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There is no question that the Middle East is a mess. The usual explanations for the disarray, however, fail to capture the root cause. Sectarianism, popular discontent with unrepresentative governments, economic failure, and foreign interference are the usual suspects in most analyses, but they are symptoms of the regional crisis, not causes. The weakness, and in some cases collapse, of central authority in so many of the region’s states is the real source of its current disorder. The civil wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, along with the frail governments in Iraq, Lebanon, and the quasi state of Palestine, define the long-term geopolitical challenge of the region. These political vacuums invite the intervention of powers near and far. They allow sectarian and ethnic identities to become more salient. They give terrorist groups opportunities for growth. They impede economic development. And they create profound human suffering, which leads to massive refugee flows.
Rebuilding central government authority is the necessary first step for the region to escape its current Hobbesian nightmare. The problem is that state building has historically been a long and violent process. It is done by ruthless men (in the Middle East, always men) who have little regard for democratic niceties or international norms of human rights. Afghanistan and Iraq have shown that this kind of order creation cannot be done by outside powers. Under both Democratic and Republican administrations, Washington has proved that it is much better at destroying states than building them.
It is foolish to think that the choice in the Middle East’s weak and failed states is between good governance and bad governance, or between democracy and authoritarianism. In reality, the choice now is between harsh governance and no governance. Once order is established, there will be a chance for economic development and political progress, but no guarantee of either. For those interested in a less violent, more predictable, and even, at some point in the future, more just Middle East, the hard reality is that dealing with extremely flawed regimes, with blood on their hands, is sometimes the only way to check the dangers of disorder.
The irony of the current crisis of state weakness and collapse in the Middle East is that during the last three decades of the twentieth century, the regimes in power were becoming more stable and better able to govern their societies, for good (providing social services) and for ill (building institutions of surveillance and control). The Arab states that gained independence after World War II were weak by design. France and the United Kingdom, the colonial powers, had seen little reason to build effective governments or provide social services to the populations. The strongest institutions they created were armies, but even those were kept small and aimed at maintaining domestic order, not fighting wars. The endemic instability of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, with frequent military coups, the fall of monarchies, and the challenge of revolutionary pan-Arabism, followed naturally from that inherent state weakness. Then, in the 1970s, a switch flipped. The Arab world, famous in the decades following World War II for its instability, became stable. The remaining monarchies in Jordan, Morocco, and the Arabian Peninsula endured, as did military regimes in Algeria and Egypt. Baath Party rule in Iraq and Syria, which had been two of the most volatile Arab countries, solidified under Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad, respectively. Even more personalist dictatorships—namely, those of the erratic Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen—were able to beat back challenges to their power for decades.
This is not to say that stability reigned everywhere. Revolution convulsed Iran in 1978–79 and produced the Islamic Republic. Turkey experienced military coups in 1971 and 1980, followed by a shaky transition to democracy. In both countries, however, the state itself continued to function. (In fact, one could argue that these short-term disruptions led to long-term stability: the governments in Iran after the revolution and Turkey after the 1980 coup each became more effective at controlling their populations.) There was also the glaring exception of Lebanon, where power was formally divided among its sectarian groups. It experienced civil war and foreign military interventions from the mid-1970s through the 1980s and beyond.
The strengthening of Middle Eastern states was partly the result of the socialist policies that so many regimes pursued after gaining independence. Land reform, the nationalization of industries, and top-down economic planning—all empowered the state. Meanwhile, the 1970s energy crises drove up the price of oil and redoubled the incentives for massive government growth. Formerly poor states now had the revenue to build large bureaucracies, armies, and internal security forces, enabling them both to distribute more benefits to their populations and to exercise greater control over them. Even the countries that exported little to no oil, such as Egypt and Jordan, benefited from the regional energy windfall, receiving foreign aid and investment from the oil states. The booming Arab petrostates welcomed millions of workers from their neighbors, relieving unemployment pressures in resource-poor Arab states.
Washington has proved that it is much better at destroying states than building them.
