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.”