The Mideast Crack-Up
Robert Worth, David Goldman, Edward Luttwak, Amos Harel, Nathan Thrall, and Lee Smith on the new Arab map
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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