A more stable and statist Middle East was not necessarily a more peaceful Middle East. There were violent crackdowns against armed opposition movements in a number of countries, with Syria experiencing civil-war-like conditions in the early 1980s, Algeria through most of the 1990s, and Iraq after its defeat in the Gulf War in 1991. In each case, however, the regime had the resources to hold on to power, and the fighting was largely contained inside national borders. There were international conflicts, as well: not just the Gulf War but also the Arab-Israeli war of 1973 and the Iran-Iraq War of 1980–88. Yet all were state-to-state wars, not civil or guerilla wars. They could be ended through conventional diplomacy and, in the case of the Arab-Israeli war, by real peace treaties with Israel. Stronger states were also able to fend off the kind of political pressures and foreign meddling that in the 1950s and 1960s had brought down governments in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen and kept the region on edge. And despite the efforts of the new regime in Tehran to spread Islamist revolution to other Middle Eastern states in the 1980s, it succeeded only in the weak state of Lebanon, and there only partially so, by establishing Hezbollah.
This process of state strengthening was not pretty. The regimes that carried it out were not democratic. Political freedoms were severely curtailed, if they existed at all. The leaders were brutal to their opponents. Their bureaucracies were stultifying barriers to private-sector economic development and the functioning of civil society. The human and economic costs of building stronger states were real. But the process brought more stable domestic orders and a regional scene that, although still subject to interstate war, was also more responsive to international pressures for peace and stability. The region was neither the site of large-scale humanitarian disasters nor the source of massive refugee flows, as it is now. It was not perfect, but it was also far from today’s mess.
Why was the Middle Eastern trend of stronger states and more stable regimes reversed in the twenty-first century? In the countries that didn’t export oil, populations grew faster than resources, putting pressure on the welfare states that had been built in the 1950s and 1960s. Israel and Turkey survived by adopting export-led growth models as the world turned toward neoliberal, free-market policies in the 1990s, but both had very specific advantages: Israel had access to the American market and American aid, and Turkey enjoyed membership in the EU’s free-trade association. Other Middle Eastern states that took the same neoliberal turn were less successful. Egypt’s and Tunisia’s partial embrace of neoliberalism tended to promote crony capitalists and exacerbate inequality. For the oil states, it was feast or famine. The volatility of oil prices put great pressures on oil exporters with large populations and modest per capita energy exports. Iraq was motivated to invade Kuwait in 1990 in part because of the fiscal crisis brought on by the collapse of oil prices in the mid-1980s. Algeria, too, suffered from that same collapse, with the decline in oil revenues leading to spending cuts, protests, elections, and, eventually, a brutal civil war in the 1990s. Only the super-rentier oil states, such as Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, which had enormous per capita energy wealth, avoided problems.
These longer-term demographic and economic trends formed the backdrop to more immediate political pressures, which kicked off the current crisis of state weakness. The starting point was the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Thanks to more than a decade of brutal international sanctions, the relatively efficient redistributive bureaucracy and terrifying police state that Saddam had built with Iraq’s oil wealth had morphed into a more limited patronage regime, held together by sectarian and clan loyalty and unconstrained violence. Iraq was a weak state when the United States invaded. But it became a failed state after the invasion.
In the hubris of its Cold War victory and the dislocation it felt after the 9/11 attacks, the United States believed that it could destroy what was left of the Iraqi state and rebuild it from the ground up. The George W. Bush administration, in an effort to purge the country of Saddam’s influence, disbanded the army, outlawed the ruling party, and dismantled the bureaucracy, thereby toppling the three pillars of the modern Middle Eastern authoritarian state. The result was social breakdown: multiple armed insurgencies, a lack of electricity, the collapse of the educational system, and the looting of state wealth. Iraq, which had been a major player in regional politics, became a playing field for others, most successfully Iran. The United States was unable to build a strong, well-functioning, democratic state in Iraq, much as it was unable to do so in Afghanistan. Instead, it created a political vacuum in which nonstate actors such as the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) could flourish.
The next regional shock was the Arab uprisings of 2010–11. This contagion of protest was a reminder that, despite the demise of pan-Arabism, Arab citizens still saw themselves as sharing not just a language and a culture but also some sort of common political identity. Soon, however, the heady days of (largely) peaceful protests mobilizing citizens across sectarian, regional, and ideological lines devolved into civil wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The democratic victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian parliamentary and presidential elections was snuffed out by a coup in 2013 that returned to power the military elite that had ruled Egypt since 1952. Tunisia’s successful democratic experiment is now facing the challenge of an elected, and seemingly popular, president who has suspended parliament and the constitution.
In Egypt and Tunisia, the regime fell, but the state itself never cracked. Both countries’ militaries remained united; their bureaucracies continued to function. In Libya, Syria, and Yemen, order broke down. They joined Iraq in the company of the region’s failed and failing states. When one Middle Eastern state becomes a political vacuum, as Lebanon did in the 1970s and 1980s, the consequences can to some extent be kept local, with only the surrounding states directly affected. When so many states descend into conflict, however, a national crisis becomes regional, and even global.
The civil wars experienced by so many states in the region have had horrible consequences for their citizens. Both Syria and Yemen have, at various times in the last decade, been described as the location of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. In the Middle East, however, what happens in these civil wars is not contained within the borders of the affected states. The crisis of state authority in the region carries three serious international consequences.
Two are relatively easy to grasp. First, nonstate actors thrive in areas where the state can no longer claim a near monopoly on the legitimate use of force. The vacuum created in Afghanistan by the Soviets’ 1989 withdrawal gave al Qaeda the safe harbor it needed to plot the 9/11 attacks. The collapse of Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion offered ISIS a base from which to develop and expand into Syria. The lack of order in Yemen, even before the civil war there began, enabled the rise of a local al Qaeda affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. (The group’s ranks were filled with Saudis who had found that the strong state in their home country made it impossible for them to operate there.) The chaos in Libya has allowed the North African branch of the Islamic State to find a territorial base. Failed states give terrorists the freedom they need to pursue their broader ambitions.
Second, the humanitarian crises of civil wars cause massive numbers of people to flee their home countries. When those civil wars are close to Europe, the consequences for the United States’ NATO allies are particularly difficult to manage. The refugee issue has shaken the political scene in a number of European countries, accelerated the growth of right-wing populism, and occasioned serious divisions within the European Union. When a country such as Belarus can use Iraqi refugees at the Polish border as pawns to pressure the EU to lift sanctions against it, as it did in the latter part of 2021, it is easy to see how the consequences of the collapse of state authority in the Middle East are not confined to the region.
The sectarian struggle in the Middle East is a bottom-up, not a top-down, phenomenon.
The third international consequence is more complicated: weak and failed states become arenas in which rivalries are played out among the Middle East’s ambitious stronger states and, in some cases, international powers. As the state recedes, unable to provide basic order and minimal services to its people, those people have to look for support and protection in their local communities.
Given the history in many of these states, those communities are often (although not always) sectarian. The collapse of Iraq’s state, for example, made Shiite and Sunni identities among Arab Iraqis more central to their politics, while also permitting Kurdish Iraqis, both Shiite and Sunni, to realize their hopes for ethnonational autonomy (although not internationally recognized independence). Given the strong cross-border connections in the Middle East based on tribal, ethnic, sectarian, and ideological identities, it is not surprising that the people in these broken states seek help from their neighbors. Shiite Arabs in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen look to Iran, the region’s major Shiite power, for support in their fights. Sunni Arabs ask for help from the leading Sunni states, particularly Turkey and Saudi Arabia but also the smaller, wealthy Gulf monarchies in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The regional players do not have to fight their way into these states. Local actors, engaged in life-and-death struggles for the future of their communities, invite them in. Those local actors need the money, guns, political support, advisers, and fighters that their regional patrons can supply. The sectarianization of regional conflicts emerges from the sectarian divisions within these states. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey take advantage of it, but they do not impose it on unwilling proxies. The sectarian struggle in the Middle East is a bottom-up, not a top-down, phenomenon.
Proof that sectarianism is more a consequence than a cause of the regional crisis can be found in Libya. There are no significant sectarian differences in the country. Almost everyone is a Sunni Muslim. But when the Qaddafi regime collapsed under the pressure of the U.S.-led military intervention of 2011, Libya became as fractured a society as any in the region. Groups formed on regional, tribal, and ideological bases to fight for power. Egypt, France, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and others picked their proxies. Sectarianism played no role in Libya, but the situation in the country now strongly resembles those in Syria and Yemen, where sectarian divides do exist. When a state collapses, the lines along which the society fractures are a product of its unique history. The regional consequences, however, are depressingly similar.
The big winner in the Middle East’s crisis today is Iran. It has found a successful formula for extending its influence into broken Arab states with significant Shiite populations. The formula involves providing money, guns, political and logistical support, and even fighters to its allies. But the core of its success is that its local allies have an ideological commitment to the Iranian regional project. Hezbollah, various Afghan and Iraqi militias, and the Houthis in Yemen all want to be Tehran’s junior partners and are willing to act across borders to support Iranian policy. They see Iran as a political model and thus accept its leadership as legitimate. Hezbollah, along with Shiite militias from Afghanistan and Iraq, has fought in Syria to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and its fighters have trained the Houthis. Iran has been able to extend its influence throughout the broken polities of the eastern Arab world despite the relative weakness of its conventional military forces. Nobody in the region fears an Iranian military invasion; many fear the proven ability of Iran to infiltrate their societies.
Iran’s regional rivals have not enjoyed nearly the same level of success. Saudi Arabia has more money to give its clients than Iran does, but money is not every- thing in this game. The problem for Riyadh is that its natural ideological allies, Salafi jihadi movements such as al Qaeda and ISIS, hate the Saudis and want to kill them. Thus, the Saudis have suffered setbacks in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Saudi money is useful for established state actors that are looking to consolidate their power, such as the Egyptian government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. But Riyadh does not have loyal nonstate allies and proxies that can advance its interests in the region’s civil wars.
Turkey put itself forward in the wake of the Arab Spring as the natural leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and similar Sunni Islamist movements in the Arab world. This was a potentially potent play for influence. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had demonstrated that a populist Sunni Islamist party could dominate free elections, implement successful (at least for a while) economic policies, and govern a major regional state. The Muslim Brotherhood, following Erdogan’s playbook and positioning itself as a moderate, democratic, populist Islamist political party, did very well in elections in Egypt and Tunisia. Islamists with similar platforms had success in Libya’s elections in 2012, as well—the country’s first elections in several decades. With the Assad regime seeming on the brink of collapse in 2011, it looked like the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, a longtime foe of the regime, would be the natural inheritor of power there.
Unfortunately for Erdogan, the Muslim Brotherhood’s moment was brief. The Brotherhood’s rule in Egypt ended with the 2013 coup. The restored military regime cracked down on the Brothers in a brutal campaign that filled Egyptian jails and morgues. Sisi found support from the Emirati and Saudi governments, which feared bottom-up populist Sunni movements as much as they feared the growth of Iranian power. As popular uprisings morphed into civil wars in Libya and Syria, Salafi jihadis schooled in violence supplanted the Brothers, who had chosen peaceful democratic participation over the use of force. The Brotherhood’s last success, the Ennahda Party in Tunisia, is on its back foot with the closure of parliament and the consolidation of power by President Kais Saied in July 2021. Erdogan now has more problems at home, both economically and politically, than he could have imagined ten years ago, when he thought Turkey could lead the Sunni world after the Arab uprisings. With preponderant influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, Iran is the regional power that has best been able to take advantage of the crisis in the Middle East.
One of the problems of seeing the current Middle Eastern crisis purely through a sectarian lens is that the Sunni world is hardly united. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi jihadi groups, such as al Qaeda and ISIS, have fundamentally opposed views of what an Islamic polity should look like. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are not only geopolitical rivals; during the Arab Spring, they also held very different ideas about what role Islam should play in politics. The old elites in the Sunni world, who were neither Brothers nor Salafists, might have suffered temporary setbacks in 2011, but they are back with a vengeance in Egypt and Tunisia now. If the regional crisis is a sectarian fight, the Sunnis do not have their act together.
Reducing sectarian violence requires domestic order. If that can be established, the opportunities for cross- border interventions on sectarian (or other) grounds will diminish. Creating domestic order, however, is not an easy thing to do.
Democracy in the region’s broken states is unlikely to provide that necessary domestic order. Just as it is problematic to see the crux of the Middle Eastern crisis as sectarianism, it is equally mistaken to see it as the absence of democracy. Recent antigovernment protests in the Arab world, particularly in Algeria, Iraq, and Lebanon in 2019, have kept alive the argument that the root cause of Middle Eastern instability is the disconnect between peoples and their leaders. It is hard to argue with the assertion that more responsive governments would face less opposition. That is practically tautological. But when societies are profoundly divided, to whom should the government be responsive? Addressing the demands of one group will almost automatically disadvantage, or at least be seen to disadvantage, other groups.
There is no evidence that elections in and of themselves can solve the problems of state weakness and social division. Elections in Iraq in the wake of the U.S. invasion hardly ended the violence in that country or gave the resulting governments the ability to fend off foreign intervention. On the contrary, Iranian support for various Iraqi political parties meant that Tehran could insist on approving the deals for putting together new governments after those elections. Egypt’s free parliamentary and presidential elections were easily overturned by the military, with substantial popular support. Libya’s second parliamentary election in the post-Qaddafi period, in 2014, only exacerbated preexisting regional and political divisions, leading to dueling governments in the eastern and western parts of the country and thus perpetuating the civil war. The Libyan presidential election scheduled for December 2021 was postponed amid rising tensions. The Algerian protests of 2019 forced the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, but his successor, Abdel- madjid Tebboune, came from the same political elite against which the protests were mounted, and the election that brought him to power was deeply flawed. Those who believe that elections are the best path to bridging societal divides should take a look at the last two presidential elections in the United States.
For the United States, which still has interests in the Middle East, it is important to diagnose the problem accurately so that it can respond to it properly. Although it is inevitable that the region is not going to be the prime focus of U.S. foreign policy, as it was for years after 9/11, that does not mean that the United States is withdrawing from the Middle East. Despite the headlines, there is much continuity in U.S. policy and posture in the region. The system of U.S. military bases is not being deconstructed, even as the number of troops kept there is reduced. The Biden administration, like every recent U.S. administration, has stated that it opposes the extension of Iranian influence in the region, even as it negotiates with Tehran on its nuclear program. Oil remains a strategic commodity, and the Persian Gulf has more of it than any place else in the world. A good U.S. relationship with Israel is still a bipartisan pillar of U.S. foreign policy. The United States has plenty of reasons to want to see a Middle East that is less riven by conflict, more orderly, and more predictable.
Wanting something, however, is not the same as being able to bring it about. The core problem of state weakness is not something that the United States can solve. Ambitious U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were failures, demonstrating that the United States cannot directly build strong regional states, despite its military power and seemingly limitless military budget. A chastened and more modest United States needs to identify specific interests in the Middle East rather than general regional goals, such as stability. The restoration of stable governance in the oil-rich Persian Gulf, for example, is more important than stability elsewhere. De-escalation of the looming nuclear crisis with Iran is more important than who governs Libya. The United States can help Middle Eastern governments at the margins with economic and military aid, but it should not expect too much from that or spread its resources too thin across too many states. Instead, the United States needs to pick places where it has intrinsic interests and where the government in power seems to be making progress on building its capabilities, exerting some form of control over its borders, and providing for its society.
