Terra Incognita: Western policy makers, stop being obsessed with ‘solutions’ in the Middle East

The key is to accept that some things are not “solvable” and hybrid structures and new paradigms are a good thing.

A tile design with the map of the world (photo credit: REUTERS)
A tile design with the map of the world
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The last major speech John Kerry gave before leaving office was focused on “preserving the two-state solution.” He used the term “two-state solution” 23 times in his speech. “Resolution” was used 40 times. “Resolve” got an honorable six mentions.
Kerry’s terminology and outlook isn’t an aberration. It comes from a long line of US and Western diplomats who want to “work the problem.” There are always “plans” on how to get things done. Plan Alpha. The Rogers Plan. The Peace Process. The Road Map. There are Oslo Accords and Oslo II and Wye River. The theme is always the same: you make peace like you make a sausage. Things go in one end and something else comes out the other and it’s all wrapped up in an oddly-shaped sack. Europeans have been doing it since the days when colonialism ended.
Not since colonialism began, mind you.
When colonialism began in the 15th century, the Conquistadors just hacked their way through jungles and took things over. Borders were blurry and fluid, because no one needed real borders. But comes the Peace of Westphalia, the nation state system, and then you get “solutions” and “accords” and lines on a map. You can tell when Europeans drew lines on a map, because they tend to be straight; it wasn’t their countries they were carving up. Obviously when they carved up the Low Countries or had to deal with the Alto-Adige or Northern Ireland, then things were complicated. But when dealing with the rest of the world, why not just a straight line.
Fast-forward to the present. The Middle East in many ways is a product of the colonial era, but it is not the era’s greatest victim. Colonialism drew borders in the Middle East (find the straight lines), but most of the states were only colonized for a short period. Algeria and Egypt were among those colonized longest, from the 19th to mid-20th century. Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Mandate Palestine were among the shorter colonial rules, just several decades after the First World War. Other places had varying degrees of colonial rule and influence, such as Yemen, the Gulf and Iran. Saudi Arabia and Turkey remained mostly independent.
What did the colonial era beget? First it left the region, including North Africa, with monarchies, several of which were done away with by young officers in coups. Off went Faisal II of Iraq, Farouk of Egypt and Idris of Libya. Kingdoms Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and Morocco remained. Arab nationalists rose to power. They borrowed heavily from the West, not just technology and modes of dress, but their ideas, mainly socialism and fascism, melded together. Since the 1980s the region has been gifted with a return to what some puritans say is its triumphant past: Islamist revolution. Black banners and mullahs. Nasser, Saddam, the Shah and others also spoke of past glories, but they saw a pre-Islamic past.
If we pause here and add this all up, what do we get? Colonial borders, but weak colonial structures. Kingdoms, fascism and socialism. Islamism. Add into that ethnic rivalry, Zionism and religious sectarianism and you can neatly put the Middle East and North Africa into some little boxes.
For Western policy-makers the view of the region sometimes looks like Thomas Barnett’s 2004 Pentagon’s New Map with its stable “core” countries and “non-integrated gap.” The gap is mostly the Middle East and North Africa. You could add to this book the 1995 Jihad vs. McWorld and Samuel Huntington’s 1996 Clash of Civilizations. The late Zbigniew Brzezinski titled chapter three of his 2012 Strategic Vision “By 2025, not Chinese but Chaotic.” Henry Kissinger called the Middle East, in his own chapter three, of World Order in 2015, “Islamism and the Middle East: A world disorder.”
So we get it, the Middle East is “chaos” of “failed states” and “ungovernable territory.” This “chaos” stretches from the Sahel and Sahara all the way to Afghanistan. When it was supposedly kept in check by fascist dictators it functioned well with the “core,” but now it doesn’t.
What it needs of course is more agreements, accords and plans. It needs a self-help book like Getting to Yes. We need to “work the problem” and that requires nice terminology, like “good actors,” “bad actors,” “militants” and “moderates.”
The problem is that there is no evidence these “chaotic” areas are becoming less chaotic, despite all the “working” being done on them. Somalia began to fall apart in 1991 after rule by the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. Somaliland and Puntland drifted away and the rest of the country is locked in war between Islamist extremists and the internationally recognized but barely functioning government. Libya began the same slide in 2011. Afghanistan has been in this shape since the 1980s. Iraq since the 1990s and truly since 2003. Syria since 2011. Yemen since the 1990s. Mali in the past decade.
To varying degrees we can add other states such as Chad and northern Nigeria as well as the Central African Republic and South Sudan and parts of Sudan. Then also let’s add Gaza since 2006 and the West Bank to some extent. Lebanon isn’t a chaos, it “solved” its 14-year civil war in 1989, but it’s worried about sliding back. Pakistan has surrendered part of its country to Islamists. Central Asia could be on the brink. Other countries are trapped in frozen conflicts, such as in the Caucuses.
But in the John Kerry and Western worldview, we are “solving” these conflicts.
The main problem is that few people want to admit that perhaps they are not solvable. Perhaps Yemen is not trending toward “unity.” Western policy-makers are devoted to unity. An independent Kurdistan in Iraq? Unthinkable. That would be “chaotic.” Even though it is an anchor of stability in a region of chaos, for some reason it is the problem. Puntland and Somaliland? Why would we invest in them? They aren’t part of our “core.” No, no. They are bad actors because they don’t believe in the god of “unity” in Somalia. Unify with a failed central government and Islamists. Don’t seek stability in your own little state. Anyone who seeks such things is accused of “partitioning” countries that European bureaucrats created in 1920 or 1960.
After all, the first thing Nigeria did when it became independent is fight a vicious war in which millions starved and died in Biafra. The wages of “independence” were war. Kurds too had to live under Saddam’s genocide, because that is part of Iraqi “stability”; for some reason if you don’t want to be genocided you are creating “instability” in world order. Instability means re-drawing state lines, whereas stability means chaos, but unchanging lines on a map. It’s Orwellian, but then again that’s the whole point.
We are addicted to “solutions” in the Middle East. It’s not because of Orientalism or Western racism, or because cultures “think differently.” It may be due to different cultures of legalism and formality and bureaucracy. But the key is to accept that some things are not “solvable” and hybrid structures and new paradigms are a good thing. Instead of always seeking “world order,” perhaps it would be better to accept a level of disorder in order to work with entities that do function, facts on the ground as it were. Maybe they won’t be fascist 1970s dictators, the kind that for some reason are accepted at the UN and everyone likes to work with, but they might be a better hope than a swath of countries that are not improving, are likely going to live through 50 years of civil conflict, and perhaps should not be shoehorned back together again.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman.