Ways of seeing the Middle East
A legitimate and useful way to see the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East is as conflicts of nation and state formation. This means among other things, examining the nature of the political settlements there, including the terms of the relationship between the governed and those in power. Obama has implied as much in his comments on the current situation in Iraq. But this analysis also services as a stark reminder that the USA and the West have limited policy options, and in the end are likely to continue backing the devils they know.
Most of us were taken by surprise by the way the conflict in Syria appeared to burst its banks in the past few weeks, overflowing into Iraq and now threatening Jordan – even though it’s long been part of the narrative that this might happen.
In reporting this newly expanded conflict, journalists have made much of the idea that this is in part a conflict of state formation. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, tribal allegiance, western-manufactured post-Ottoman states, oil, Balfour, the Great Game, the juvenile nature of the states involved, and of course sectarian enmities – all have been brought out of the cupboard to explain the idea that national boundaries in the Middle East might be in the process of being redrawn. The consensus in liberal western media (a good example was in this week’s Economist) seems to be: stick to the lines we drew in the sand.
It is of course right to describe the conflict partly in terms of unreal borders, and of nations and states built on sand. A historical view of the region suggests there would be every likelihood of a redrawing of borders, absent outside interference seeking artificial stability à la status quo, even without some crazy idea of a caliphate stretching from the Philippines to the Gambia as per ISIS propaganda. But “state formation” – perhaps nation formation is more accurate in the first instance – is not only or mainly about borders. It is about the identity of the country, about the way people belong, and about the way political and economic power is held and wielded there.
A key element of this is the culture and nature of politics, and the nature of the political-economic settlement: who is in, and who is out, at every level. In Obama’s initial response to the ISIS advance a couple of weeks ago, he put his finger on this when he said that any solution should include a different – more inclusive – way of governing (and thus of being governed) in Iraq. He was talking about the need to change the sectarian nature of governance – effectively a need to revisit the political settlement which the USA had perhaps unwittingly established. What he saw was the need for the settlement to include and represent all broad identity groups, some of whom had been alienated, and thus driven into alliance with ISIS for want of alternative access to political and economic power.
This element of state formation – and we are now firmly in the territory of state formation, rather than nation formation, as this is about the relationship and the accommodation between the governed and the governing state – is hardly unique to the Middle East. Ukraine and other post-soviet countries are going through similar processes. Indeed, all states are in constant (if mercifully often peaceful and gradual) evolution. The recent rise of the Tea Party in the USA, the UKIP in the UK, and Five Star party in Italy to name but a few, are examples of how the nature of even relatively mature liberal states is being reviewed, tested and perhaps renewed at present, in response to dissatisfaction with the status quo. Arguably this already happened in the UK in the late 1940s, and again in the 1980s. In the right circumstances, and if non-violent and progressive in nature and outcomes, it’s both a natural evolution and an essential element of resilience. By the same token, where this evolution is held back, violence sooner or later erupts.
It’s critical this angle on the conflicts in the Middle East be clearly and well-reported. Not the least because it has an important consequence for outside intervention, or lack thereof. The USA’s decision to unlock its suspended military and security assistance package to Egypt, following the latter’s recent “restoration of democracy” is a useful reminder that in amongst the nice rhetoric from the West which has at times accompanied the Arab Spring, realpolitik will usually win out. Pace Obama’s words about inclusive governance, when faced by a choice between the allowing the people of the Middle East to define their own futures (as the Western rhetorical response to the Arab Spring at first had it), or helping bad leaders beat back the likes of Isis and thus support them in their own bad use of power, the West will likely once again be forced to admit that there is no easy middle ground. It has tried to find a middle ground in Syria and is not feeling too good about where that approach has taken it.
But perhaps that’s really what ISIS and its fellow travellers really want: to set things up to show young Moslems that western power really is always going to remain aligned with a tyrannical, haram form of rule which resists the people’s voice, and thus foment a continued undercurrent of violent rebellion around the world which, even though it may never achieve the establishment of the crescent Caliphate, at least continues to undermine the enemy.
Perhaps we can all be forgiven for feeling disappointed in the inability of Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, John Kerry and their allies to sort things out. But it’s quite a knot they are tasked with untangling.