Iraq is one such place. It has the resources from oil to fund a real state. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has demonstrated a desire to establish some distance from Iran and to respond to the needs of Iraq’s citizens. He deserves American support and understanding. He cannot be expected to break completely with Iran; his political future depends, and will for some time, on Iranian acceptance. A more stable, organized, and independent Iraq, an actor rather than a playing field in Persian Gulf politics, would be a major advance toward a more orderly and predictable region. The Biden administration should continue to support the Kadhimi government with a modest military presence and political backing, while not forcing it into a confrontation with Iran.
American goals in the region need to be adjusted.
Other areas of the Middle East are too disordered for American aid, threats, or entreaties to have much of an effect. Libya, too fractious and violent, is far from beginning the process of state rebuilding, despite its oil wealth. Lebanon is suffering a historic collapse of its economic and social systems. This is heartbreaking for Americans who have invested their resources and their selves in the country, helping build a university system and a medical infrastructure that were once the finest in the region. But there is little that U.S. foreign policy can do to solve Lebanon’s problems, and there are few vital U.S. interests at stake there.
Yemen is in a similar position. Diplomatic efforts to bring about an end to the fighting there are praiseworthy and an essential first step toward alleviating the humanitarian crisis, a good purpose in and of itself. But Yemen is not going to be stable or well ordered anytime in the near future. There is little that the United States can or should do in terms of long-term commitments there, short of continuing to push Saudi Arabia toward a diplomatic solution.
The United States is just not very good at dealing with broken societies and the nonstate actors that help determine their future. But it does have the economic, military, and diplomatic power to affect how well-ordered states behave in the region. Washington does not always get its way with Egypt, Israel, or Saudi Arabia, but it does so more often than not. It can even bring pressure to bear on its regional foes, as the multilateral diplomatic effort the Obama administration made to reach the Iran nuclear deal demonstrated. Prioritizing diplomacy with functioning states to achieve specific American objectives on oil, counterterrorism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and nuclear nonproliferation makes much more sense than chasing after chimeras such as state building, regime change, and the spread of democracy. At a time when there is a near consensus that the United States has sacrificed too much blood and treasure in the Middle East over the past 20 years, American goals in the region need to be adjusted to the resources the country is willing to spend.
If a more ordered and predictable Middle East is in the interest of the United States, that means Washington must be willing to do business with the leaders of those states in the region that are actually governed, even if they are doing it in ways that are autocratic and, at times, abhorrent. Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran is not a favor that Washington is bestowing on the regime; it is a necessity to reduce the chances of nuclear proliferation. No one doubts the authoritarian nature of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or the United Arab Emirates, all important partners in the region. There is nothing wrong with urging them to treat their own citizens with dignity and respect, but U.S. leverage with them should be reserved for practical and specific regional diplomatic ends.
It is in Syria where the tension between order and liberal principles will play out most clearly. An orderly Syria, able to prevent terrorist organizations from using its territory and, over time, to put some distance between itself and its current Iranian and Russian patrons, would be better than the Syria that exists now. Unlike the governments in Libya and Yemen, the Assad regime is on its way toward defeating its domestic foes and reestablishing some amount of control over the country. As loathsome as Assad is, it makes sense to recognize this reality and begin a process of contact with his government, at first to minimize the risks to the few American forces still in Syria but eventually to pursue the common interest of preventing Salafi jihadis from maintaining their foothold in the country. The Baathist regime of Assad and his father kept the Syrian border with Israel quiet for decades and prevented Islamist terrorist organizations from using Syria as a base for attacks on the United States. Getting back to that point would be a worthwhile goal.
Although it would be emotionally satisfying to continue to shun Assad and condemn him for his war crimes, that will not change the Syrian reality one bit. It will only further strengthen Assad’s ties to Iran, increasing the likelihood of an Iranian-Israeli crisis played out on Syrian soil. It would be nice to see a democratic, prosperous, and liberal Syria, just as it would be nice to see progress in other Middle Eastern autocracies, but that transition will not happen anytime soon, if ever. For now, a more orderly Middle East is all the United States can hope for.
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