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.
For years, key states in the region – some of them, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, darlings of the West – have essentially paid protection money to jihadists. Yes, America’s wars in the region – as destructive as they were stupid – bear a substantial part of the blame for the mayhem now engulfing the Fertile Crescent. But that does not exculpate the Arab fundamentalist monarchies for their role in reviving the seventh-century vision that ISIS (and others) seek to realize.