one of these nations are doing any better than they were pre-2003.

      As you know, "power vacuum" is simply another term for "lack of leadership" and it is the responsibility of invading, but especially occupying nations, to ensure that "power vacuums" do not occur. And not just after the war is over, but throughout the occupation.

      The occupier must strengthen the most stable and democratic of political parties and political individuals, thereby weakening the less stable and one would think, less likely to succeed political actors, including those with a terrorist background.

      It is not the sort of thing that one U.S. Ambassador can pull off himself, or herself. No, this lack of an overall plan, prior to going into Iraq 2003 and even worse, still no overall geopolitical plan halfway through the war, nor even after the war, is the prime reason for the many failures we see there today.

      Occupy and then turn it over to... ??? Well, whoever pops up at the time. That plan was destined to fail, and it did.

      But worse than that, once the monumental strongman Saddam Hussein had been torn down, an entire Arab cohort simultaneously wondered if Saddam could be taken down, and their own leaders be removed from power by violence.

      And sure enough, that's what happened.

      They even had some Western backing, and some scattered and uneven Middle Eastern backing to assist them on their way.

      But politics is about getting a better leadership and a better vision installed via the voting booth, more than it is about simply removing what appeared to be 'problem Presidents' or 'problem Prime Ministers'.

      Of course they were problem leaders. But their replacements were worse. So, where's the value? And, look at the losses in human life and national treasure.

      Again, inadvisably, this was done without a an overall vision and overall plan from the invaders and occupiers.

      "Anyone but him" is not high politics and the results have been utterly predictable.

      The West caused this problem, unwittingly aided by opportunistic citizens with very little experience in democracy or the rule of law.

      The West's (I say the West's only because we were the invaders and occupiers, and aiders and abettors) lack of an overall vision and cogent plan caused the present malaise in the MENA region, by not preparing to avoid power vacuums then and now, and with little instruction or advice on how to run successful democracies since.

      I strongly agree with you that the ongoing situation in the MENA countries demands a full-time and region-experienced diplomat, one not distracted by ongoing and likewise important situations in Ukraine, China Sea, etc. to the end that a "broader, far more comprehensive policy approach from Western countries" be made the highest priority for this administration and the Department of State.

      Very best regards to you, Chris.

      John Brian Shannon

        CommentedJohn Brian Shannon

        I rewrote this comment, but rather than repost it here, you may find it at this URL:

        Thank you, JBS

    11. CommentedHayder Judi

      Ambassador Hill raises important points with respect to the region and specifically Iraq from which I come from. However, I beg to disagree with several of his theses outlined.
      To start with Amb Hill indicates that the civic concept of national belonging and the suppression sectarianism and ethnicity was mainly promoted by 'Sunnis' which took a Ba'athist identity since 1968. However this claim while popular at present, was definitely not so in the period between 1921 (Beginning of Modern Iraqi state) until first 1958 (revolution against monarchy) and second 1968 (Ba'athist revolution). Moreover it was not even the case during the 19th century (and maybe 18th) when Iraq with its three provinces (Baghdad, Mosul and Basrah) that covered the present Iraq. The national belonging then was generally promoted by the population elite; the business community composed mainly of Jewish and Shiite traders and merchants, Ottoman bureaucracy made up of Sunni Iraqis and large landowners made up mainly of Muslims in general. The structure for the civil state was mainly preserved throughout all coups and revolutions which only took out the political elite retaining the bureaucracy and civil service.
      My view is that the root issue for the upheaval is two pronged with one component leading to the other. The first is that, unlike European states that went through the horrors of the religious wars in the middle ages which convinced its leaders of the necessity to totally separate the state from the church and paved the way for civil transformation, the Middle East was not so fortunate as it was occupied by the Ottomans who combined the two authorities; divine and secular. The Middle East was then divided by the Sykes-Picot agreement based on principles that are far from totally rational or feasible but beneficial to the war victors. This was followed by the second component which was the selection of certain dynasties to rule due the convenience of forging fruitful relationships wit the few rather than the plebiscite. This choice of leadership led to the autocracies and aging monarchies that Amb Hill refers to. The best case scenario in the modern age was for peaceful transformation through the cajoling and nudging of the European and American leaderships through time. This chance was missed and, I am afraid, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and European intervention in Libya acted as a trigger for momentous events which jeopardized the critical balance that developed with the help of a more globalized and informed nations. This unleashed the violence and butchery seen today under whichever pretext; sectarian, religious, tribal etc. I believe that this chain reaction has not reached its end yet and, if not properly addressed, could easily engulf new states such as the weaker gulf sheikdoms and states which have their share of underlying chaos elements. This could take years and maybe decades. What is certain is that Amb Hill's main thesis is valid. In twenty years time, who knows what this region looks on map.

    12. CommentedKen Presting

      Mr. Hill makes a valuable contribution to a difficult problem, by encouraging us to look beyond the narrow question of whether America imposed its will or not, in any specific troubled state.

      It seems to me that there is a larger phenomenon occurring across a wider range of troubled areas. The role of organized crime has become more negative, just as the role of USA vs Soviet competition has become less so. Many organizations which had been part of that toxic axis are now regional terrorists as well as drug runners, human traffickers, and kidnapping rings. This problem extends from the FARC in Latin America to the Taliban in southern Asia.

      Mr. Hill's principle insight, I would say, is that sub-national violence has replaced central-strategic conflict as the great challenge of our times. I want to suggest also that tribalism and sectarianism are accidental dimensions along which groups crystallize.

      Exploitation of weak populations by stronger ones is the oldest story in human history. We can be glad the the scale of exploitation is coming down, but we should all keep looking for every mechanism which keeps that process going.

    13. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      Maybe we could specify it further, it is the artificially created "nation-states" that are collapsing, as if a fundamental "evolutionary tsunami" washed away all the interference, self-serving creations the colonial, Western nations put into place for centuries.

      It is not an isolated incident either, we observe the same "evolutionary tsunami" in other seemingly disconnected facets of the deepening global crisis as well.
      Everything we created that is not based on some "primordial", natural foundations, in line with the general balance, homeostasis in the vast natural system we exist in, but is an artificial human invention, is falling apart.

      As there are no separate solutions for the financial, economical, environmental, social aspects of the crisis, there are no local, "two-state", or even regional solutions for the geo-political issues, neither in the Middle East, nor in the border of Europe and Russia, in the Far East or anywhere else.

      In a globally interconnected and inter-dependent system either we learn how to observe the system in its totality, direction, flow and adapt, act accordingly, or we continue self-destructing.

        CommentedEdward Ponderer

        I would phrase it this way: artificially assigning cells and tissues to conglomerate organs makes no sense physiologically. A neuron is not going to be muscle, even if bundled up with it.

        The key will be relaxation to a more natural state for organization--but it must not be one of total disintegration into "rally around the flag" "close up the wagon train" groups, to borrow from American historical idiom.

        The key will be the transformation of fear and hatred of difference into a healthy respect for it--seeing unique contribution in it. Then an over-ridding love, a wholeness to the world to go with the grain of the natural state of mutual responsibility that we can expect for human globalization from what we see over and over again in the formation of natural systems.