The West in the Arab world, between ennui and ecstasy

This essay was contributed by Peter Harling and Alex Simon.

To outsiders, the Middle East usually is an intellectual object—a place on a map onto which they project their fears, fantasies and interests. But to many it is a home to live and despair in, to flee and to cling to, to loath and to love. When writing for the truly concerned, commentary has become futile: what is there to say that they do not already know? The ideals and hopes we could once believe in have disintegrated as a bewildering array of players wrought destruction, seemingly teaming up in the region’s devastation rather than fighting each other as they claim—let alone seeking solutions. 

With suffering and complexity relentlessly on the uptick, even well-intentioned observers are tempted to simplify what we cannot fully understand, focusing excessively on the distraction of daily news and drifting toward some convenient intellectual extreme. It is a constant struggle to rebalance one’s positions, resume analysis of meaningful, underlying trends, and attempt to contribute responsibly. At the heart of this ambition is a need for honesty and humility rather than partisan hackery and hubris—acknowledging our failures and our limitations and our inability to fully comprehend, let alone effectively correct, the course of events in the Middle East. From there we may step back and appraise how best to play a positive rather than destructive role in shaping the region’s trajectory. 

The dominant trend, however, has been in the opposite direction. Most conversations are self-centered and reductive. This reality is starkest in the debate about the Islamic State (hereafter “Daesh”) and the Iran nuclear deal, but the tendency is pervasive: the Russian intervention in Syria, a mushrooming refugee crisis, pulverizing wars in Libya and Yemen, only enter the discussion inasmuch as they disturb our “national interests” as we narrowly and shortsightedly define them. In Washington, the brutal execution of one American journalist has approximately the same galvanizing potential as the large-scale persecution and enslavement of Iraq’s Yazidi minority. Both are more compelling than the arrival of several hundred thousand refugees on the shores of Europe, who are in turn of far greater concern than the millions more stranded in their own countries and those throughout the region who are routinely bombed into nothingness.

More than well-defined interests, the Western response to a given Middle Eastern tragedy is often dictated by knee-jerk, emotional factors—cultural affinities (or lack thereof) with the victims, an enduring obsession with “terrorism”, and sheer visual potency (whether Daesh’s horror-movie barbarism or the occasional heart-wrenching image of a drowned child) are but a few. While understandable, these are not a basis for strategy. 

The United States, of course, is not the lone culprit. Key players across the board are acting less on the basis of interest than obsession, pursuing ad hoc and reactive means in support of amorphous and ill-defined ends. While Washington proposes to destroy the mind-bogglingly complex socio-economic-political-military entity that is Daesh through airstrikes (and a dash of social media evangelism and tepid support to whomever appears willing to pitch in), Moscow seeks to restore its prestige and cut Obama down to size by pummeling what remains of Syria’s non-jihadist opposition; Tehran works its way to regional leadership by pumping more weapons, money and hubris into whichever proxy is most expedient at a given moment in a given country; Riyadh clambers to head off presumed Persian scheming by whatever means necessary, while Cairo does the same toward the Muslim Brotherhood bogeyman. And so on and so forth.

Behind all of this posturing are incoherent binaries of good versus evil—typically euphemized in the language of “stability versus terrorism”—whereby states attempt to reduce the pandemonium to one or two irreconcilable enemies, one or two overarching goals and however many direct or proxy wars appear necessary to suppress the former and achieve the latter. In other words, keep it simple: pick your mania, ignore all else, and it will finally make sense. 

The reality, of course, is precisely the opposite. In a region so chaotic and fluid, monomaniacal policies will unfailingly make matters worse, compounding polarization when success rests on building bridges. The result has been a dizzying spectrum of overlapping and ever-shifting alliances, rivalries, and proxy wars that regional and international players continue to escalate despite usually lacking an end game. 
Increasingly, this state of affairs feeds into self-enforcing loops where governments seek to reverse or simply distract from their past failures by doubling down on the most belligerent aspects of what were initially ambivalent, multifaceted postures. Iran has shifted in Iraq from a relatively balanced approach to overt, unqualified support for Shiite militias that further alienate Sunnis, divide Shiite and Kurdish constituencies, undermine what is left of a state, and will leave a lasting and dangerous legacy of nihilism; the same can be said of Iranian policy in Syria. Russia has evolved from exercising and imposing restraint in Syria to throwing its lot in with one camp and escalating the war in a manner that almost automatically invites one-upmanship from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In Yemen and the Sinai, Riyadh and Cairo have filled their own political vacuum by adopting war as a policy by default. In all cases, fresh escalation makes pulling back all the more difficult.

Western states have veered in the opposite direction, attempting to cut their losses and save face in the process. The White House, for all its posturing toward Daesh, has in reality come to view the Iranian nuclear deal as the one issue where it can hope to make a difference, resulting in a largely unintelligible withdrawal from the region that has sucked others into the void—exacerbating the deadly confusion it struggled to grapple with in the first place. In Europe, half-baked attempts at pursuing democratization, sanctioning human rights abuse, engaging Islamists, developing a humanitarian response, resorting to diplomacy and articulating a refugee policy are being eclipsed by one idea: accepting whatever power structures exist that might protect against the Islamic State.  

Underlying all of these tendencies is the disturbing reality that the Middle East has reached a state of such abject convolution that quite literally no one can altogether grasp the dynamics at play, let alone articulate a constructive path forward. In this milieu, everyone seems to be nurturing his own illusory, revisionist vision of a region where his own views would ultimately dominate. Listen to the various parties, close your eyes, and imagine a Middle East that would stabilize through the embrace of Western values; or submit to rising Russian influence as the only sensible alternative; or accept inevitable Iranian leadership; or roll back Persian hegemonic designs decisively; or rid itself of the Islamist cancer; or finally reinvent its true self by bringing the secular anomaly to an end. Now open your eyes, shake your head, and take another Valium.   

Our challenge is to resist two temptations. The first is the comfort of our own hopes, fears and biases, which we are tempted to substitute for hard-headed analysis, in the process compromising any chance of a coherent and far-sighted policy. The second is the desire to retreat altogether in the face of the Middle East’s complexity, washing our hands of problems that we helped create and that will continue to affect us profoundly and unpredictably. 

The rehabilitation of Western policy in the Middle East will, therefore, rest upon a paradigm shift. Its potential contours are outlined in this essay’s conclusion, but a first step is to explore the dynamics that have brought the Middle East to its current state and will continue to shape the region for years to come.

The reluctant superpower

A starting point is to recognize the extent to which the United States, for all its reticence, remains a focal point in the Middle East’s tumultuous geopolitics. Friends and foes alike continue to define their narratives and courses of action on the basis of what they guess are the White House’s intentions. The Syrian regime always kept an eye on the response from Washington as it gradually crossed every possible red line. Russia would not have launched its war on Syrian soil were it not convinced that its Syrian opponents, unlike its Afghan ones in the 1980s, had no real backing from its rival of old. Iranian officials often seem to posit that the victory of their “resistance camp” will have less to do with their own achievements than with the U.S. giving up, caving in, and somehow joining their side. By the same token, traditional Western allies, who have only grudgingly and sulkily formed policies of their own, cannot entirely rid themselves of the idea that any serious way forward will see Washington reclaim the lead.

U.S. policy or lack thereof must therefore be analyzed as an organizing factor. What you could call an “Obama Doctrine” has indeed been forming, albeit tacitly. It amounts to three things. First comes the “pivot”, which never was geographical per se (from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region, say), but thematic: President Barack Obama has very little interest in much of what defined twentieth-century international affairs—militarism, territorial conquest, dirty wars, civil strife, democracy promotion and even human rights. 

