Arab man overlooking mountains in Middle East

Blinded By ISIS

Conventional wisdom holds that the Islamic State can be defeated only by the destruction of its "state." But this is a delusion: The Islamic State is a symptom of a historic shift, as the century-old order in the Arab Middle East collapses into chaos.

MADRID – The general consensus emerging since last month’s carnage in Paris seems to be that the Islamic State (ISIS) can be defeated only by a ground invasion of its “state.” This is a delusion. Even if the West and its local allies (the Kurds, the Syrian opposition, Jordan, and other Sunni Arab countries) could agree about who would provide the bulk of ground troops, ISIS has already reshaped its strategy. It is now a global organization with local franchised groups capable of wreaking havoc in Western capitals.

In fact, ISIS has always been a symptom of a deeper malady. Disintegration in the Arab Middle East reflects the region’s failure to find a path between the bankrupt, secular nationalism that has dominated its state system since independence and a radical brand of Islam at war with modernity. The fundamental problem consists in an existential struggle between utterly dysfunctional states and an obscenely savage brand of theocratic fanaticism.

With that struggle, in which most of the region’s regimes have exhausted their already-limited stores of legitimacy, a century-old regional order is collapsing. Indeed, Israel, Iran, and Turkey – all non-Arab-majority countries – are probably the region’s only genuinely cohesive nation-states.

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