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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)

Nathan Thrall: Long-lasting as many minority regimes proved to be, it hardly seems the case, as David Goldman suggests, that they were the “only possible stable government.” Egypt since the 1952 revolution lasted longer than minority regimes elsewhere in the region, yet it was not ruled by Copts. The Saudi regime has outlasted rivals, yet it is not made up of Saudi Shiites. Iran is not governed by Azeris. Turkey is not under Kurdish control, and Palestinian citizens of Israel have not taken over the Jewish state.

Without doubt we are witnessing the strongest challenge yet posed to the post-Ottoman order in the Levant. With every passing day, Syria comes to more closely resemble an earlier period in its history, when the French briefly divided the territory into statelets containing Druze, Alawite, Sunni, and Maronite majorities—the last of which survived to became modern-day Lebanon. The current Syrian civil war threatens to spill over into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq, which teeters on the brink of a renewed civil war of its own.

Yet, as distant as a unified Syria may seem today, most of its people still want such a state, while Iraq has survived enormous bloodshed, reversals of regional alliances, calls for partition, increasing Kurdish autonomy, and the end of Sunni minority rule. What is finally remarkable about the Middle East’s poorly drawn borders is how durable they are. Altering them could occur under present conditions but would be far more likely in the aftermath of a wider regional war.

Lee Smith: The Lebanese newspaper columnist Hazem Saghieh has remarked that the problem with Sykes-Picot is that it didn’t divide the Arabs enough. By that he means that the borders drawn by the Western powers at the end of World War I region did not sufficiently account for the region’s sectarian, tribal, and ethnic fault lines. It’s possible that the various conflicts we’re seeing now throughout the region will divide the existing states into smaller autonomous or semi-autonomous cantons, but there’s also reason to believe that the existing borders will hold.

Egypt is not going to fade from history, and I think the same holds for much of the rest of the region. Syria and Iraq may not be real states in the Western sense, but they are real things with historical meaning to Middle Easterners. Damascus, as the capital of the Umayyad empire, and Baghdad, the Abbasid capital, are central to the story of Islam.

Other regional powers have an interest in maintaining borders for reasons of their own national interest. Israel will ensure the Lebanese borders stay intact by making all of Lebanon, and not just the Hezbollah regions, accountable for Hezbollah’s actions. Turkey is now engaged in real negotiations with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), with whom it has been at war for almost 40 years. Ankara wants to come to an accommodation precisely because it does not want to lose a large chunk of its Kurdish-majority territories to an emerging independent Kurdistan in Iraq and perhaps in Syria as well.

Q: Is the rise of mini-states and ethnic enclaves throughout the Middle East the result of specific American policy choices—like the withdrawal of American troops and diplomatic energies from the region, or the decadelong emphasis on Arab self-determination at the voting booth (aka the “Freedom Agenda” and “Arab Spring”)? Or is it the result of much larger socioeconomic trends on which America could have only a limited impact, even if it wanted to?

David Goldman: It has been influenced by American policy choices, but not entirely determined by them. In the case of Syria, the deterioration of the country’s agricultural sector undermined the Assad regime’s capacity to meet the basic needs of the population, a sine qua non of successful dictatorships. The non-oil-producing Arab states were left behind by the world economy, and the collapse of Arab nationalist dictatorships is first of all a function of adverse economics.

Nonetheless, American policy considerably worsened the problem though a series of blunders. America devoted its main attention during the 2000s to nation building in Iraq while ignoring Iran’s expansionism in the region. By wasting resources and credibility on Iraqi nation-building and neglecting Iran’s influence, the United States allowed the Shia government in Baghdad to drift toward the Iranian sphere of influence, compelling Iraq’s Sunnis to respond. Funding and arming the “Sunni Awakening” during the 2008 surge gave the Sunnis the means to respond. And encouraging the Muslim Brotherhood to replace Mubarak was a destabilizing factor. Threatened by Iranian expansion on one side, and encouraged by the Brotherhood’s success in Egypt on the other, Syria’s Sunnis decided that the moment had come to overthrow the Assad regime. With all due respect to Nathan Thrall, I referred to the multiethnic states created after World War I; Egypt and Iran were longstanding entities. The example clearly does not apply to Israel or Saudi Arabia.

Robert Worth: Americans—policymakers and analysts included—are far too likely to see their own hand at play in this kind of thing. The United States and the West generally have contributed very little to this breakdown, which is mostly the result of decades of mismanagement, a more recent economic collapse, and rising demographic pressure. I would argue that Israel has played a much larger role here than the United States, partly because its very existence (and the Palestinians that it displaced) have destabilized the region and nurtured radicalism. It is worth emphasizing that Middle Easterners are not destined to live in ethnic or sectarian or tribal enclaves, any more than England is destined to be a homeland only for Anglo-Saxon peoples. Tribalism is a symptom of state failure.

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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