Friday, November 21, 2014

The Birth Pains of Arab States

TEL AVIV – Caught off guard by the unraveling of the Iraqi state – spurred by the rapid advance of militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – Americans and Europeans have reverted to their penchant for self-flagellation. And, indeed, a major share of the responsibility for the tumult in Iraq – not to mention Syria – undoubtedly lies with the West’s pernicious colonial legacy and wrongheaded policies in the Arab Middle East. But, ultimately, the turmoil in the Arab world reflects the difficult encounter of an old civilization with the challenges of modernity.

To be sure, US President George W. Bush’s Iraqi enterprise was calamitously ill-conceived, as was President Barack Obama’s subsequent failure to leave an adequate residual force in Iraq after the United States withdrew its troops. Indeed, America’s hasty departure allowed ISIS to gain ground, while blurring the border with Syria. In its push to carve out an Islamic state, ISIS invaded Syria from Mosul long before they invaded Mosul from Syria.

But history is frequently shaped by overwhelming impersonal forces – such as religion, ethnic identity, and cultural attitudes – that are not receptive to solutions based on force, let alone intervention by foreign armies. Even if the US never invaded Iraq, it is not far-fetched to assume that the transition from Saddam Hussein’s leadership would have been violent, with an outcome resembling either Syria today or Yugoslavia in the 1990s, when a brutal civil war ended in the country’s division along ethnic lines.

In his famous attack on determinism, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin did not deny that structural factors could be a driver of history; he simply rejected their use as a pretext for avoiding moral responsibility. Though Arab elites could not control, say, the forces of Western imperialism, their failure to acknowledge their share of responsibility for the problems plaguing modern Arab societies amounts to a betrayal of their peoples.

Today, the Arab predicament is, at its core, a crisis of the concept of the Arab state. Arabs have long denigrated Israel’s ethnic concept of nationalism, arguing that religion is not a legitimate basis for statehood – as if European countries did not begin as and remain Christian republics for centuries, and as if the Arab countries surrounding Israel were a monument to religious and ethnic diversity.

In fact, Arab countries are imploding precisely because of their incapacity to reconcile such diversity. Of course, that struggle is not unique to Arab countries. For Europe, creating a peaceful, quasi-federal union required two world wars and the redrawing of national boundaries through ethnic cleansing – and it continues to be challenged by xenophobic and nationalist movements. Likewise, Yugoslavia’s multi-ethnic experiment ended violently, following the collapse of its dictatorship.

The Arab world’s struggle to create a viable sociopolitical order will not be any easier. Indeed, Syria and Iraq – now composed of separate Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni quasi-states, with the latter extending into Syria – might not be the last countries in the region to face challenges to the arbitrary borders established in the region by colonial powers at the end of World War I.

The Arab Spring revolutions are not just about the new Arab generation’s yearning for democracy, which still remains mostly unfulfilled; they are now mainly about the long-simmering frustration of minorities that were neglected in the post-colonial era and repressed by autocrats seeking to impose unity on multi-ethnic societies.

Today, the Middle East is experiencing the collapse of the notion that Arab states can accommodate religiously diverse societies. This is not a problem that a foreign power can resolve.

The mistake that the US has made in the Middle East has been to attempt to cut short the maturation process that major historical changes demand. Indeed, by invading Iraq, the US was effectively trying to circumvent the logic of the historical cycle.

If Europe had to endure centuries of religious wars and two successive world wars to settle its national and ethnic disputes, how could the US expect to be able to export democracy and respect for minorities to the Middle East on the wings of F-16s? It is telling that the two most successful democratic transitions in the Arab world in recent years – Tunisia and Kurdistan – occurred with minimal meddling from the West.

The future of the Arab Middle East is in the hands of its peoples – and history does not allow for shortcuts. Like all other civilizations in history, the Arabs must engage in a long process of trial and error aimed at overcoming their structural challenges – a process that is likely to extend throughout much of the twenty-first century.

However pernicious Western policies might have been, Islamist forces are a natural outcome in Arab lands, a genuine response to the failures of secular Arab nationalism and the modern Arab state. This is not to say that the West cannot offer any assistance. But it must do so with humility and cultural sensitivity, using smart diplomacy instead of “counter-terrorist strikes.”

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    1. CommentedDavid Morgan

      So many more Muslims will be killing each other and anyone who annoys them for the foreseeable future. So it is business as usual in the Middle East then.

    2. CommentedCam Jennings

      Shlomo writes well in this article and it is an interesting read. I wonder why, and the question is directed to the writer, why does Israeli foreign policy not adopt this type of "humility and cultural sensitivity, using smart diplomacy instead of "counter-terrorist strikes" in relation to Gaza - Lebanon & Palestine ?
      Surely the current military offensive leaves a sour and very bad taste with Israeli neighbours and the continued military operations are strategic offensive and not defensive moves. Shlomo, can you please explain ?

    3. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      Mr. Ben-Ami, if hope is bound to be born in the Middle East, then "birth pains" are worth all the while. The Arab Spring was conceived in 2011, yet the development or transition had been so treacherous that democracy was stillborn.
      It's true that the "West’s pernicious colonial legacy and wrongheaded policies" had been responsible for tumoil in the region, where modern states were built on ancient civilisations. It was a venue of empire culture and rivalry. Their borders were finalised after WWI and came under British and French rule until they became independent. Unfortunately power-holders couldn't cope with "challenges of modernity". For decades autocrats resort to regime violence "to impose unity on multi-ethnic societies".
      No doubt "George W. Bush’s Iraqi enterprise was calamitously ill-conceived", which Mr. Ben-Ami sees as a mistake, as it "cut short the maturation process that major historical changes demand" to achieve democracy, as it was the case in Europe.
      Yet it is equally wrong to criticise "Obama’s subsequent failure to leave an adequate residual force in Iraq after the United States withdrew its troops". The decision was right at that time. Nobody had predicted the Arab Spring and the civil war in Syria, which drew the Islamists from Iraq, Europe and America to wage jihad.
      "Even if the US never invaded Iraq", the Arab Spring would have caught up with Saddam Hussein and Iraq could have descended into anarchy, with ethnic groups fighting a Lebanon-style civil war. Even if the US had left behind a residual force, it would not have prevented violence from erupting. Sectarian strife broke out in February 2006, while US troops were still there.
      The Arab Spring uprisings "are not just about the new Arab generation’s yearning for democracy", but also for a better future. It is not just "minorities", that are frustrated, but the majority of the population - the 99%. Due to youth bulge, young people feel neglected and are not willing to accept social inequalities. Lacking education and having no jobs, they make an explosive bunch.
      It's true that Arab leaders are ethnic- and tribal-minded. Following their belief, "blood is thicker than water", they see have incentive to "accommodate religiously diverse societies". and it is "not a problem that a foreign power can resolve". They have to "engage in a long process of trial and error" to write their own history. After all the path to freedom and stability is always tortuous.

    4. CommentedTrissia Wijaya

      Using smart diplomacy actually has been implemented by the West since a long time ago,when they combined hard power and soft power along with their foreign policy objectives. However, smart diplomacy is not the only way to stop the violence and turbulence in Arab. There are several paradox happening in Arab today. Let's see Arab Spring. They are hardly about to combine the democracy and Islam. It seems so inversed with what diversity they hold - where secularism is kind of impossible thing within their demography status.

    5. Commentedhari naidu

      I think you, as an Israeli former FM, put your finger on the issues arising from Arab Spring - secular liberalization and modernization - which unfortunately misfired because none of the parties directly involved, including US, didn't assert the desired national influence to bring about changes in Arab society from within its citadels. In other words, the West admired the potential implications of Arab Spring but didn't dare take up the argument with the entrenched Wallabies and their like-minded Gulf Emirates.
      Bottom line is simply one of liberalization of Islam in 21st century.

    6. CommentedPaul Daley

      Meanwhile, in Israel, Jews kidnap and burn a fifteen year old Arab boy alive. Can we assume that's the "natural result" of Zionist tendencies?

        Commentedhari naidu

        Yes, they're Orthodox Jews (kids) from Brooklyn, with a zealous cause to takeover West Bank.