For decades the West has backed the wrong models of reform for the turbulent region. Donald Trump’s vision offers a glimmer of hope
The Ottoman surrender of Jerusalam: Hussein Effendi el Husseini, then Mayor of Jerusalem, centre, meeting with Sergeants Sedgwick and Hurcomb of the 2/19th Battalion, London Regiment, to surrender, on the morning of December 9, 1917 (Library of Congress/American Colony Jerusalem)
The 21st century has been brutal to the Middle East. The Levant has collapsed. The stable Ba’athist dictatorships that held together Iraq and Syria have given way to multilateral civil wars. Lebanon has never recovered fully from its own collapse more than 40 years ago. The Arab/Israeli conflict may be entering a new phase, but its resolution remains as elusive as ever. Roughly 20 million Levantines are stateless or displaced, creating a refugee crisis with global implications.
On the peninsula, Saudi Arabia’s leadership is undergoing its first generational handover since 1953; its young Crown Prince seems intent upon changing the face of this starkly conservative kingdom. Yemen is experiencing its second devastating civil war in 60 years. The Gulf Cooperation Council is in a standoff with one of its own members, Qatar.
Egypt went through four governments in under three years before (apparently) stabilising beneath a pro-Western, anti-Islamist strongman. Libya became a full-blown failed state. Turkey — still a Nato ally — is shedding the last vestiges of Kemalism to become an Islamist autocracy. Iran entered 2018 facing its second set of anti-regime protests in a decade; in between, it deftly negotiated international acceptance of its nuclear and missile programmes and an end to the sanctions crippling its economy. The Sunni/Shia rift that is nearly as old as Islam has entered its bloodiest phase in centuries. Russia has reestablished itself as a power player. Changes to global energy markets threaten revenues throughout Opec. Raging Islamist terror manifested a caliphate whose social-media savvy guarantees its salience even if it loses all of its territory.
American — and Western — responses have varied widely. President Bush believed that American military might could awaken millions of hidden pro-Western liberal democrats. Many of Bush’s fiercest critics argued that the seemingly grassroots, and grossly misnamed, “Arab Spring” uprisings marked that awakening. President Obama put “daylight” between the US and Israel, edged away from traditional Arab allies, and instead sought working relationships with the region’s two largest, most mature, best disciplined Islamist organisations: the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and the Shia Islamic Republic of Iran.
President Trump began his term urging the leaders of Sunni Arab states to drive the Islamists from their midst, and strengthening traditional American alliances with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. His National Security Strategy, released towards the end of his first year in office, cast these moves as part of “a strategy of principled realism that is guided by outcomes, not ideology. It is based upon the view that peace, security and prosperity depend on strong, sovereign nations that respect their citizens at home and cooperate to advance peace abroad.” The resultant strategy thus prioritises stability, sovereignty and interstate negotiations as core American interests.
Western Europe, for the most part, rejected the Bush approach wholesale, embraced Obama, complained about Trump, denied the extent of the challenges, and opened its doors to Muslim refugees. That approach is rapidly changing the continent’s demographic and social structures. The backlash has already ended the EU’s internal open borders, pushed the UK to secede, and strengthened anti-immigrant parties around the continent.
Why is the Middle East undergoing these changes? What forces are driving them? Why has the sclerosis that dominated the last few decades of the 20th century disappeared so completely? Why have the Western powers seemed so clueless?
These questions are critical. Governments understandably react to the crisis of the moment; the Middle East of the 21st century has supplied a generous and steady stream of such crises. But whack-a-mole is a poor strategy. The challenges plaguing the region are far more likely symptoms of a deep underlying malady than unrelated occurrences. The region cannot stabilise, and American strategic interests cannot prevail, unless and until that underlying problem is identified, understood and addressed.
A century after the Ottoman Empire gave way to the modern Middle East, three conflicting visions of the region remain: the statist, the imperialist, and the nationalist. These visions are mutually incompatible. Each has strong and influential backers in today’s world. Stability is possible only if a critical mass of the region coheres around one of these organising frameworks and rejects the other two. Powerful forces with vested interests in the two rejected views will fight to remain relevant.
While those living in the region will bear the brunt of the ensuing battles, no part of the world will emerge unscathed. The United States and its Western allies cannot afford ambivalence. A victory for the imperial view — which remains more than possible — would end the liberal international order. A victory for the statist view would restore something close to the late 20th-century status quo, but it is by far the least likely outcome. Only a victory for the nationalist view — a Middle East comprised of strong, sovereign nations — is both achievable and consistent with Western interests. Contra Bush, Obama, and establishment conventional wisdom, the Trump strategy of principled realism would orient US policy around the promotion of the local forces best capable of inculcating healthy nationalist sentiments throughout the region. Such a strategy must rest upon an understanding of the three visions, their backers, and their implications.
The statist view is by far the most familiar. It has graced the map for nearly a century, and dominated discussion, analysis, and policy formation for just as long. It gave rise to a stable, if tense, status quo that persisted throughout the latter half of the 20th century. It has overwhelming consensus backing among Western academics, diplomats, and international organisations. It has become so entrenched in public consciousness that many believe it to represent a natural state of affairs worthy of survival.
This widespread attachment to the modern map is peculiar, given the equally widespread understanding of its origins. European powers — primarily the UK and France — conceived and imposed that map to serve their own interests, rather than those of the people living in the states they created. It has no roots in Middle Eastern history. It conveyed the patina of stability only as long as brutal strongmen enslaved the people. Its failure is directly responsible for the carnage of the 21st century. Astoundingly, few if any academic, diplomatic, or political champions of restoring the Levantine status quo question the map’s artificiality or challenge the injustice central to its creation.
Familiarity makes the statist mythology easy to explain: The dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire enabled self-determination for a number of states. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikhdoms represent legitimate self-expressions of the people who have long lived within those territories. In the Levant, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine defined multi-ethnic populations who sought similar self-determination. The British and French successfully ushered the first four to independence. Unfortunately, the region’s Jews, bolstered by Jewish refugees from war-torn Europe, declared an ethnonational State of Israel, disenfranchising the Palestinians. The consequent lack of Palestinian self-determination remains the region’s largest festering problem; its resolution would open the door to peace, prosperity, and development.
This conventional wisdom suffers from a fatal flaw: it is riddled with falsehoods. In reality, the region’s state system was born when the European empires decided to decolonise. England and France drew lines on a map to create Middle Eastern states. Few of those lines represented anything other than European preferences.
Like every previous attempt at global organisation, the now-dominant nation state system conferred both significant benefits and significant costs upon humanity. Many of the benefits are obvious. Day-to-day crises notwithstanding, the liberal international order of nation states, and the market-oriented global commercial system that it has enabled, have improved living standards around the world. By any material measure — health, life expectancy, peace, prosperity — the benefits of today’s global order dwarf those of every earlier ordering.
Many of the costs are subtler. They rest in the hybrid nature of a nation state. Nationhood is an ancient concept, featured prominently in the Bible and the Homeric epics. A nation is a group of people who share feelings of kinship and commonality. Members of a nation — like members of a family or a tribe — claim a defining identity that marks them as distinct from all others. National identities may derive from bloodlines, faiths, principles, or citizenship, but a sine qua non of nationhood is that the nation’s members see themselves as forming a distinct, coherent entity.
States are very different. Statehood is a purely political designation. A viable state possesses defined geographic boundaries and a government capable of imposing order within those borders. States exist because other states recognise them. A state’s existence is independent of the feelings or identities of the people living within its borders.
Because a nation state embodies both concepts, a new nation state may be born in one of two ways: either a pre-existing nation may gain control over territory in which to build a state; or the leadership of a recognised state may forge the people living within its borders into a nation. The former path thus begins with national self-determination and requires the hard work of state-building. The latter begins with statehood and requires the far harder work of nation-building.
This distinction inevitably pits the interests of insiders against those of outsiders. From the perspective of outside powers, the latter route is much easier. Outsiders can draw lines on a map to serve their own interests without worrying about the people on the ground. Outsiders can find local allies capable of forwarding some plausible claim to leadership, and help them impose order within state lines. Outsiders can recognise their favoured locals as a legitimate government, and hand them the challenge of convincing the new state’s residents that they constitute a well-defined nation. Even better for outsiders, lines drawn to create allegedly multi-ethnic states avoid the messy problem of “population exchanges” inherent in ethnonational states, such as those that sorted Turkish Muslims from Greek Christians, or Pakistani Muslims from Indian Hindus. That avoidance keeps the outside powers’ hands clean.
From the perspective of insiders — even those selected for leadership and handed the reigns of power — that avoidance is a disaster. It complicates, and often renders impossible, the challenge of nation building. An outsider’s declaration that one of the local self-identified nations is now first among equals tends to shatter whatever modus vivendi the locals had worked out among themselves. The new government inherits the unenviable task of building a nation comprised of people whose histories cast them as distinct (often warring) ethnicities, amidst a disruptive realignment almost designed to inflame resentment and encourage discrimination.
The British and French took precisely that easy approach in the Levant. In Iraq, the British combined large Sunni Arab, Shia Arab, and Kurdish communities, along with smaller numbers of Christians, Jews, Yazidis, Zoroastrians, and others. They chose a Sunni Arab ally — from the royal Hashemite family of Mecca — to set upon the Iraqi throne in 1921.
Sunni dominance of Iraq lasted until American forces toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Almost immediately, the country fragmented into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish zones. Iraq’s citizens demonstrably identified with their ethnic kin — pre-existing national identities forged over centuries — rather than as Iraqis. Fifteen years later, it is evident that no one ever built an Iraqi nation. The Iraqi state can exist only as long as outside powers and local strongmen hold it together by force. Few today can doubt that left to their own devices, Iraq’s citizens would divide the territory into three ethnonational states born fighting border wars.
In Syria, the French created a state with a sizeable Sunni Arab majority, a large Alawite community dominating its Mediterranean coast, a compact Druze community in its southern mountains, and smaller numbers of Christians, Jews and others sprinkled throughout. The French rejected a British-allied Hashemite monarchy early on, and imposed direct control, initially from Paris, later from Vichy. At the end of the Second World War, France handed control to a weak, Sunni-dominated parliament. 20-plus years and several coups later, the Syrian Ba’ath party seized power and an Alawite faction seized control of the Ba’ath. By 1970, the Alawite Ba’athist Hafez Assad had consolidated the power handed to his son Bashar upon his death in 2000. Syria remained a brutal Alawite dictatorship until its current civil war broke out in 2011. Its population, like Iraq’s, fractured immediately along ethnic lines.
The French also carved the Lebanese state out of its Mandate for Syria. By design, Lebanon was a multi-ethnic confessional republic, with power shared unequally among its Christian, Sunni, Shia and Druze communities. As an uneasy marriage of Western-looking and Arab cultures, the Lebanese state was always weak. Changes to the demographic balance among its constituent communities, coupled with the arrival of PLO-led Sunni refugees from Jordan in 1970, pushed it beyond the breaking point. It dissolved into a bitter, sectarian civil war in 1975. Though that war nominally ended in 1991, the country has never recovered fully. Syrian and Iranian dominance have elevated Hezbollah, a Shia terrorist militia, into the de facto government. Lebanon’s recognised government is little more than a fig-leaf allowing countries and international organisations to pretend that they’re not dealing with Hezbollah. Like the citizens of Iraq and Syria, Lebanese citizens identify almost exclusively with their traditional, ethnically-defined nations rather than with the Lebanese state.
Palestine was always destined to be the most interesting part of the Levant. By the end of the 19th century, the Zionist movement had committed to reasserting Jewish independence in the historical Jewish homeland. Jewish investment reshaped the economy of this long-neglected backwater; Jewish and Arab immigration swelled its population. In the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the British officially blessed the Zionist dream of a Jewish state in Palestine. The San Remo Conference of 1920 incorporated that blessing into international law; the League of Nations charged the British Mandatory with the development of a Jewish homeland.
In 1921, the British carved out the eastern three-quarters of Mandatory Palestine to form Transjordan (since 1949, Jordan). They brought a Hashemite ruler to sit on its throne — Sunni royalty from Mecca to rule Levantine Sunnis. Eighty years of underinvestment in nation-building kept alive the tension between the two Sunni factions — though even at its worst, it paled in comparison to the inter-ethnic fighting that devastated Jordan’s neighbours. To the misplaced surprise of many, this sole post-Ottoman Levantine Arab state lacking ethnic minorities has proved to be the most durable of the bunch. Its Hashemite monarchy has already celebrated its centenary (per the shorter Islamic year). It current ruler appears intent upon avoiding the fate that has befallen his neighbours. In 2002, King Abdullah II became the first Arab leader to invest in explicit nation-building. His “Jordan First” initiative set out to inculcate a sense of “Jordanianness” among the Kingdom’s citizens.
Israel alone travelled the opposite path. The Jewish nation predated the modern state by more than three millennia. Its investment in nation-building was made long ago; all that remained to create in the 20th century were the institutions of a modern state. While hardly trivial, that task is far, far easier than nation-building. In 1948, the Jewish state of Israel became the region’s sole successful exercise in minority ethnic self-determination.
None of the Arab states recognised the Jews’ right to self-determination in land they considered rightfully Arab. Five Arab armies invaded western Palestine the moment Israel declared its independence. By the time the dust settled along armistice lines in 1949, the geographic region that had been Palestine was split in four. In addition to the pre-existing Sunni Arab state of Jordan, the new Jewish state controlled the Galilee, a narrow central coastal plain, and the Negev desert. Egypt occupied the tiny but densely populated Gaza Strip. Jordan occupied — and annexed — the historic Jewish heartland of Judaea and Samaria. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people began a reconfiguration of the territory’s demographics.
That demographic shift continued into the early 1950s, as nearly every Arab state exiled its Jews in the first half of a classic post-colonial population exchange that has yet to reach its stabilising conclusion. Israel addressed that half by integrating all Jewish arrivals and extending citizenship to non-Jewish residents. The UN arrested the other half with a unique, creative, and ultimately disastrous approach seemingly designed to perpetuate instability: it defined a new nation of stateless “Palestine refugees” comprised of all displaced non-Jews who had lived in western Palestine during a narrow two-year window — and their patrilineal descendants. It then established a permanent agency, UNRWA, whose sole responsibility was catering to the members of this newborn stateless nation, and ensuring that its charges remained perpetually stateless.
70 years and several Arab-Israeli wars later, Gaza, Judaea and Samaria remain disputed territories. Israel gained control over them in 1967, ceded partial control to a Palestinian Authority (PA) — a relabelling designed to give the terrorist PLO a clean start — created under the Oslo Accords of 1993, and withdrew entirely from Gaza in 2005. Meanwhile, UNRWA’s count of Palestine refugees has grown from 750,000 to five million. Because a majority of them remain in the region, and Jordan remains the sole Arab state to have accorded any of them citizenship, these stateless Palestine refugees are a constant contributor to tension, instability and terrorism — in the region and around the world.
All told, the familiar statist view of the Middle East that dominated the 20th century collapsed in the 21st. Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq may exist as internationally recognised states on a map, but neither they nor Palestine have ever existed as nations. Jordan clings tenuously to both halves of its nation state designation. Only the Jewish state of Israel is secure in both its nationhood and its statehood. In today’s Levant, ancient national identities — Jewish, Christian, Sunni Arab, Shiite, Kurd, Druze, Alawite — enjoy the respect and allegiance of their people. The states remain relevant only because of diplomats and academics.
The demonstrable failure of the European-imposed states to enter the hearts of the region’s people should shock only those who pretend that the Levantine states were organic exercises in self-determination. In reality, prior to the European imposition of multi-ethnic states on the region, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon were mere geographic designations — akin to sub-Saharan Africa, Appalachia, the Caucasus, or Amazonia — not identities that people embraced.
Furthermore, even before the collapse of those states provided clear evidence that the statist view had never taken hold, the breadth and intensity of the Arab-Israeli conflict should have flagged the underlying problem. In the normal course of state-to-state relations, Israel’s longstanding pariah status makes little sense. Why have none of its Arab neighbours ever seen Israel as a viable ally? In particular, how is it possible that Saudi Arabia and Israel have both been reliable American allies for decades, have never found themselves with conflicting strategic interests, have no territorial claims against each other, boast complementary areas of economic specialisation, but have never been able to find grounds for collaboration (a situation that may finally be changing)? The one-word answer, as everyone knows, is “Palestine”. Universal recognition, however, hardly makes that answer less odd. What is it about the plight of the Palestinians that moves the Saudis to reject such an obviously useful strategic ally — even when their clear national interests scream for such an ally? The question is unanswerable within a statist framework. It makes sense only from an imperial perspective.
Unlike the imposed state system, Middle Eastern imperialism has deep indigenous roots and broad current appeal. Though most Arab movements of the 20th century styled themselves anti-imperial, the only empires they opposed were globe-spanning and Western. There were and are, however, many other types of empires. For most of 2,700 years, from the Assyrians to the Ottomans, imperial rule was the norm in the Levant. Many in the region act in ways that demonstrate a desire to return to that norm: the goal of all Sunni and Shia Islamist groups — a caliphate unifying all Muslim lands — is explicitly imperial. The pan-Arab call for the unification of all Arabic speakers into a single “superstate” is equally imperial. Both sets of movements have been widely popular and influential.
Hannah Arendt showed that all “pan” movements are forms of supremacist imperialism, seeking the unification of all lands “belonging” to a particular ethnicity beneath the rule of that ethnic group. Minorities living within that territory, or state lines drawn “illegitimately” within that territory, represent attacks by “inferior” races pretending to be the equals of the legitimate rulers.
In that broader sense then, the demographics and governance of the Middle East long followed a comfortable imperial pattern. Numerous ethnic and faith groups coexisted within a multi-ethnic empire. The group to which the Emperor belonged claimed supremacy. All other groups existed at the Emperor’s sufferance — sometimes as victims of brutal oppression, sometimes as second-class citizens, but never as equals. Through much of this lengthy history, these second-class groups enjoyed significant autonomy. They developed cultures, traditions, and bodies of law that defined them as distinct nations living (often uneasily) beneath the imperial umbrella.
In the Ottoman Empire, the Sunni Turks occupied the top rung. One step down, and by far the largest group in the Levant, were the Sunni Arabs. Other self-identifying Levantine peoples included Jews, Christians (of several denominations), Shia Arabs, Kurds, Druze and Alawites. These nations were all organic, indigenous, recognised and historic; the youngest of them date back “only” a thousand years. Jews, Christians, Kurds and several others predate the Arab invasion by many centuries.
When it became clear that the Ottomans were likely to fall, some Sunni Arab leaders began to see their “nation” as the proper inheritor of the Empire. In 1915, the Hashemite Sharif Hussein, Emir of Mecca, wrote to Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, claiming to represent all Arabic-speaking people east of Egypt. He proposed throwing Arab support behind the British in exchange for a British commitment to Arab independence.
McMahon proved to be a far better diplomat and draftsman than Hussein. Hussein clearly envisaged a continuation of the Empire under Sunni Arab (i.e. his) rule, extending across the Levant and the Arabian peninsula. McMahon managed to elicit his support in exchange for a vague endorsement of Arab self-determination. And Hussein soon faced bigger problems, as Abdulaziz al Saud swept westward from the Najd, conquered the Hejaz, drove the Hashemites into exile, and eventually unified the Peninsula as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.
McMahon’s intentional vagueness proved critical to Britain’s postwar plans. Hussein’s putative empire was incompatible with the Balfour Declaration’s endorsement of Jewish self-determination, as well as with the Sykes-Picot agreement dividing the Levant between Britain and France. More importantly, it conflicted with the San Remo Peace Conference of April 1920 that enshrined Balfour and Sykes-Picot into international law. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to dismiss the vague Hussein-McMahon correspondence; Hussein’s imperial dream remains very much alive in the Sunni Arab imagination.
