28 Feb 2013

Tribes With Flags - Is the Arab State Really Dead?

Aaron David Miller stirred up quite a hornet’s nest with his recent article in FP ‘Tribes With Flags’, in which he questions the ‘myth of Arab statehood’. Some of the angry responses to Miller’s article were more outraged by the provocative title, with its insinuations of camel-riding bandits, than with the substance of his argument. I’m personally not worked up about the title, it’s a metaphor he’s using as a figurative extension of his argument. The real problem is his shoddy and complacent reasoning.

Miller’s thesis starts from a legitimate question: “…it may be time to ponder another proposition: In the wake of the Arab Spring, we're witnessing the beginning of the end of another Arab illusion -- the functional and coherent Arab state.” His argument relies on the crisis of the state in three central Arab countries, Egypt, Iraq and Syria. As he puts it: “In the wake of the Arab Spring, all three have essentially gone off line, their regional reach much diminished.”

I say it’s a legitimate question because the collapse of the state, in varying degrees in each of the three states, is an undisputable phenomenon. But Miller’s sleight of hand here is blatantly ignoring the reasons for the most dramatic collapse, that of the Iraqi state and the inadvertent role of the US in accelerating that collapse. The US invasion of Iraq, lack of a post-invasion plan and the foolish dismantling of any remaining state institution, all dealt a severe blow to the legitimacy and coherence of the Iraqi state.

Moreover, least we think all the blame lies with Bush and Blair’s ill-considered adventure, this came after the US and its allies had created a de facto division of Iraq after the Gulf War through the no-fly zones north and south of the country and their brief encouragement of Shiite and Kurdish dissent. Coupled with the now almost forgotten 13 years of harsh economic sanctions which led to devastating results, these policies had all but finished off the Iraqi state. By 2003, the country was teetering, the invasion dealt it a fatal blow.

It is disingenuous of Miller to suggest that the collapse of the state in Iraq was a product of the inherent weakness of the Arab state rather than external pressures. This is not an attempt to shift blame for the misfortunes of Arabs on outsiders, Arab regimes are responsible for the stagnation of their societies under their autocratic rule, but ignoring the role of the US in dismantling state institutions in Iraq is dishonest. In fact, it points to the continuing refusal to take any responsibility for the fate of Iraq as a result of US policies, an aspect that permeates Miller’s article.

The US/Western policies in Iraq leading up to the invasion did not weaken the regime, but they did undermine the state, and they are not one and the same thing. So why was the same template used in Syria in response to the regime’s violent repression of the uprising? Consider: sanctions, mixed-messages of support and broken promises to the opposition, and a policy of isolating a regime it had been until very recently trying to open up to. And looking at the results so far, Syria seems to be heading in a similar direction to that of Iraq.

There is a point of principle here, when Western policies consistently disregard the sovereignty of Arab states, it is pretty rich from Miller to attribute the decline of those states to internal lack of coherence solely. But a fundamental problem here is that Miller, and this is an endemic attitude of western policy circles, seems oblivious to the nature of that interventionist role. In fact, he describes it exclusively in passive terms: “As for the United States, we're stuck in the middle of this mess.”

It is this, probably genuine, bafflement that points to a serious shortcoming in understanding the real dynamics of US policy in the Middle East that led Miller to construct this esoteric argument about the myth of the Arab state. Consider the third example, Egypt. Since Mubarak stepped down, US officials and policy wonks have consistently resorted to the ‘let’s wipe the slate clean’ line in response to questions about the decades of US support for a dictatorial regime.

Or in Miller’s words: “The authoritarians have gone -- and good riddance.” So when Miller says “Egypt is bogged down in interminable political and economic problems”, it seems that is purely the result of the last two years. There is no suggestion whatsoever that the US’s role in shoring up Mubarak’s regime has any consequences, Egypt’s failure to turn into a liberal democracy in this short period of time is a product of inherent dysfunction of the Arab state.

Miller’s ‘tribes’ thesis is summed up in this much-regurgitated refrain: “but the idea that sectarian and ethnic identity, rather than national affiliation, is the driving organizing principle in much of Arab politics is an undeniable reality.” There is, undeniably, an element of truth to any cliché, this one included. Nobody can deny the increasing role than those identities are playing in some, the more heterogeneous, Arab countries.

