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.