The Ruins of Empire in the Middle East

Opinion Articles


Though imperialism is now held in disrepute, empire has been the default means of governance for most of recorded history, and the collapse of empires has always been messy business, whether in China and India from antiquity through the early 20th century or in Europe following World War I.

The meltdown we see in the Arab world today, with chaos in parts of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Levant, is really about the final end of imperialism. The Islamic State’s capture of Palmyra, an ancient caravan city and one of the most visually stunning archaeological sites in the Near East, only punctuates this point. Palmyra represents how the region historically has been determined by trade routes rather than fixed borders. Its seizure by the barbarians only manifests how the world is returning to that fluid reality.

It is actually three imperial systems whose collapse we are now witnessing in the Middle East.

First, Middle Eastern chaos demonstrates that the region has still not found a solution to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. For hundreds of years, Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Jews, Muslims and Christians, in Greater Syria and Mesopotamia had few territorial disputes. All fell under the rule of an imperial sovereign in Istanbul, who protected them from each other. That system collapsed in 1918, unleashing the demon of national, ethnic, and sectarian disputes over who controls which territory at what border precisely.

Second, the implosion of Iraq in the wake of the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the implosion of Syria in the wake of the Arab Spring, and the rise of the Islamic State has brought to an end the borders erected by European imperialism, British and French, in the Levant.

Third, the demonstrably hands-off approach to these developments by President Barack Obama manifests the end of America’s great power role in organizing and stabilizing the region. And the United States, remember, since the end of World War II, has been a world empire in all but name. (Nobody, perhaps, makes this uncomfortable point more comprehensively than Oxford historian John Darwin in his 2007 book After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000.)

And it is not just imperial forces that have declined and left chaos in their wake. The fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, and the reduction of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria to that of an embattled statelet has ended the era of post-colonial strongmen, whose rule was organically connected to the legacy of imperialism. After all, those dictators ruled according to the borders erected by the Europeans. And because those imperial borders did not often configure with ethnic or sectarian ones, those dictatorial regimes required secular identities in order to span communal divides. All this has been brutally swept away.

Alas, the so-called Arab Spring has not been about the birth of freedom but about the collapse of central authority, which says nothing about the readiness of these states, artificial and otherwise, for the rigors of democracy.

Among the states affected by the current upset, two kinds have been discernible. First, there are the age-old clusters of civilization. These are places that have been states in one form or another going back as far as antiquity, and thus have evolved sturdy forms of secular identity that have risen above ethnicity and religious sect. Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt are the most striking in this category. If one looks at a map of Roman sites along the North African coast, one will see that the map is crowded with settlements where these countries are located, and relatively absent of settlements in the vast stretches in-between of Algeria and Libya. In other words, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt are historically definable. Whatever tumult and regime changes they have experienced in the course of the Arab Spring, their identities as states have never been in question. And so the issues in these countries have been about who rules and what kind of government there should be, not about whether or not a state or central government is even possible.

The second group of Middle Eastern states is even more unstable. These take the form of vague geographical expressions and they are places with much weaker identities — and, in fact, many have identities that were invented by European imperialists. Libya, Syria, and Iraq fall most prominently into this category. Because identity in these cases was fragile, the most suffocating forms of authoritarianism were required to merely hold these states together. This is the root cause for the extreme nature of the Qaddafi, Assad, and Hussein regimes, which practiced levels of repressions far more severe than those of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. Algeria, also an artificial state, essentially invented by the French, has experienced remote and sterile authoritarian rule, and now faces an uncertain transition given the declining health of its ruler, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has been in power since 1999. Jordan, too, is a vague geographical expression, but has enjoyed moderate governance through the genius of its ruling Hashemites and the overwhelming economic and security support this small country has received from the United States and Israel. Yemen may also be an age-old cluster of civilization, but one always divided among many different kingdoms due to its rugged topography, thus ruling the territory as one unit has always been nearly impossible.

Only suffocating totalitarian regimes could control these artificial countries formed from vague geographical expressions. When these regimes collapsed they left behind an utter void. For between the regime at the top and the tribe and extended family at the bottom, all intermediary forms of social and political organization were eviscerated long before by such regimes. Totalitarianism was the only answer to the end of Western imperialism in these artificial states, and totalitarianism’s collapse is now the root cause of Middle East chaos.

