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The Mideast Crack-Up: A Roundtable Discussion of the New Arab Map

Robert Worth, David Goldman, Edward Luttwak, Amos Harel, Nathan Thrall, and Lee Smith on the new Arab map

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A Syrian boy walks on the rubble of destroyed buildings in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on April 10, 2013. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

The fracturing of established Middle Eastern states into tribal, religious, and political enclaves isn’t visible on the maps that appear in newspapers and atlases. But while diplomats and commentators continue to refer to “Iraq” and “Syria” and “Lebanon” by the names that they were given in the aftermath of World War I, the reality on the ground is much more confusing.

Some of the new Arab statelets, like the Hamas enclave in Gaza and Hezbollah’s territory in Southern Lebanon, fly the flag of movements belonging to the Sunni and Shia streams of Islam. The Alawite rump state of Syria still flies the flag and uses the stationary of a U.N. member state, while Sunni rebels flying black jihadist banners control large swaths of Syrian territory and enjoy at least a temporary measure of diplomatic recognition in the West. Meanwhile, Kurdistan has tens of thousands of well-trained men under arms, a thriving economy, and independent diplomatic ties with its neighbors as it inches forward to independence. The Palestinian Authority, which enjoys newly upgraded formal representation at the United Nations, can alternately be seen as a dependent mini-state—whose borders are controlled by Israel, Jordan, and Egypt—or as a rump-state that has lost control of over 40 percent of its citizens to Hamas.

The point of this survey is to get a range of opinions about what the rise of mini-states means and which future approaches to the region are likely to bear fruit—and which are likely to be a waste of time. Our distinguished participants include, in order of appearance:

Robert Worth, foreign correspondent, the New York Times

David Goldman (aka Spengler), author of How Civilizations Die

Edward Luttwak (CSIS), author of The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook, and other intervening works

Amos Harel, military correspondent, Ha’aretz

Nathan Thrall, senior analyst, the International Crisis Group and contributor, the New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, and the New York Times

Lee Smith, senior editor, The Weekly Standard

Q: Our current maps of the Middle East were drawn by British and French cartographers after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I. Are the lines on those maps about to change? Or is this simply a moment of local bloodshed that will get cleaned up once governments—in Baghdad, Damascus, Washington, Ankara, Jerusalem, Moscow, Beirut, Beijing, Ramallah, etc.—draft a few well-worded accords?

Robert Worth: I agree with the premise that the Arab uprisings unleashed extraordinary centrifugal forces across the region, and it is natural to wonder whether this will result in a significant redrawing of boundaries. But I doubt it. The insurgent entities are themselves often highly mercurial and fragmentary, and the obstacles to forging new states or statelets are enormous. My own sense is that we are witnessing the breakdown of a specific model of governance that had become untenable: the military dictatorships that spread across the Arab world in the mid-20th century, usually in republican guise, starting with Egypt in 1952. (Despite the total failure of Arab unity as a political project, the uniformity of these centralized, corrupt, authoritarian regimes is remarkable.) This breakdown has brought a tremendous distrust of the centralized and oppressive governments in all these countries and a corresponding move toward local power. But these centrifugal forces lack any sort of cohesion or focused ideology aside from a tendency toward Islamism, and despite their distrust of central authority the insurgents themselves often view the prospect of new borders with great suspicion. In other words, the old order is broken, but (in most places) no one yet has the will or authority to put the pieces back together in a new way. I think we are in for a long period of chaos, where the illusion of a functioning state will persist.

David Goldman: In their wisdom, the colonial powers characteristically created multiethnic and multisectarian entities based on the principle of minority rule. There is a reason that Syria has labored under brutal minority regimes for half a century, since the Ba’ath Party coup of 1963 led by the Christian Michel Aflaq, followed by the Alawite Assad dynasty’s assumption of power in 1971. If you create artificial states with substantial minorities, as British and French cartographers did after the First World War, the only possible stable government is a minority government. That is why the Alawites ran Syria and the minority Sunnis ran Iraq. The minority regime may be brutal, even horribly brutal, but this arrangement sets up a crude system of checks and balances. A government drawn from a minority of the population cannot attempt to exterminate the majority, so it must try to find a modus vivendi. The majority can in fact exterminate a minority. That is why a majority government represents an existential threat to the minority, and that is why minorities fight to the death. This meta-equilibrium is broken and cannot be restored.

Edward Luttwak: Boundaries hurriedly drawn with blunt pencil stubs on small-scale defective maps that defined states too artificial to survive but by force are now being replaced by the boundaries of actually existing political communities, whether they are tribes as in Libya, sectarian agglomerations as in Syria, or entire ethno-religious zones as in Iraq. Syria never made sense except as a French mandate, which defined a sphere of influence in opposition to British spheres of influence. Libya was the fusion of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania.

Amos Harel: Even the map you described might have been painted from too narrow a perspective. I think we should also add Libya (where the PM, I’ve recently learned, has to cross checkpoints manned by five different militias, on his way home from office), Iraq (not only Kurdistan, but the growing Shiite-Sunni divide in that country) and Yemen to the list. Looking further ahead, Jordan might soon experience similar troubles. The failed state—or mini-state—phenomenon currently looks like a long-term process, which won’t be “solved” anytime soon. Look at the Syrian civil war, which Israel’s former Defense Minister Ehud Barak had predicted, ages ago, would end within weeks, with Bashar el-Assad’s fall.

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Poupic says:

Once Saddam was out was the time to break up this giant danger to all of it’s neighbors called Iraq. Iraq is a state created for the benefit of Britain only and the expense of the nations, religions, ethnic groups it chopped and diced and forced into Iraq. There is no Iraq neighbor that would not have breathed a sigh of relief if Iraq had been broken down then instead of attempting a nation building on the same horrible foundation. This of course appllies to Syria and Lebanon too, like it or not.

julis123 says:

I could have told you what Robert Worth’s answers would be before I read them. He simply parrots the NYT party line which has proven itself wrong in most cases in the middle east. You’d think that they might learn from their mistakes.

Beatrix17 says:

Worth is kind of worthless. Palestine was the name the Romans gave Israel. The UN created two states: One for the Palestinian Jews and one for the Palestinian Arabs. The Jews called their land Israel; the Arabs went to war, eventually losing their land to Jordan and Israel. When Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza from Jordan and Egypt, she eventually offered these areas to her former teammates, the Palestinian Arabs, who’ve found every excuse under the sun to reject them. They want Israel. (Why make the effort to start a new nation, when they can take over an established one)?

Is this what Worth thinks is disruptive?

Arabs called Israel a “colonizer” because some of her original inhabitants were European survivors of the Holocaust. But have you seen the Arabs rioting against their leaders? Look at the dark blonds, the red heads, the clearly European faces in the crowd. You can’t tell me there wasn’t some hanky panky between the Mideastern people and their European colonizers.

The Kurds have faced a lot of the same impediments that Israel has faced, and I’ve read that the Kurds are believers in democracy. Hopefully, the Israelis and the Kurds will be friends

nicydunegev says:

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The USA State Department continues its support of the wrong policies. From Loy Henderson in 1947 to John F. Kerry in 2013 there has been remarkably little sense in State when it comes to the Middle East. Even the remarkably able George Shultz made the error of recognizing Arafat. The past 3 Secretaries,M. Albright, C.Rice, and H. Clinton, have been enormously ineffective,

Rick S says:

What’s “new under the sun” are WMD such as biowarfare,etc. Small groups can now cause enormous damage to the US economy. We will miss the old dictators someday.

AreaMan says:

The British Colonies in North America went through a similar phase. Internecine fighting and a tremendous Civil War. The borders were drawn by foreign imperialists. Eventually, however, the original 13 colonies evolved into a much admired system.

AreaMan says:

If Israel’s public assistance to one of the statelets is so damaging, perhaps Israel should consider assistance to Iran.

Jacob Arnon says:

Worth’s blaming Israel for the Mid East crack up would be funny if it weren’t so serious. He didn’t just blame Israeli actions, but he blamed the very existence of Israel. This is the kind of language antisemites have always: Jews weren’t guilty for what they did but their very presence caused evil to occur.

Shame on the other participants for not calling on him to explain his bigoted views.

In any case Worth’s easy answers left out the real culprits for disrupting the middle East. These sometime go by the name of “modernism” and sometimes by the names of capitalism and communism, tough Germany under Hitler also had a role in it.

The Arabs world was an arena in which various world powers competed for influence and for oil. The Soviets thought they could score an easy victory by first attacking the Imperialist powers and then by taking their side in their wars against Israel.

But The German Nazi State beat them to it by trying to play the same game: they first attacked colonial Great Britain and then broadcasting anti-Jewish propaganda into the area.

After WW2 the Soviets followed suit with similar techniques and messages.

The US by promising protection from Soviet threats for exchange for oil also helped change the culture of the mid-East.

It could be argued the it was oil which played a larger role in destabilizing the region than any one country or combination of countries.

The number of causes destabilizing were varied and to blame it on Israel as Robert Worth did is a real stretch.

