Why Aaron David Miller is lame, cliché and offensive

Yesterday, I posted a snide tweet suggesting that Aaron David Miller’s latest FP column Tribes With Flags was “lame, cliché and offensive.” I was asked for further explanation, and here I oblige, although I will keep it short since Karl’s ReMarks has already written a good critique.

The lame

The whole concept, really, that Arab states are on the verge of collapse, and that the powerful Arab state is an illusion. Miller posits:

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.

Forget democracies. What’s at stake here is basic coherence and governance.

… In much of the Middle East, the situation looks far worse today than a year ago. The question facing these troubled countries right now is not whether they can become democracies or resolve fundamental identity questions. It is much more basic: Can they produce a minimum of competent governance and order, so that they can begin to deal with the galactic political and economic challenges they face?

This entire passage shows little appreciation of Middle Eastern history on the remarkable growth in the strength and coherence of the state in every Arab country, including places like the Gulf where most states can genuinely be described as “tribes with flags” since ruling families are tribally rooted and the wider political system based on a historic balance of power between tribes. Yet even in a relatively recent state like the UAE, whose premise is entirely tribal since it is an alliance of tribes, the state is effective and strong. Same in Saudi Arabia where the domination of a single tribe, the al-Sauds, has nonetheless create a strong state whose role in central in both administration and creating a strong identity beyond tribalism. Even Qadhafi’s dysfunctional state in Libya has created a new reality of a strong Libyan identity (despite some resurgent regionalism) that is now serving as a base for the reconstruction of a central state, although perhaps one that will adopt a federal model (in comparison, under the monarchy Libya has several official capitals). It’s nonsense to confuse the dysfunctions of Arab states with the absence of a state. In Egypt, where the role of the state is being challenged and the authorities have proved unable to govern effectively in the last two years, the demand is also an improved state, not a rejection of the state.

Miller’s chief sin here is falling into the stupid trap of being “disappointed” that the Arab uprisings haven’t matched the “spring” label many gave it. Everywhere I go these days someone with a smirk on their face, often Israelis, make some remark about an Arab “winter”. Sure, the situation in Syria is ugly, and Egypt and Tunisia are going through some rough patches. But it’s more complicated than a seasonal label, and it’s not about how good or bad you (i.e. observer from outside the region) you feel about it.

The cliché

The resort to Tahseen Beshir’s quip that, aside Egypt, Arab states are “tribes with flags” — intended as a put-down of the Gulf states, Egypt’s chief Arab rivals in the late 1970s when Beshir said this — is tiresome. It belongs with other clichés of Middle Eastern politics, like Abba Eban’s “The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” because a) its bias is clear and b) it obscures more than it explains.

And then there’s the lazy writing that characterizes much of the piece, with gems like this:

President Mohamed Morsy’s first allegiance isn’t to the notion of an inclusive nation, but to the Muslim Brotherhood’s conception of Islamist governance. And let’s be clear, membership in the Brotherhood isn’t like joining a health club: It requires years to gain entry, and it’s a way of life that demands a comprehensive worldview. Like the Eagles’ Hotel California, you can check out but you can never leave.

The offensive

There’s much to be miffed about, but this paragraph in particular struck me:

The state of Palestine is split between Hamas and Fatah, creating a kind of Noah’s Ark with two of everything – security services, constitutions, prime ministers, and visions of where and what Palestine is. And Iraq, far from being the coherent whole the Americans dreamed of is a mishmash of Shia authoritarianism, Sunni grievances, and Kurdish autonomy.

Considering that Aaron David Miller as an important figure in the Clinton administration’s Middle East team and presumably has read a book or two about the region, it can’t be ignorance that’s the problem here — it’s arrogance. To speak of the lack of a state in Palestine without mentioning Israel’s occupation, or the sad state of Iraq without mentioning the sanctions (up to 1.5m dead) and the invasion of Iraq and its inept administration (based on a sectarian division of the country far from the “coherent whole” he thinks was dreamt up by US policymakers) by the US military (some 850,000 dead according to more recent estimates) is outrageous, even if of course local actors had their role to play in that too.

The piece does not have deserve much more analysis than that, and marks — among the often excellent coverage of its Middle East Channel — a tendency for Foreign Policy magazine to commission and publish third-rate articles by “names” in US and slap a provocative headline on them. One wonders whether it’s link-bait of the kind we saw last year’s with the Playboy-like cover that illustrated Mona El-Tahawy button-pushing article.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.