He has internalized—arguably faster and to a far greater degree than necessary—America’s declining ability to shape the fate of other people around the globe. His main forays into foreign conflicts rest on the overuse and digitalized mediation of signals intelligence and killer drones, which are intentionally designed to hyper-personalize threats and warfare so as not to wade into the depth of other societies. His dream world is one in which nations make their own decisions and solve their own problems while the U.S. continues to exercise leadership (of a quasi-hegemonic nature, perhaps) in what truly unites them: an integrated economy, the internet, ecological challenges, the financial superstructure, etc. And the Middle East tends to be increasingly marginal in such respects. Since when, indeed, can oil prices plummet even as violent instability consumes ever broader swathes of the region?

Second, the Obama administration has been managing its relative disengagement by empowering regional actors to do more for themselves—based on the assumption, by now serially disproven, that their best interest would happen to coincide with U.S. preferences. Parts of the region were treated as “natural spheres of influence” for neighboring states, which could be expected to ultimately seek constructive solutions for their own good. Some officials thus envisioned that Iran would work to shore up the state in Iraq and at least marginally reform the regime in Syria—not undermine the former and reinforce the latter.  They pushed Saudi Arabia to take responsibility in Yemen, ending up with a war they didn’t want but feel forced to ostentatiously endorse. Other stakeholders have been getting the message that establishing facts on the ground is the best way to go with this administration: while Turkey was pushing for some form of no-fly-zone in Syria, Russia jumped right in. Officials in Washington were taken aback, but still managed to convince themselves that Moscow would come to terms with the regime’s gradual erosion and would help, one way or another, secure a transition. 

The third component of the Obama doctrine is a form of fetishization of the state. Historically, the U.S. has always been a particularly poor partner for non-state players in the region, be it in Palestine, Lebanon or Iraq. Under the current administration, traditional discomfort and skepticism have only grown, to the point of making meaningful engagement with any component of the Syrian opposition virtually impossible. Although it would be too politically costly to admit publicly, despite its anti-Assad rhetoric the White House is more focused on maintaining the existing power structure in Syria than taking the risk of upturning it. In Iraq, U.S. policy boils down to preserving the remnants—and, in reality, the fiction—of a state, which entails curtailing Kurdish secessionist aspirations (while arming Kurdish factions to fight the Islamic State, which arguably will achieve the opposite effect), training a few army units to conceal the growing dominance of Iran-backed militias, and dealing primarily with a powerless prime minister whose authority is undermined at every turn by said Iranian proxies.

Critically, this fetishization of state partners is ill-suited to the region of today. Of all potential regional partners, Egypt is disempowered and inward-looking; Turkey is viewed in Washington as suspect; Saudi Arabia raises growing reputational issues; and Israel at the best of times hardly is a vehicle for influence. This partly explains why, at the White House, Iran has emerged as a potential partner by default, although none of its actual policies would suggest so. (If only the enemy of my disappointing friends could be my friend.) 

The crumbling superstructure

The problem with this state-centric paradigm is that it has coincided so precisely with a moment of historic weakness in the Middle Eastern state system. In the 1990s, the weakening of the state, which was already obvious in places, could still be explained away as an anomaly: Lebanon was recovering from its civil war, Syria was saddled with an ageing tyrant, and Iraq was under grueling international sanctions. It turns out, in hindsight, that they were forebears of what has become the new normal.

The Arab uprisings revealed how dilapidated state structures are, and how willing ruling elites are to sacrifice them to their own survival. Arab societies mobilized in opposition to the bankruptcy of their national institutions, typically with a view to changing governance rather than changing governments—calling, in a word, for less “regime” and more state. Almost everywhere, their leaders pushed back by reinvesting in everything that made them regimes in the first place: repression and radicalization, cronyism and patronage, and the fear of chaos as principal sources of domination.

This process has profoundly undermined the belief in and desire for the state. Most Iraqis, Syrians or Lebanese have given up hope entirely, not to mention Palestinians; who would even think of building a state for the latter when the model seems to be crumbling everywhere else? Many across the region, notably among the elites, no longer aspire to a state for all, but beg for any power structure—at best a regime, at worst a large militia—that can protect them from another part of their own society seen as threatening, at any collective cost. 

