Things Fall Apart. Except When They Don’t.
A cohesive Iraqi state will always be a fiction. ISIS will shoot itself in the foot. And other important truths to guide U.S. policy in today’s increasingly turbulent Middle East.
In chilling fashion, on the eve of World War II, W.B. Yeats held forth in his poem "The Second Coming":
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Though written almost 90 years ago, these words might easily be said today of Syria and Iraq — if not the entire Middle East.
Syria is melting down, and now Iraq is on the verge too. Refugees and radicals flood the region with abandon. Sunnis and Shiites — each with their respective patrons — face off. Even in Israel and the Palestinian territories, violence threatens. Also, Iran with nukes? Terrorists with access to money, weapons, and passports threatening Europe and America with bloody jihad? There are those possibilities too.
No serious observer would want to take these calamities (or potential ones) lightly. And certainly, as one of the more annoyingly negative analysts of this region, I have no stake in downplaying the severity of the broken, angry, dysfunctional Middle East that is now coming apart. Arab Spring, where art thou?
But still, some perspective is in order.
Before jumping off the deep end — as happened with the analysis of the Ukraine crisis as a new Cold War, or after 9/11 when America launched a social science project that cost more than a trillion dollars by invading Iraq — one must reason things out a bit more. Spinning doomsday scenarios serves no one’s interest. Indeed, it interferes with the kind of cool, rational analysis that usually leads to good decisions, or at least to avoiding the worst ones. There may be no good options here, but there are ways to stop the slide and avert disaster. And that first requires recognizing some key realities — and adjusting expectations downward.
Iraq is a fiction. Even before the events of the last few weeks, Iraq wasn’t a cohesive country. It’s as simple as that. America couldn’t fix it in 2003; and it certainly cannot fix Iraq now. That is, if "fixed" means creating a unified, stable, and productive polity where everyone shares power fairly and happily. Sure, it may matter some if Nouri al-Maliki stays or goes. But on balance, what Iraq is and where it is — that is, its demography and geography — will continue to undermine any ecumenical vision one might have for it.
But that doesn’t mean Iraq as we know it will fracture, disintegrate, or merge into a seamless sectarian mess with Syria. Iraq’s neighbors and the Iraqis themselves (who do have a sense of national identity) will want to keep the fiction alive for their own reasons. Iraq may never be unified, but it doesn’t have to be a failed state either. Most likely, assuming that the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) can be checked and a modicum of political reform occurs, Iraq will evolve into an even looser series of decentralized polities, with the Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis each seeking advantage and protection from one another.
ISIS, shmisis. To be sure, ISIS is a terrifying phenomenon. Right now, it seems like the group is on a veritable run — depicted like a cross between the Mongol horde taking over the Middle East or Hitler rolling throughout Western Europe. It faces little opposition and thus rules by default where it has seized control. And it’s hard to predict how it will evolve. The dysfunction of the Iraqi state, and the catastrophe in Syria, have given it a foothold in both places.
But it is unlikely that it will come to rule Syria or Iraq in full, let alone fulfill its fantasy of creating an Islamic caliphate. Its own character and ideology of Muslim hating-and-baiting will limit its influence, even as it feeds on Sunni disenfranchisement. Should ISIS try to govern territory in a more structured way, it will offer up a physical address, which will make it vulnerable to military strikes. And while it may welcome those attacks as a way to feed its jihad, the group’s cruelty and arbitrary character will sooner or later create contradictions that will make it vulnerable to Sunni dissent and opposition from within. As a recent International Crisis Group study points out, ISIS has time and again proved to be its own worst enemy.
Instead, it is likely that ISIS will become a major counterterrorism problem for the region, and perhaps for Europe. As for striking America, that’s a more complicated issue. It didn’t work out so well for al Qaeda’s central operations, as recent history shows. And as my Foreign Policy colleague Micah Zenko reminds us, in 2013 there were 17,800 global fatalities due to terrorism, but only 16 of those were Americans. Although preventing attacks is the most important foreign policy priority, bar none, terrorism — including from ISIS — just isn’t a strategic threat to the homeland right now.
Assad is sitting pretty. If the 2013 U.S.-Russian chemical weapons agreement was a life preserver for Assad, the rise of ISIS has been a gift that will keep giving for quite a while. Assad now seems vindicated and strengthened. Not only is the world attention diverted from getting rid of him, his allies, particularly Russia, will increasingly argue that kicking him out simply can’t happen — as a matter of security. Does the world want Syria taken over by ISIS?
A rough alignment is now emerging in which Russia, Iran, Iraqi Shiites, and Syrian Alawis are the lesser of the evils in play, even a front line of defense against the jihadi hordes. The United States isn’t going to ally with this cabal directly. But it certainly isn’t going to be calling for Assad’s demise, either. Indeed, the United States is in peculiar bind: Assad’s brutality has helped make ISIS possible, but the regime is now moving to constrain the group. So Washington is left in the anomalous position of supporting moderate Sunni elements against Assad, while going after ISIS — perhaps soon with air and missile strikes — in a way that also indirectly strengthens the Syrian leader.
Is Iran a new kind of partner? Certainly, Iranian and U.S. goals aren’t compatible in Iraq or in Syria: Washington would like a coherent, independent Iraqi state, for instance, while Tehran wants a weak one under Shiite auspices that it can influence. But in the "enemy of my enemy is my friend" game that is now afoot, Tehran must be seen as another way to check ISIS’s advance It can do this partly by pressing Maliki to reform, and partly by trying to control other Shiite militias so that an all-out sectarian war can be avoided. Talk about letting the fox guard the henhouse.
The price may well be conceding, or even validating, Iranian sway in Iraq. But that was more or less inevitable anyway: Iraq is in Iran’s sphere of influence, not America’s. That doesn’t mean Washington has to roll over, but it does mean it needs to be realistic about what it can actually do, and what sort of unlikely partners it will need to accomplish the things it cannot do alone. (Meanwhile, keep an eye on putative U.S.-Iranian cooperation if there is no nuclear deal.)
Forget democracy — and Palestine. In my view, these two elements have always been discretionary, not vital, to U.S. interests in the post-9/11 Middle East. Not because they aren’t important, but because Washington really can’t do much about them — except, that is, to further mess them up. Now, with the situations in Syria and Iraq, the
focus will really need to be on stability, rather than creating new democratic litmus tests for allies like Egypt, or trying to turn Iraq into a real democracy. America needs all the friends it can get these days, and that means improving ties with Egypt, coordinating with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and bucking up Jordan. (Those efforts will also provide a good balance to a new, cozier relationship with Iran.)
As for the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Secretary of State John Kerry has rightly hung a "temporarily closed" sign on the door. Things have been deteriorating as Israel churns up the West Bank looking for kidnapped kids, arresting and alienating Palestinians. But c’est la vie: Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas, and Israel all have a stake in avoiding a blow-up and keeping the jihadis at bay.
In 2003, the Bush administration sought to transform the Middle East. It failed. Today the U.S. goal isn’t transformation or redemption; it’s transaction. Separate what’s important from what isn’t; understand what’s doable and what isn’t; and don’t expand horizons, but contract them. In short, take care of business: press for a more credible political arrangement in Iraq, buck up the moderate opposition in Syria, hit ISIS to blunt its advances, and work with regional partners to further contain the group’s threat.
But more than anything, America can’t start dreaming about either fixing things or leaving the region. There are no solutions to any of the Middle East’s problems, only outcomes. Washington has to be smart and tough in trying to shape those outcomes. But it also has to be careful.