Prepare for the Great Arab Unraveling

Rami G. Khouri
6 Min Read

Seymour Hersh, investigative journalist for The New Yorker magazine, has sparked fresh debate with his latest article alleging that the Bush administration’s new policy to confront Iran has led it to send American money and other forms of assistance to extremist Sunni groups, sometimes via the Lebanese and Saudi governments, in order to confront and weaken Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. Do not pity or jeer Washington alone, for every single player in this tale – the United States, Hezbollah, the Lebanese government, Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia – wriggles uncomfortably in the mess they collectively created through their shortsighted policies of recent years. I suspect this mirrors something much bigger: We are in the midst of a potentially historic moment when the modern Arab state order that was created by the Europeans in circa 1920 has started to break down, in what we might perhaps call the Great Arab Unraveling. Shattered Iraq is the immediate driver of this possible dissolution and reconfiguration of an Arab state system that had held together rather well for nearly four generations. It is only the most dramatic case of an Arab country that wrestles with its own coherence, legitimacy, and viability. Lebanon and Palestine have struggled with their statehood for half a century; Somalia has quietly dropped out of this game; Kuwait vanished in 1990 and quickly reappeared; Yemen split, reunited, split, fought a war, and reunited; Sudan spins like a centrifuge, with national and tribal forces pushing away from a centralized state; Morocco and the Western Sahara dance gingerly around their logical association; and internal tensions plague other Arab countries to varying degrees. A learned British friend reminded me this week of the mixed legacy of countries manufactured by Europe at the Paris peace conference after World War I: Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Iraq. Not an inspiring record. The Anglo-American war to change the Iraqi regime has triggered wider regional tensions, unleashing powerful and often antagonistic forces of ethnic, religious and tribal identities, most of which have formed their own militias. All militias thrive on Arab, Iranian, or Western support. It is no surprise that Washington now may be indirectly assisting Sunni fundamentalist radicals of the ilk who attacked the US in recent years. America, welcome to the Middle East. The US obviously decided several months ago to go to plan B in Iraq. The surge in US troops probably camouflages the American retreat to more defensible lines in the Arab world, where it can fight against Iran and its mostly Islamist, but also Syrian Baathist friends, allies, and surrogates. Washington and its friends are desperate to control the genie they unleashed in Iraq, but they are wrong to see the threat primarily as a Shia-Iranian one. It is more useful to recognize that the driving force behind the loose coalition of anti-American and anti-Israeli forces in the region is, precisely, American and Israeli policies in the region. The Middle East has suffered so much homegrown tyranny and sustained external assaults that it has become a dangerous pressure cooker, given that a majority of citizens live with enormous, still-growing dissatisfaction in their economic, social, ethnic, religious, or national lives. If the pressure is not relieved by allowing the region and its states to define themselves and their own governance values, the pot will explode. I suspect we are witnessing both things happening together these days. On the one hand, Islamist, ethnic, sectarian, and tribal movements are growing and flourishing all over the Middle East – and are aided by Iran – in a dramatic example of collective self-assertion. On the other hand, massive external pressure, led by the US, some Europeans, Israel, and some Arab governments, fights back, hoping to keep the lid on a region trying to define itself and liberate itself from the modern legacy of the American, British and Israeli armies. The pervasive incoherence of this bizarre picture makes it perfectly routine for Arab monarchies to support Salafist terrorists, for Western democracies to ignore the results of Arab free elections, for Iranians and Arabs, and Shias and Sunnis, to work hand in hand while also fighting bitter wars, for Islamists and secular Arabs to join forces, for freedom lovers in London and Washington to support seasoned Arab autocrats, for Western and Arab rule-of-law advocates to sponsor militias, and for Israel and the US to perpetuate Israeli policies that exacerbate rather than calm security threats and vulnerabilities in the region. Short-term panic, medium-term confusion, and a long-term absence of direction have long defined the policies of all actors in the Middle East. These characteristics have only become more obvious as confrontation, defiance, and war in the region interact to signal the end of an era and the start of a new one. The Great Arab Unraveling is in its very early days. More harrowing things are yet come.

. Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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