The rapid success of the jihadist sweep into northern Iraq is equalled only by the speed and volume of calls by some in the United States to ‘Do Something, Anything’, to stop this particular domino from falling. Neocons, ignoring the foolishness of invading Iraq in the first place in 2003, blame Obama for prematurely withdrawing American troops. Others say the solution is to use American military might to stop the spread of murderous thugs masquerading as devout Sunni Moslems into Baghdad itself.
The calls for outside intervention ignore one critical problem. The creation and initial success of these extremist groups is an Arab-wide problem that outside intervention can slow, but cannot stop. The removal of autocratic leaders across the region has exposed the fragility of any underlying social contract that was never really given a chance to develop since the Arab countries were carved out of the desert 100 years ago by bureaucrats in London, Paris and Rome.
It’s not so much a question of failed states, because many of these countries never really developed into states per se in the common sense of the word. Too many of them were run by loose affiliations of families, tribes, sects whose only object was to protect their own interests. Well-meaning democrats interested in social cohesion are a little thin on the ground in the Middle East.
RamiKhouri, the astute columnist for the Daily Star in Beirut, gets to the root of the problem in two recent columns.
“The open warfare and shaken statehood that characterize Syria, Iraq and Libya are the painful commemoration of the Arabs’ own 100 Years War for stable, legitimate statehood.
“Syria, Libya and Iraq are only the most dramatic examples of countries suffering from serious sectarian and other forms of warfare that could easily lead to the fracturing of those states into smaller ethnic units. Similar but less intense tensions define most Arab states. With the exception of Tunisia, the citizens of every Arab country have always been denied any say in defining the structure, values or policies of their state.
“It is no surprise, therefore, that Syria, Iraq and Libya should be at once so violent, fractious and brittle. The capture of cities and territory across northern Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) symbolizes a common aspect of the fragmented nature of many Arab countries: the ruling party or family that runs the government is at war with well-armed non-state actors that reflect widespread citizen discontent with the power and policies of the central state. The brittle Arab state is not simply melting away, as happened in Somalia over the last two decades; rather, the state in many cases has become just one armed protagonist in a battle against several other armed protagonists among its own citizens. . .
“Drone attacks and troops from the United States or Iran or any other foreign source will not have any significant impact on the multiple forces that drive the fighting and fragmentation in many Arab countries, and would probably only aggravate the violence.
“The popular uprisings that erupted three-and-a-half years ago have exposed the lack of foundations for coherent statehood in several Arab countries, and in some cases led to a vacuum that has been filled by various fighting forces in Syria, Iraq and Libya.”
In another column Khouri notes that the “underlying Arab-made structural problems include corrupt and incompetent governance, weak citizenship, brittle statehood, and a severe lack of cohesion among different ethnic and sectarian groups within countries.”
The expansion of the ISIS is not a sign of the future, according to Khouri. “These extremists have no base of support in the region . . . In more normal conditions, they have never had any serious support in Arab countries.”
So, what is the answer to these fractured societies attracted, at least in the short term, to the call of the extremists? Alas, there is no short-term solution. American politicians seem to like problems that can be solved with a single stroke – military action or massive economic aid, much of which winds up in Swiss bank accounts. But a solution to the problems in the Middle East requires decades, not days.
“The only lasting antidote to the problems we are witnessing in Syria and Iraq, and in less intense forms in Bahrain, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, requires many years to take shape. That antidote is more democratic and inclusive government coupled with growing economies. . . when citizens suffer both police state-style governments with stagnant economies that mostly favour a small number of families close to the ruling regimes, we end up with situations like the ones in Syria and Iraq,” Khouri writes.
“ISIS is frightening, to be sure, but not because it portends our future; it is frightening because it reminds us of the criminal incompetence of ruling Arab regimes during the past half-century, and as such it clarifies what must be done to bring Arab societies back to some semblance of normal life. This will be a long and hard struggle, but we have no other options.”
Western statesmen would be well advised to pay close attention to these points before doing anything, like ill-considered military strikes, to make the problems worse.