That is the stuff of regional politics: competing narratives of victimhood being substituted for any pretense of growth or progress, culminating in what may be called the “militia-rization” of the political sphere. The Middle East was reshaped during the twentieth century by all-encompassing intellectual paradigms (the various -isms), programmatic visions of pan-Arab and pan-Islamic unity, Jacobin nation-state building, and the centralization and militarization of power. Much of that has been swept away, or survives as a derelict and perfunctory frame of reference. Amongst today’s key players, almost no one purports to do more than fight some existential enemy that happens to be conveniently indestructible. Fear-mongering in itself is nothing new, and was always part of the mix. What has changed is that, with rare exceptions, there is nothing else, no positive agenda, no economic or political master plan what so ever. Politics have become almost strictly emotional and regressive. 

Indeed, virtually all forms of leadership across the region do little more than tap into the sense of persecution felt by constituencies whose boundaries break down the nation-state model. And everybody is a victim. Iraq has reached a stage where Shiites, Kurds, Sunnis and smaller minorities all stake a legitimate claim to extraordinary levels of suffering and aggression. Alawites in Syria are involved in wiping out the Sunni underclass for fear of their own annihilation. Iran and Hizbollah draw heavily on a Shiite tradition of martyrdom as they lend a hand in generating its Sunni counterpart. Saudi Arabia is pushing back on Iranian encroachment in ways that help make Tehran’s case that it is on the defensive. The obsessive logic of victimhood carries over into the domestic stalemates of places like Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt and Libya, where all players find justification for their parochial interests, their hubris and their powerlessness against the decisive menace constituted by local rivals and their external backers. This is, of course, self-perpetuating: the more a given actor victimizes its rivals, the realer its own claims to persecution become.

In other words, the very conflicts that undermine what is left of the state have become, for the ruling classes, a primary source of legitimacy, a distraction from a backlog of problems they don’t want to solve, and a resource for further entrenching and enriching themselves. It should therefore be no surprise that war has, in many cases, become policy by default, leading incidentally into an all-out arms race at a time when no superpower is there to impose any restraint or define rules of the game. In this sense, Washington’s efforts to step back and cede power to regional governments has meant endorsing the very forces fueling the Middle Eastern nation-state’s self-destruction.

A key component of this process is economic: parasitic elites have sucked the life from the state structures off of which they live, sacrificing in the process any notion of protecting and empowering other segments of society. Generally, politicians don’t even try to redress the malfunctions of the state: they use them to generate income (through corruption) and submission-inducing anxiety (through the fear that dysfunction will give way to collapse). Après moi, le deluge… The ensuing breakdown of existing social compacts naturally creates tensions, which they manage by playing one segment of society against another. 

Economic elites have been in on the region-wide skimming scheme, in which fortunes are made mostly on the basis of privileged access to markets, through connections to decision-makers and at the expense of the state. The region has generated enormous wealth, which never begins to trickle down because it is captured in remarkably unproductive ways. Banks and investments funds are a dime a dozen, sitting atop immense capital that does not fill the state’s coffers (given low or absent taxation), does not generate much employment (by diverting cash into real estate, intangible products and foreign assets), and hardly supports local entrepreneurship (due to an excessive focus on major construction projects and mature private equity, seen as low-risk and high-profit). As states have wound down their ability and ambition to provide services to their societies, public resources have been siphoned off through privatization, leaving ordinary citizens dependent on politicized patronage networks, low-level corruption, kin-based solidarity and unregulated economic activities—an ever-expanding informal economy. 

This state of affairs has not come about overnight. It is the climax of a process decades in the making: the Middle Eastern nation-state as we know it was built upon securitization, repression, and patrimonialism, with regimes binding themselves as tightly as possible to their state apparatus while assiduously subverting any prospects for more broad-based and authentic political and social institutions. The brittle structures that resulted were never stable, although it was far from certain that their implosion would be so sudden or spectacular.

