March 29, 2018


Nation states could save the Middle East (BRUCE ABRAMSON, April 2018, Standpoint)

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.

All of modernity's geopolitical problems trace to Wilson's failure to vindicate American values after WWI.

Posted by at March 29, 2018 3:56 AM