America’s tentative return to the battlefields of Iraq, however reminiscent it is of unfinished American business there, is also a deadly reminder that the Arab world is still trying to sort out the unfinished business of the Ottoman Empire, a century after it collapsed.
After World War I, the region’s Arabs were not allowed a proper foundation on which to build stable, functional nations. And in more recent decades, they have been largely unsuccessful in doing so on their own.
Those painful facts are most obvious now in Iraq, where sectarianism has been undoing all of America’s past efforts to forcibly plant a pluralistic democracy in soil made arid by longstanding grievances, inequities, tribal identities and violence.
The Arab world today is the product of maps drawn by the British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and his French counterpart François Georges-Picot in 1916, and sanctified at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. European rule over Arab states that were only nominally independent followed; this left these states struggling with legitimacy ever since. When the Europeans left, they were followed by dictators who talked of nationalism, but failed to convince their own citizens that they were important participants in the nation.
That was because the arbitrary boundaries had left these new Arab states open to perpetual internal clashes based on rivalries among tribes and religious sects. Their leaders spoke the language of modern nationalism, but their states never quite united. So they turned to domination by one tribe or sect over others.
The Ottomans, by contrast, knew how to manage diversity. Their decentralized model embraced a rudimentary pluralism that saw politics as the pursuit of a workable balance between differing tribes and religious communities. More often than they do now, these communities could tolerate and coexist with one another, despite differences.
In the failure of the Arab Spring and the ascendance of Islamist militancy, we are seeing a new explosion of tribal and sectarian differences. This is the real root of the challenge posed by nonstate movements that seek to form shadow governments in ungoverned territories. We have seen them before in Lebanon, Libya, the Palestinian territories.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, though it feels frighteningly different and more toxic to outsiders, is only the latest example. And it is not entirely original. The last time an alliance of tribes and Islamic zealots changed the map of the Arab world was in 1925, when Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud’s puritanical Ikhwan warriors swept across the Arabian Peninsula to create a new Islamist country that still bears his name.
At the end of imperial rule, the dominant idea in the Arab world was a unifying Arab nationalism. It captured the popular imagination, but Egypt, Iraq and Syria paid it only lip service as they struggled to mold national identities out of their own varied sects and tribes. When Arab nationalism eventually lost its luster, another imagined idea, Islamism, replaced it. Though it seems larger than any one Arab state, it unites only so far. Sunnis and Shiites agree on Islamic unity, but not on whose history, theology and laws should define it, or on which sect should lead it.
Today, it is a blend of Islamism and nationalism that defines Arab politics. This explains the ferocity of the Sunni-Shiite split. Resurgent religious identities are pushing against the bounds of nation-states that were conceived assuming the dominance of secular nationalism.
For most of the last century, this tension was kept at bay by dictatorship, in a regional order most recently backed by the United States. But now, both Arab dictatorship and the order that sustained it have lost their moorings — first because of America’s state-shattering in Iraq, and then because of popular rebellions. Now the whole post-World War I regional order has come under question from extremists who blend Islam with populism, nationalism and anti-imperialism. The West and its Arab allies are merely playing catch-up, and not very well.
Today, the Obama administration would prefer to leave the Middle East’s incomprehensible politics and insoluble problems to the locals to sort out.
But what is unfolding is not all that alien to our knowledge of history, nor is it entirely a product of Arab history and culture. This is a process that Europe set in motion a century ago. The new nationalisms that followed the Great War took firm root only in places like Europe, where the boundaries of new nation-states were better matched to natural ethnic or linguistic divisions.
The lesson is that America can use its military power to contain, but not resolve, paroxysms of violence in the Arab world as it is now drawn. That would require constitutional arrangements that would allow for genuine power-sharing — a modern iteration of the Ottoman Empire’s workable balance, on a nation-by-nation scale. That alone will bring to the Arab world the peace that eluded it at the end of World War I.
This is a job for our diplomats more than for our soldiers. We can start in Iraq, hoping that success there will help the rest of the region as well.
Vali R. Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is the author of The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat.