If the 1991 war was about a restoration of the Arab state system, the 2003 war, coming in the wake of the shock of 9/11, called its very legitimacy into question. However much it bungled the first year of the American occupation of Iraq, the Bush administration by its invasion of Iraq had latched onto and exposed a fundamental truth of modern Arab politics—at least, in the form it was starting to take in the beginning of the 21st century.
A political and cultural malaise that had taken grip of the region since 1967—and that had produced such entirely unconnected but equally dangerous phenomena as Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda—was not sustainable by the kind of policies of support for autocracy and dictatorship that had guided American foreign policy since the discovery of oil in the region. History, and the Arab world in due time, will judge the US kindly for that historic change of direction of US foreign policy towards the Middle East.
With the toppling of the most egregious tyrant the modern Arab world had ever known, one who initiated and survived numerous wars and killed untold millions of people, the whole order of which he was such an integral part came under a new kind of scrutiny.
His fall was a tectonic shift that would in time strike at the heart of the whole post-1967 Arab order. The crucial signs that indicated the cracking of the edifice, long before the Arab Spring of 2011 began, came in 2005, when the people of Lebanon marched in their hundreds of thousands to expel a Syrian army of occupation from their country; they marched again the same year to protest the assassination of their prime minister, Rafik Hariri. The movement came early elsewhere, too, when the Palestinians tasted their first real elections in Gaza and the West Bank, and in Egypt when the Americans twisted the arm of Hosni Mubarak to allow Egyptians their first genuinely-contested election in 2005. In Iran, the eruption of the grassroots Green Movement protested the rigging of the 2009 elections.
More broadly, there was the spread of a new kind of critical writing online and in fiction that had not been seen in Arab culture before. (The early online writings of Shalash Al-Iraqi, a pseudonym, whose every posting was read by hundreds of thousands, comes to mind.) The list goes on and on.
Just as importantly, and working away in the subterranean ground of the Arab political psyche, the legitimating ideas of post 1967 Arab politics—pan-Arabism, armed struggle, anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism—ideas that stood at the foundation of the regimes in Iraq and Syria, were now rubbing up against the realities of what life under Saddam Hussein had been really like.
Before 2003, one had been able to deny or ignore the genocide that had been inflicted on Iraq’s Kurdish population, or the mass killings of Shi’ite protestors in 1991, but ignorance was no longer an excuse following the fall of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party, as up to three hundred mass grave sites began to be dug up and identified across the country.
You did not have to agree with the 2003 war, or like the selfish and sectarian new political elite (a mirror image of Saddam’s own sectarianism) that American force of arms put in power in Iraq, to see that something exceptionally nasty had exercised power in that benighted country since 1968. It was also increasingly becoming evident that its rise to, and thirty-year hold on, power originated in the answers it gave to the great Arab defeat in 1967 by Israel: a fifth column, made up of the tiny remnants of Iraq’s once-flourishing Jewish community, was the answer the Iraqi Ba’athists gave to why multiple Arab armies were routed in six days.
No “Arab Spring” protester, however much he or she might identify with the plight of the Palestinians or decry the cruel policies of Israeli occupation in the West Bank, would think today to attribute all the ills of Arab polities to empty abstractions like “imperialism” and “Zionism.” They understand today that those phrases were tools designed to prop up nasty regimes and distract people like them from the struggle for a better life.
Generations of Arabs have paid with their lives and with their futures for a set of illusions that it is now clear had nothing to do with Israel’s existence or the persistence of its immoral occupation. These illusions come from within the world that we Arabs have, alas, constructed for ourselves. It is a world built upon certain legitimating ideas, which through exposure to greater scrutiny after 2003 are today exposed as bankrupt and even dangerous to the future of the young Arab men and women who set out in 2011, against all odds, to build a brave new world.
In their place, and to build that world, the young revolutionaries (and they had to be young) put the struggle against their own dictatorships first and foremost in their political priorities, just as their Iraqi counterparts had done twenty years earlier.
To be sure, the system of beliefs represented by the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party had ossified and lost the ability to inspire anyone long before Saddam’s ouster from power in 2003. And yet he was still there, in power, the great survivor of so many terrible wars and revolutions. It was impossible for Iraqis at least to see beyond him. Might there have been an Arab Spring in Iraq if the 2003 war had not happened? We shall never know, but it is doubtful. Iraqis were too exhausted and too broken. The price of 1991 had been very great, and the legacy of thirty years of dictatorship even greater. Everybody underestimated it. It is more interesting to ask whether the Arab Spring would have happened if Saddam had not been overthrown in 2003. Eventually, perhaps—but with Saddam in Baghdad, when?
Ideas are not constrained by frontiers and borders. One cannot help but recall the impact of President Carter’s call for a politics of human rights in Latin America or the fall of one dictatorship after the other in the 1980s. Youth, and youth in the Arab world in particular, are not constrained by the prejudices of old men, by prejudices and compromises with dictatorship and state violence in the name of the struggle against Zionism and imperialism.
And so in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, a new phenomenon that is still in the making made an appearance. It is focused like a laser beam on dictatorship, and it demands a political order that derives its legitimacy from genuine citizenship, something that young Arabs got to know about through the Internet and other social networks. They envision new forms of community, forms not based on a suffocating nationalist embrace supposedly designed to hold in check the avaricious intentions of the United States and Israel. All Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor, was asking for on December 17, 2010, was his dignity and self-respect as a person, as an individual. That is how the Arab Spring began, and the toppling of the first Arab dictator, Saddam Hussein, paved the way for many young Arabs to imagine it.
The Arab Spring, however, has turned into winter, as the metaphor goes. Here too the story of Iraq after 2003 has some salutary lessons. The support the Arab monarchies gave in 1991 to the coalition that pushed Saddam out of Kuwait was entirely due to the threat that Saddam Hussein represented to them were he to get away with it. That support, it is important to remember, was not forthcoming in the wake of the Iraqi dictator’s overthrow in 2003, when a new, more equitable order—let us not even call it democratic—was at least on the agenda in Iraq.
Active hostility by all and sundry was the order of the day. Jihadis poured in. the remnants of the Iraqi Ba’ath wreaked havoc on Iraq from Syria, the Iranians funded all and sundry as long as their mission was to undermine and de-legitimize genuine governance in Iraq—and the list goes on and on.
The net effect of the first few years of this, ironically, was to undermine the 1991 restoration of the Arab state system, originally violated by Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi political elite responded by becoming more and more sectarian, far more so than Saddam Hussein ever was. Saddam had used sectarianism and national chauvinism as a tool against his internal enemies when he was weak. Today’s Iraqi Shi’a parties legitimize themselves on sectarian grounds, and have for all practical purposes abandoned the idea of Iraq as a nation-state. All major political decisions in Iraq today are made in Tehran. The idea of Iraq is being abandoned.
Since the Arab Spring, the old rules that governed the Arab order have been turned completely upside down. In one Arab country after the other, the continuing weaknesses of that original post–World War I Arab order are making themselves felt, with countries like Libya, Syria, Iraq and even Lebanon, teetering on the edge of falling apart. Increasingly, they are looking nonviable inside their existing political boundaries.
The support that several key Arab monarchies are providing to Syrian resistance forces fighting against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad is further undermining the legitimacy of the whole post–1967 Arab order, an order that is breaking down more quickly in those republican regimes that most rested on it—Syria, Iraq, and Libya.
Traditional, conservative Arab monarchies are doing the unthinkable: from supporting Hizbollah in its “resistance” to Israel in 2006, they have today entered into a proxy conflict with an Arab rejectionist, nationalist regime—Bashar’s Syria—allied to Hizbollah and Iran, whose legitimacy derives from the post 1967 Arab rejection of Israel. Their intervention in Syria originates in the imperative, as they see it, to shape the kind of Syria that will emerge from the chaos. That is the only way to salvage something of the old Arab order that they know is shifting under their feet. The region is being reconfigured wholesale. Against these forces, the young forward-looking revolutionaries of the Arab Spring are, alas, defenseless.
The Syrian civil war is no longer a war that can be fudged or left unfinished. It will go on, one painful step after the next, until there is no longer a Ba’athist regime in Syria and maybe even no longer a Syrian state. We are entering the unknown and the unknowable as far as politics in the Middle East is concerned.
There is normally very little that is positive to be said about the collapse of states like Syria, possibly Iraq, and perhaps Lebanon and maybe Libya at some point in the future. It is often, and certainly in the Iraqi and Syrian cases, a recipe for untold death and destruction, unmatched by anything caused by the region’s very numerous and regular interstate wars. We see this horror daily on the news coming out of Syria as refugees pour out of that country and try to escape or hide themselves in underground caves to escape the merciless shelling of their own regime.
Our species, at least in its modern garb, needs states. Nobody knows this better than the Palestinians, whose denial of one by Israel has brought untold misery and havoc to the region, including to the Israelis themselves (anyone who is in any doubt on that score should see the remarkable new Israeli film, The Gatekeepers).
States still are the cornerstones of our security as individuals, and provide at least the possibility of a civilized way of life depending on how they are constructed and legitimized. Without them, “life is nasty, brutish and short,” wrote Hobbes, who would today have a field day if he could but observe what is going on in the Middle East.
There is one exception to this dismal picture in the Middle Eastern since 1991: the Kurdish experience in Iraqi Kurdistan and tomorrow, perhaps, in other parts of the Kurdish–dominated region. The Kurds were the great losers of the post–Ottoman order, but the only part of Iraq that is “working” today, as so many hoped the whole of Iraq would work after 2003, is Iraqi Kurdistan. The fact of the matter is that Kurdistan is a safe place to live and work; it is thriving economically, with hundreds of Turkish firms investing in virtually every sphere of life, and it is flourishing culturally with several new universities already in place. What more could anyone ask?