The persistence of this imperial dream is critical to understanding the region. Hussein’s vision had deep roots in both regional history and Islamic theology. Those roots have kept his inchoate empire alive — most obviously in the near-universal rejection of Israel’s legitimacy. No self-respecting empire can stomach minority self-determination within its realm — and no imperial dream can die until its putative rulers accept the full legitimacy of minority self-determination.
Inchoate imperialism explains far more than the Arab-Israeli conflict. It has given rise to several important Arab unification movements. The Ba’ath party, an explicitly fascist pan-Arab organisation, defined Arabism in linguistic (rather than religious) terms, and declared an Arab homeland spanning the 20-plus Arabic-speaking states of North Africa and the Middle East. Its 1947 constitution called that vast territory “an indivisible political and economic entity . . . All differences among its natives are casual and fake.”
Almost as soon as it achieved power in the 1960s, however, the Ba’ath split into a Sunni-dominated branch in Iraq (where Sunni Arabs were a minority) and an Alawite-dominated branch in Syria (where Sunni Arabs were the majority). From that point forward, the rival Ba’ath parties became little more than tools that one organic nation used to suppress the other organic nations living within the lines of the state it controlled. Syrian Sunnis, and Iraqi Shias and Kurds, fared particularly poorly during the decades of Ba’ath rule.
In the 1950s, Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser became the central figure of pan-Arab unity. Nasser’s popularity, and the confidence that Arabs placed in his ability to unify their lands, opened a deep strategic rift in the Sunni Arab world. On one side were the Pan-Arabists, like Nasser and the Ba’ath, fighting to make the imperial dream a reality. On the other were the various Sunni royal families who had grown accustomed to ruling. The bloody Yemeni civil war of 1962-70 (now largely forgotten in the West), for example, was actually a proxy war between Egypt and Saudi Arabia; pan-Arabists seeking unity fighting Arab royals hoping to retain their thrones.
A second front in the Egyptian-Saudi conflict involved the Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Brotherhood’s goal from inception was reinstating the caliphate that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had abolished less than a decade earlier. What it sought was not simply a religious institution akin to the Papacy. The caliphate it envisaged harkened back to the days of the Prophet: a full-blown Islamic Empire, spread as a matter of religious imperative.
Though many of the Brotherhood’s beliefs trace back to earlier schools of Islamic thought, its 1928 founding marked the birth of modern Islamism. From that point forward, a violent, supremacist, imperialist movement assumed an important place in Sunni thought. In its early days, the Brotherhood allied itself with Nazi Germany and called for massacring Jews and Christians. It also joined with various other anti-royalist factions to agitate against the Egyptian monarchy. When pan-Arabists succeeded in deposing King Farouk in 1952, however, the rift between secular pan-Arab imperialists and the Islamist imperialists of the Brotherhood became an unbridgeable chasm. Nasser banned the Brotherhood, jailed its leadership, and might well have crushed it — had it not been for the Saudis.
Saudi Wahhabism shares some, but far from all, of the Brotherhood’s religious and philosophical convictions. That overlap has led the two to have a love/hate relationship. Though Saudi Arabia today regards the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, Saudi largesse in the 1950s and ’60s kept the organisation alive. More than alive — Saudi funding helped the Brotherhood build an international infrastructure, with particular strength among European Muslims during a period of significant Islamic immigration to Europe.
At the end of the day though, the Brotherhood’s imperial dreams were as threatening to the Saudi royals as were those of the pan-Arabists. As the pan-Arab threat declined in the wake of Nasser’s disastrous 1967 war to eliminate Israel, the Islamist threat rose. It intensified with the arrival of less disciplined Islamist organisations — like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State — that split from the Brotherhood over questions of personality and tactics. The immediacy these groups placed on action made the threat of unification too dangerous for the House of Saud to ignore.
The rift between the Sunni Arab imperial dream and the tribal leaders who had parlayed their positions to become recognised heads of state came into full public view in 1990, when Saddam’s Iraq invaded Kuwait. For eight years, Iraq had been the front-line state in the Sunni Arab war to contain Iran’s Shia Khomeinism. The Sunnis recognised Khomeinism as a revolutionary ideology, and knew that Iran’s new leaders sought to export the revolution among Shia Arabs. When the Iran-Iraq war ended, Saddam sought payment. His initial efforts involved attempting to strongarm Opec into curtailing production and raising prices; the US responded by flagging UAE tankers in the Persian Gulf. Saddam’s second attempt involved explicit military action.
Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait was hardly irrational. His annexation of Kuwait would have doubled his oil output. His dominance of Opec — and the discipline that his successful annexation would have imposed on Saudi Arabia and the UAE — would have pushed oil production down and prices up. Effective control of Opec would have given him a chokehold on the world economy. Trebled or quadrupled revenues would have allowed him to invest in advanced military capabilities, which he could then have deployed to eradicate “the Zionist entity”.
The plan resonated broadly among the Sunni Arab public because it fed the imperial dream. It terrified the ruling Arab elites for the same reason. That fear, more than deft American diplomacy, drove the unprecedented international coalition against Saddam. Because too few Westerners understood that fear, however, the US badly underplayed a strong hand in setting coalition terms — rendering it unable to capitalise on a stunning military victory.
