The Coming Collapse of the Middle East?
The regions’s borders have long been artificial. The war in Iraq accelerated their demise.
The main parties in this bourgeoning civil war were Sunni and Shiite Arabs. Each faction had allies in neighboring states, and some of them took the new phase of the war as a rallying cry either for coming to the aid of their brethren in Iraq or for mounting their own rebellions at home. As the authorities in these always-artificial (and therefore illegitimate) states weakened for various reasons (some of them having little to do with the Iraq war), the internal clashes between Sunni and Shiite came to dominate local—then regional—politics.
The question is how far this unraveling goes. Will civil wars erupt in one artificial state after another? That is, will the path of Syria be followed by Lebanon, then Jordan, then (hard as it may be to imagine) Saudi Arabia? Will Sunnis or Shiites, or both, take their sectarian fights across the borders to the point where the borders themselves collapse? If so, will new borders be drawn up at some point, conforming to some historically “natural” sectarian divisions? There have been many such alternative-maps proposed over the years, none of them quite alike, which raises the possibility that the definition of “natural” borders may itself be a contentious matter, likely to set off its own disputes or wars. Will these new borders conform to the results of these new battles? (Borders, like histories, are usually drafted by the winners.)
David Fromkin foresaw all this when he wrote A Peace to End All Peace a quarter-century ago. He also noted that the then-impending havoc would go on for quite a while, likening the situation to that of Europe’s in the fifth century “when the collapse of the Roman Empire’s authority in the West threw its subjects into a crisis of civilization that obliged them to work out a new political system of their own.” Fromkin went on:
“It took Europe a millennium and a half to resolve its post-Roman crisis of social and political identity: nearly a thousand years to settle on the nation-state form of political organization, and nearly five hundred years more to determine which nations were entitled to be states … The continuing crisis in the Middle East in our time may prove to be nowhere near so profound or so long-lasting. But its issue is the same: how diverse peoples are to regroup to create new political identities for themselves after the collapse of an age-old imperial order to which they had grown accustomed.”
There is a danger that such a cosmic view of world politics might breed passivity: The dynamics of conflict seem so inexorable, and so glacial, that outside intervention—even outside interest—appears futile. That’s not necessarily the case. History still walks on two feet. Leaders of nations can take steps, in alliance with other leaders, to reduce the human misery, control the level of violence, prevent the rise of some new empire that, in its full power, might threaten our own security.
But one clear lesson of Fromkin’s tome is that there are limits to what we—especially we, as sectarian outside powers—can do. Another clear lesson is that, if our leaders are going to intervene in another country’s fate (and not just in the Middle East), they should have some understanding of the country’s politics, history, and culture—which is to say, they should have some notion of the consequences of their actions—ahead of time. We and much of the rest of the world would be much better off today, if a few people in the Bush administration had read that one book.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.