Overlaying this meltdown of vague geographical expressions and the less severe weakening of age-old clusters of civilization has been the rise of indigenous regional powers such as Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Iran is a great, old-world civilization on one hand and a ruthless and radicalized sub-state on the other. This is what accounts for its dynamic effectiveness around the region. A Persian empire has been based in one form or another on the Iranian Plateau since antiquity. Thus, rather than face political identity problems like the Arabs, Iranians are blessed with a cultural self-certainty comparable to that of the Indians and Chinese.

At the same time, however, the narrow assemblage of radical mullahs running the government of Tehran represent a sub-state akin to jihadi groups like the Islamic State, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, and the former Mahdi Army. Thus Iran is able to operate with unconventional flair. Iran has mastered the nuclear fuel cycle, trained radical and militarized proxy forces in the Levant, and brilliantly conducted negotiations with its principal adversary, the United States. Thus does Iran partially inherit the void left by the disappearance of Ottoman, European, and American empires.

Whereas Iran is the Shiite node of power in the newly sectarian Middle East, Saudi Arabia is the Sunni node. Saudi Arabia, compared to Iran, is the artificial creation of a single extended family. The country the Saudi family governs does not territorially configure with the Arabian Peninsula to the extent that Iran configures with the Iranian Plateau. Nevertheless, the House of Saud has impressively navigated its way over the decades through immense social transformation at home and a tumultuous security situation abroad. And the recent high-level personnel changes engineered by the new king, Salman, including the replacement of the crown prince and foreign minister, indicates the absolute determination of this dynasty to readjust its policies in order not to let Iran dominate the region.

Saudi Arabia’s recent bombing campaign against Iran-backed Houthi tribesmen in Yemen and Riyadh’s renewed intensification of support for anti-Iranian Syrian rebels (helped also by Turkey and Qatar) is a reaction to what Riyadh sees as an impending American-Iranian nuclear accord. Indeed, the Saudis are already factoring into their calculations the strong possibility of such a deal, and thus the bombing in Yemen and recent pressure on the pro-Iranian Assad regime in Syria represent — ahead of the actual fact — the post-nuclear accord Middle East. That accord, if it indeed happens, though limited to nuclear issues, will be viewed with some justification as the beginning of a more general American-Iranian rapprochement-of-sorts: in regional terms, that is, one declining imperial power coming to terms with a rising indigenous power.

To contain a post-accord Iran, the United States will need not only to bolster Saudi Arabia, but Egypt and Turkey as well. Egypt’s security services under de facto military strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi are already quietly allied with the Israeli security services in Gaza, Sinai, and elsewhere. America requires a strong Egypt — democratic or not — as a regional anti-Iran ally to bolster Saudi Arabia. While Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not normally viewed as a pro-American country, a strong Turkey in and of itself also helps balance against Iranian power. The jostling among these geographically and historically fortunate powers for regional dominance will define the new post-imperial order.

A new American president in 2017 may seek to reinstate Western imperial influence — calling it by another name, of course. But he or she will be constrained by the very collapse of central authority across the Middle East that began with the fall of Saddam Hussein and continued through the post-Arab Spring years. Strong Arab dictatorships across the region were convenient to American interests, since they provided a single address in each country for America to go to in the event of regional crises. But now there is much less of that. In several countries, there is simply no one in charge to whom we can bring our concerns. Chaos is not only a security and humanitarian problem, but a severe impediment to American power projection.

Thus, the near-term and perhaps middle-term future of the Middle East will likely be grim. The Sunni Islamic State will now fight Iran’s Shiite militias, just as Saddam’s Sunni Iraq fought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Shiite Iran in the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran War. That war, going on as long as it did, represented in part the deliberate decision of the Reagan administration not to intervene — another example of weak imperial authority, though a successful one, since it allowed Reagan to concentrate on Europe and help end the Cold War.

Back then it was states at war; now it is sub-states. Imperialism bestowed order, however retrograde it may have been. The challenge now is less to establish democracy than to reestablish order. For without order, there is no freedom for anyone.

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