More importantly, lack of Western attention to the inchoate imperialism of the Sunni Arabs has made it impossible to confront the issue directly. For decades, the Sunni Arab world has been split between a public awaiting the empire to which it is entitled and a leadership far happier with the multi-state status quo. This split has created an unhealthy cynical dynamic. Arab leadership pays lip service to the imperial dream while working to ensure that it never becomes a reality. The people understand fully what is happening, but play along with the charade unless and until a seemingly viable option arises. Nasser and Saddam at their most belligerent were enormously popular among the Sunni Arab masses. Most recently, when the Islamic State’s al-Baghdadi proclaimed a restored caliphate — and began acting to make it a reality — pent-up demand assured his popularity.
Nowhere is the cynicism and hypocrisy greater, however, than on the issue of Palestine. Given that no Arab state would benefit strategically or economically from the emergence of an independent state of Palestine, the lack of effort they have devoted to bringing one about is neither subtle nor surprising. The strategic calculus is straightforward: a state of Palestine can arise either following Arab victory in an all-out war against Israel, or through a negotiation in which the Arab states accept the legitimacy of permanent Jewish self-determination on putative imperial lands. Existing Arab regimes are either too fragile or too cowardly to risk either option, and the international community (including the US) has worked hard to help them avoid confronting their internal contradictions.
The centrality of the imperial claim to the Palestinian cause does more than pit Arab leaders against Arab public opinion. It highlights the contradiction inherent to the Palestinian cause itself. In Western discourse, the Palestinians are among the world’s nations whose dreams of self-determination have been frustrated; the debate is whether, and if so under what circumstances, its dreams should reach fruition. That positioning is incompatible with the role of Palestine as part of a unified Arab or Islamic nation worthy of imperial governance. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the two most important Palestinian organisations, the PLO and Hamas, explicitly disclaim the existence of a Palestinian nation distinct from the larger Arab or Islamic nations.
The PLO Charter of 1964 provides no insight into anything that might distinguish a narrow nation of Palestine from the broader Arab nation. Instead, it describes the cultivation of a Palestinian identity as a conscious tactic in service of the imperial goal: “The Palestinian people believe in Arab unity. In order to contribute their share toward the attainment of that objective, however, they must, at the present stage of their struggle, safeguard their Palestinian identity and develop their consciousness of that identity . . .” The PLO thus effectively concedes that “Palestine” was created as a new national identity for the sole purpose of negating Jewish claims of self-determination, thereby preserving the full scope of the inchoate empire.
The Hamas Charter of 1988, an Islamist document reflecting Hamas’s status as the Gaza chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, explicitly and repeatedly rejects the existence of any distinct nationalities within Islam. It describes Palestine as a waqf, a trust granted to the entire Islamic ummah whose government simply administers the land on behalf of Islam. “[W]ith all our appreciation for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation — and what it can develop into — and without belittling its role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, we are unable to exchange the present or future Islamic Palestine with the secular idea.” Hamas’s characterisation is entirely consistent with the historical record. Palestine was never anything other than an administrative unit of an empire, and its residents never distinguished themselves in any meaningful way from other imperial subjects.
These documents — and the key Palestinian organisations that promulgated them — provide a far more honest and accurate characterisation of the Arab-Israeli conflict than does anything coming out of the international community. These charters also explain why the enormous resources and goodwill invested towards its resolution have proved inadequate. Israel seeks national self-determination for the Jews. The Arabs’ imperial dream rejects the legitimacy of minority self-determination. There is no distinct Palestinian nation seeking self-determination; there are only Arabs seeking to liberate the western portion of the imperial region of Palestine.
Inchoate imperialism is strangling the Sunni Arabs. Their contemporary leaders are demonstrably more interested in preserving their perquisites as elite parts of the international state system than in seeking a unified empire. But with a few minor exceptions, they have refused to build the nations necessary to secure those perks.
To further complicate matters, Iran’s Khomeinist revolution of 1979 added an unforeseen twist to the region’s imperial dreams. It introduced a claimant other than the Sunni Arabs. Prior to the revolution, Iran was a strongly nationalist state. The Shah had embraced the country’s Persian roots, and sought to synthesise its pre-Islamic culture, Islam and modernity into a distinct national identity. After the revolution, Iran’s new clerical Shia dictatorship had two goals — and neither were nationalist. One was recreating the Islamic empire. The other was revisiting the Battle of Karbala of 680, which had cemented Sunni dominance over the Shia.
Setting aside the roots, history, or theological implications of the Sunni-Shia rift, Shia Arabs have long been a small, powerless minority. They boast sizeable numbers only in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and some of the small Gulf sheikhdoms. In the mid-1970s, after the Alawites — historically a distinct nation with secretive and idiosyncratic religious practices — seized control of Syria, some Shia clerics proclaimed Alawism an offshoot of Shiism. The Iranian revolution deepened that relationship through a strategically sound Shia-Alawite political alliance against the Sunnis.