Beatrix17 says:

Because the original Zionists were so left wing, the Soviets expected Israel to back them. In fact, the Russians helped to vote Israel into existence. They were shocked to discover that the Jews preferred America and they made Israel pay for this by backing their enemies. If a Mid-Eastern nation wasn’t an enemy of Israel, Russia made sure they became enemies.. A lot of the anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the Mid-East today is Communist in origin.

Jacob Arnon says:

Yes, a lot of antisemitism is of Soviet origin, and a lot is of German Nazi origin. In addition a lot is due to traditional Muslims and Christians who have lived there for hundreds of years. (Think of the Damascus blood libel of mid 19th C.)

There is no shortage of paternity claims for antisemitism.

As for why Stalin backed Israel there have been many theories. Whatever the truth is I doubt that a cynic like Stalin put much trust in people’s ideological beliefs.

I would guess that Stalin voted for a Jewish State because it gave the Russians a chance to play the part of the Arabs’ best friend and protector.

In other words, had the Jewish State been voted down there would be no need for Russian help and the Russian knew it.

Beatrix17 says:

It’s extremely doubtful that Stalin had any idea that tiny Israel was going to be a central force in Mideast politics. (People born after the war have no idea how unimportant Israel and Jews used to be). Stalin simply thought the left leaning Jews were a sure thing, and Russia could utilize their brains and abilities with no effort. Only after the Israelis favored America, did he see anti-Israeli propaganda as a way of unifying the diverse Muslim nations he was dealing with and of assuring their loyalty.

The economically hybrid Chinese are thinking of using Israel, too, but this is a new century and the Chinese are finding different ways of achieving their goals. They want to get the best from both sides without alienating either side. They know Obama has failed in the Mideast and they’re trying to consolidate their power while Obama is still in office because things may never be this easy for them again.

Iran was stated in this four page report on the break up of the mid-east, and as a major architect, introducing a new Caliphate. Outside of the Middle East, the West including the US is under pressure from strict Islam. Khomeini, is still running Iran from a back seat. He has been a major instigator of middle east unrest, together with new Wahhabi Koran. Iran finds Israel wanting, in this concept. Israel is a well run, affluent democracy. Unlike the rest of the Middle East! Saudi and Iran will be unlikely allies. A power struggle between Saudi Royals and Khomeini. At the original rise of Islam and Mohammed, the wealth of the merchant classes brought about major wars between the nomadic desert tribes. Again extreme inequality exists in the area. Is the Wahhabi Koran adopted only by Saudia Is Khomeini reading off the original Koran?

Islamic populations outside of the Middle East are huge, not referred to in the report….. currently being enlisted and armed? In the report reference has been made briefly, Israel and Jordan, become allies. Is this feasible? Could it be advantageous to Israel, is it worth brokering repatriation of Jordanian Palestinians? This still leaves the fanatical element of Islamic males under 30 looking for a fight! Israel at all costs must try to retrieve the Sinai Peninsular, secure the Golan Heights and remove the Gaza Strip and Fatah regions. Incur new standards of treason within the Nation of Israel for those flouting Israeli law. In conclusion the Middle East is in for a major shake up if not war, largely between Sunni’s and Shiites, Israel must defend herself to the maximum and has to win.

CrossWinds says:

…..Revelation 12:17……..17 And the dragon (Satan) was angry at the woman (Israel) and declared war against the rest of her children—all who keep God’s commandments and maintain their testimony for Jesus……..

……..Revelation 12:12………

Therefore rejoice, O heavens, and you who dwell in them! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea! For the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time.”

jzsnake says:

I too was surprised that no one called Worth on that.

Papa493 says:

Goldman: “the United States allowed the Shia government in Baghdad to drift toward the Iranian sphere of influence”

What did you think would happen when we removed Iran’s #1 enemy in the region?

Might I suggest the real problems world wide, but especially the Arab Islamic parts of the world, might be linked directly and or indirectly to Ted Turner and his worldwide cable TV. He brought the “good LIfe” we are living into the homes of the “bad lives” most are living. He helped speed up the awareness and understanding in the Arab and Islamic world of just how they have been ignored in the Economic Globalization of China and India buy the Western countries. More importantly how no Arab or Islamic country has benefited in the development process of investment since the fall of the Ottoman Empire; Maybe all the way back to the 900′s. Why was the very rich Bin Laden so upset with his own Saudi Government? What did he say about it?


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The Mideast Crack-Up: A Roundtable Discussion of the New Arab Map

Robert Worth, David Goldman, Edward Luttwak, Amos Harel, Nathan Thrall, and Lee Smith on the new Arab map