Miller’s error, much like most commentators, is not understanding that phenomenon of ethnic/sectarian affiliation in its historical context. These identities are not extensions of primordial relationships, they are modern constructs that have only very recently developed political expressions. The suggestion by Miller that loyalty to those identities precedes and prevails over loyalty to the state is lazy and inaccurate, and is based on a lack of understanding of how and why they came into being.

Consider for example that one of the most visible representations of this form of politics, the Shiite politicisation of Hezbollah, only arose in the mid-80s. The fact that Hezbollah’s narrative draws heavily on historic imagery and grievances doesn’t make it an extension of older form of Shiite mobilisation, it’s a foundational myth not that dissimilar to those employed by European nation states. The immediate rise of such movements was a response to the failure of modern, secular political projects, which is by no means only an Arab phenomenon.

The failure to see such movements as a local form of the global rise of identity politics translates into an essentialist view of Arab socio-political dynamics, represented as forever stuck in these timeless tribal relationships. They are of course more militant in certain instances than minority rights’ groups in the West (but not always), but that’s a function of circumstances not inherent militant ‘tribal’ tendencies. (Hezbollah’s formation as a guerrilla resistance movement, for example.)

Nobody can deny that there is a really ugly side to the rise of sectarian identities, but they need to be understood against the backdrop of the decline of universalist ideologies not as permanent features of Arab society and politics. Miller again: “When these societies undergo stress … it's loyalty to the tribe, family, sect, and religious group that provides the primary source of identity and organization.” This is true, to a certain extent, of the recent past, but it ignores nearly a century of Arab politics in which that wasn’t the case.

The truth of the matter is that the Arab world is undergoing violent upheaval and change at a moment of global collapse of the ideologies that shaped the past century. The Arab uprisings are taking places amidst a prevailing intellectual vacuum that is deeply suspicious of human agency and possibilities of radical change, expressed clearly in Miller’s closing line “it may just be that the Arabs can't save themselves either, nor transform the world in which they live.” Miller’s thesis about the fate of Arab states is but a product of this defeatism.

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1 comment:

  1. Not sure how these generally thoughtful remarks actually supply the deficits left over once we've disposed of Miller's cliches, and are still confronting the "elements of truth" the blogger concedes. In other words, Miller's language may be one-sided and even offensive, but his main point remains unaffected: For whatever reasons, and whoever's fault it mainly is, various Arab and other national projects have encountered severe difficulties in the wake of which people have had to seek alternative political answers of various somewhat familiar types, not just in this century or the last.

    It doesn't add much to the discussion to report that the embrace of new configurations of old identities can be explained by a prior failure of more typically "modern" secular-political projects, since the observation merely re-states Miller's "defeatist" premises. Along the same lines, observing the "decline" of universalist ideologies is a kind of flip-side of the essentialist fallacy. The ideology underlying the liberal democratic nation state as a regime form is not simply "universalist." It is offered and implemented as dynamically adaptive. In that sense whether it has really "declined," and whether an "intelletual vacuum" truly "prevails" (other than among certain intellectuals) is impossible to say prior to more precise definition - it may be that the blogger is as much a universalist as anyone else, now or last century. We can likewise wonder about the possible objectivity of statements about "prevailing" intellectual conditions of any type. Maybe they prevail only among certain intellectuals.

    I'm also deeply suspicious of any statements of "deep... suspicion of human agency." Taken on its face, they are absurd, and wouldn't even rise to the level of defeatism, since without some notion of "human agency" there is no victory or defeat. Disbelief in human agency would be a kind of super-defeatism. At the same time, connecting an assumption of meaningful human agency to "possibilities of radical change" is artificial: The terms may not be bound to each other at all. One may even preclude the other.

    Miller may make numerous errors. His piece may not be a very good piece at all. But whether for his reasons or the blogger's, we're still left with an "if not that, then what?" If not the modern nation-state under adapted liberal-democratic premises, then what?


Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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