Khomeinism was revolutionary in the truest sense. Its goal was less the consolidation of power inside Iran’s borders than the reordering of the world in its ideological image. Its first attempt at power projection involved galvanising the Shia Arabs; by the mid-1980s, it had established the Khomeinist terror group Hezbollah as a major power in Lebanon. The Sunnis saw the threat as significant enough to come as close as ever to unified action. For eight years, every Arab country but Alawite-led Syria backed Saddam’s war to contain Shia expansionism.
Fast forward to the current decade. Iranian power continues to grow. Hezbollah controls Lebanon. Iranian-allied Shias run the Iraqi government and a decent part of the country. Iranian forces are on the verge of restoring Alawite control of Syria. Iranian-backed Shia militias are active in Yemen and agitating in Bahrain. The long-simmering Saudi/Iranian cold war is heating up.
The long-shot Shia claim to a Levantine empire may be far from fruition, but it is closer than ever. Arrayed against it are two competing Sunni coalitions: Islamists fighting in the name of a Sunni Arab Empire, and Arab states fighting to preserve the state system. Complicating matters even further, Iran’s Shia imperialists have curried favour among the Sunni masses by promising to eradicate Israel.
In a twist that few expected, Israel and the remaining Sunni Arab states now face the same enemies. The unexpected, however, has a way of providing clarity. What Israel and the remaining Arab states have in common is a vested interest in the nation state system. Imperialists, whether secular or Islamic, Sunni or Shia, are their common enemies.
This newfound clarity provides a glimpse of a potential post-Arab-Israeli-conflict Middle East far more realistic than the Pollyanna-ish dreams of the 1990s. The post-conflict Sunni Arabs are unlikely to embrace Israel. They may, however, come to see the Jews as just one more non-Arab neighbour with whom they share an uneasy history, much like the Turks or the Persians. They will then be free to deal with Israel in any manner that their strategic and/or economic interests dictate — neighbourly under some circumstances, tense under others. To get there, however, the Arabs will have to abandon the inchoate imperialism that has hamstrung them for a century and mature into the strong sovereign states that American interests require them to become.
The elimination of that ideological barrier will create, for the first time, an opportunity to address the conflict’s territorial and humanitarian dimensions: the world’s refusal to let Israel integrate the territory it liberated in a defensive war 50 years ago, and the refusal of the Arab states to integrate stateless Arabs. US-mediated negotiations between Israel and American-allied Arab states, focused on those two issues, conducted at a moment of shared strategic and economic interests, and grounded in an honest nationalist view of the region rather than a duplicitous imperialist view, may succeed where all previous attempts have failed.
The success of such an approach may be even more important for the Sunni Arabs than it is for Israel. The position of the Arab states is becoming increasingly untenable. They stand for nothing other than the interests of their own elites and a regional ordering that Europeans imposed. Outside those elites, Arabs’ attachment to their assigned states has proved weak wherever tested; there is little evidence that it is stronger elsewhere. The popularity of the imperial unifiers — Nasser, Saddam, al-Baghdadi, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic State, and the cause of Palestine — suggests that given the opportunity, tens of millions of Arabs would happily jettison their state-based identities for an imperial one.
As the preferred identities of those assigned the artificial Lebanese, Syrian, and Iraqi labels show, Kurds, Alawites, and Druze — like Jews — demonstrate the strong senses of kinship and distinctiveness necessary to define them as nations. Thanks in large part to the size of the global communities to which they belong, the sense of familial kinship may be weaker among Sunnis, Shias, and Christians — though it is clear that adherents of these faiths see themselves as distinct from non-adherents.
It is thus hardly ironic that the Levant’s only ethnonational state — Israel — is also its most coherent, most stable, most prosperous, and most successful one. Nor is it surprising that Kurdish and Druze leaders have reportedly expressed interest in enlisting Israeli assistance — and in emulating the Israeli model. They would not be the first new states to do so. Though it was kept secret for many years, Israel was instrumental in helping Singapore following its 1965 independence from Malaysia. During his 2016 visit to Israel, Singaporean prime minister Lee Hsien Loong (son of Singapore’s founder), acknowledged the debt openly: “Without the Israel Defence Forces the SAF could not have grown its capabilities, deterred threats, defended our island, and reassured Singaporeans and investors that Singapore was secure and had a future.”
If for no reason other than self-preservation, Sunni leaders must follow Jordan’s King Abdullah in recognising the importance of inculcating a nationalist sense of distinctiveness among their respective citizenries. The survival of their regimes depends upon heavy investment in the nation-building task they have avoided for a century. They must convince their citizens that they are members of a distinct nation, blessed with a national identity that differentiates them from the citizens of all other states — including other Arab states. Fortunately — for the Sunni leadership, that is — only the Gulf sheikhdoms, with their large Shia minorities and proximity to Iran, face demographic challenges even remotely comparable to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Sunnis represent over 90 per cent of the Saudi population, over 98 per cent of Jordan, and nearly all North African Muslims. Egypt, the only other Arab country with a sizeable minority population — Coptic Christians — has a distinct national history on which to draw; in that respect, it has more in common with Turkey and Iran than with the other Arab countries.
Nation-building among Sunni Arabs will not be easy. Like all imperialists embarking upon decolonisation, the putative leaders of the inchoate Sunni Arab empire will have to swallow a bitter pill. They will have to accept as equals the subjugated nations they have long viewed as inferiors — along with the justice of minority claims for self-determination on formerly imperial lands.
That shift in Arab thinking will require many painful concessions. Arabs will have to swallow the legitimacy of Jewish self-determination in Israel, along with an independent Kurdistan. Other possibilities foreseeable on the horizon include independence for the Alawites and the Druze in eastern and southern Syria respectively. Each such concession will shrink the scope of “Arab lands”.
The consolidation of minorities into ethnonational states, however, will deepen the Sunni Arab character of the lands remaining. From the perspective of nation-building, such moves will enhance the kinship among the citizenry. Sunni Arab leaders will either face the wrath of an imperialist public watching its leaders decolonise or inculcate a sense of national distinctiveness among their citizens. As the Arab-Israeli conflict demonstrates, conceding the equality of regional minorities is untenable while the imperial dream lives. Sunni regimes eager to survive will have to follow the model that Atatürk employed to build a Turkish nation state upon the ashes of a fallen empire.
Even contemplating such nation-building exercises, however, highlights one of the most tragic realities of the 21st-century Middle East: the plight of Levantine Christians. It is unclear that the diverse Christian communities of the Levant share the kinship necessary to coalesce into a coherent nation. They are sprinkled throughout the region, with large concentrations only in Lebanon and eastern Syria. They belong to many different denominations, some Orthodox, some affiliated with the Vatican, some originating before the Nicene Creed granted Rome’s imprimatur to favoured Christian sects, and even a few Protestants. They claim no centralised homeland.
While a cold rational calculation might recommend bolstering the Christian population of Lebanon, there is no evidence that the Christians of Iraq’s Nineveh Plains, for example, would feel any more at home in Lebanon than they would anywhere outside Nineveh. It is entirely unclear, however, that considerations warmer than rationality will allow these communities to survive. Islamists have marked the Christians of the Middle East for genocide. The brief reigns of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria confirm that Islamist rule is a death sentence for Christians. Nation-building exercises focused on Sunni Arabs may pose lesser ideological threats to Christian survival in theory, but history suggests that minority rights are rarely secure during periods of growing majority ethnonationalism.
Either way, one of the many great tragedies facing the modern Middle East is that Christian communities dating back to the days of Christ are likely to be entering their final decades. By the end of the 21st century, the number of Christians living in the Arab world is unlikely to be much larger than the number of Jews. In all likelihood, these Christians will face the same options the Arabs gave their Jewish neighbours in the 20th century: exile or death. While it is painful to contemplate any sort of forced relocation, unless the international community is willing to defend these Christians against genocidal forces — something that it has repeatedly shown it is unwilling to do — it should consider evacuating them prior to the arrival of the genocides.
A growing sense of nationalism among the people of the Middle East would mark a healthy development for the region, its people, its indigenous nations, America, and the world. The system of multi-ethnic states that the British and French imposed had no roots in the region. The marvel is that it held together as long as it did, rather than that it ultimately fell. Its resurrection into anything resembling healthy multi-ethnic states seems singularly unlikely. The imperial view is antithetical to the liberal international order that has served the United States and its allies so well for so long. Only a region of strong, sovereign nation states focused on internal development would promote regional stability and reduce the problems associated with displaced and stateless people. That conclusion favoring the nationalist view is robust. A Middle East of ethnonational states would serve American interests even if some of the emergent states align with competing great powers; it is the only configuration consistent with regional stability and the existing global order.
The US has long resisted this conclusion. President Bush’s “freedom agenda” assumed the perpetuation of the imposed state system. President Obama’s desire for strong, disciplined, allies led him to embrace Sunni and Shia imperialists. President Trump appears to be the first American leader to entertain the nationalist view of the region. The challenge his administration faces is turning that vision into a new reality.
That exercise is under way. In his first year in office, Trump endorsed nascent nationalist projects in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, while standing strong against the imperial Islamic State before turning his full attention to the Islamic Republic. He has begun to expose the Palestinian cause for the lie that it is, through a series of moves that would pose little threat to a captive people seeking self-determination, but are deadly to an inchoate empire seeking to liberate territory through subterfuge. His entire approach to the region appears to recognise that the interests of the US, the Sunni Arab states, and the Middle East’s minorities align with each other — and with reality.
Looking forward, the US should avoid trying to reshape the region faster than regional forces reshape themselves. Instead, it should seize opportunities to promote nationalism as they arise. Opportunities already on the table include fighting Islamism and helping the region’s stateless, displaced, and threatened people resettle among ethnic kin. Readily foreseeable opportunities include: assisting Sunni Arab leaders willing to begin nation-building; helping minority nations seeking self-determination; extolling Israel as a success worthy of emulation, rather than as a problem in need of management; and pursuing a policy of regime change in Iran. Currently unforeseeable opportunities are also likely to arise.
The 21st-century Middle East is a bloody place that is likely to get worse before it gets better. The brightest prospects for getting through the carnage quickly to arrive at a point of relative stability lie in a maligned philosophy now enjoying a comeback: nationalism, and specifically, its realisation as a region of strong, sovereign, ethnically defined nation states.