Today, regional and Western elites alike have increasingly wedded themselves to a self-defeating policy of conservatism, grasping at the remnants of an ancien régime in which reliable tyrants generally kept their unruly societies under wraps. Rather than evolving and forging a new path forward, key actors from Washington and Moscow to a host of Arab regimes have sought to restore, primarily through violence, a pre-2011 status quo which was never sustainable to begin with and which becomes more illusory by the day as regional governments continue—in the name of “stability”, code for self-preservation—to hack away at their own and other states’ already compromised foundations. The outcome, of course, will not be a return to what was, but the region’s continued and accelerated self-cannibalization.

The poster-child for reductive, backward-looking politics and flailing, Sisyphean stabs at reviving a bygone status quo is the international campaign against Daesh, a monster that has grown out of and taken root in the Middle East’s decaying political structure. The group’s potency can be attributed to an immensely complex set of interconnecting circumstances, including but not limited to the US invasion of Iraq; the bankruptcy of alternative sources of Sunni Arab identity; the information revolution; and the Arab uprisings and subsequent crumbling of the regional superstructure as described above.

Rather than grapple with these deep and diversified root causes, Washington et. al have insisted on treating Daesh as a military problem that may be bombed back into its box and, ultimately, out of existence. The policies emanating from this fallacy are not just futile; they actively add fuel to the fire. In combatting an enemy which feeds on sectarianism, Sunni Arab marginalization, failing state institutions and the ensuing security vacuum, just about everyone is pursuing tactics that push these phenomena to new heights. Washington’s whack-a-mole bombing, Russia’s more muscular equivalent, the haphazard escalation by regional opposition backers, Baghdad’s handover of the state to Shiite militias pursuing a scorched earth policy, Tehran’s support for said militias, Damascus’ deepening reliance on Iran and Hizbollah and its determination to obliterate any portion of the country it can’t keep for itself—all are sowing the seeds for many more years of mayhem precisely because they are deepening, rather than plugging, the void that Daesh emerged to fill.

Chaotic devolution of power

As the superstructure crumbles and the traditional top-down organizational framework recedes, new, organic actors are taking shape through a de facto, chaotic process of decentralization and privatization. Nationalities remain fixed but everything contained within them appears to be on the boil. Something has already begun to rise from the ashes of the state system as we know it, although it remains to be seen precisely what it is. While we cannot hope to anticipate the outcomes, a constructive approach rests on studying the social undercurrents at play and seeking to organize rather than resist this process.

At the heart of this reorganization is the degree to which the region’s social and demographic fabric has begun to reinvent itself post-2011, on a scale and with consequences that we have yet to apprehend. The current context is defined by an alignment of factors: the destruction of entire cities, with virtually no prospect of reconstruction in the foreseeable future; multiple, overlapping waves of internal and external displacement (many of which remain under-reported, such as the flight of Egyptians from Libya, or the departure of Levantine Shiites from the Gulf); a lock-down of Western societies, closing the traditional safety valve of emigration to the "developed world"; an internalized brain drain redirected from the West to the Gulf, leading to a migration of the region's intellectual center of gravity to cities like Dubai; the emasculation of the educated middle-class in places where it is needed to define a better future; the re-mobilization of old diasporas and multiplication of new ones; the list goes on.

Against this backdrop, the chaotic devolution of power is occurring on all levels. While conflicts are destroying many of the traditional cultural anchors of an Arab and Islamic belief system, identities are being deeply reshaped mostly outside the framework of national, regime-driven narratives. The virtual public spaces that have emerged in the wake of the information revolution make for a bottom-up formulation, discussion and negotiation of new narratives. New forms of Sunnism, of Shiism, of secularism, of localism are gestating. Never before, arguably, has a pan-Shiite identity been so vivid. Sunnis by contrast have to contend with kaleidoscopic fragmentation. Anecdotal evidence suggests atheism is on the uptick. And all sorts of parochialisms are being reinforced. 

A particularly destructive aspect of this devolution is what one could call “militia entrepreneurship”, which takes many forms in different contexts. In Lebanon it mostly comprises the revival of neighborhood gangs; Syria and Iraq are witnessing the cannibalization of state structures and the colonization of empty spaces by armed groups operating under a variety banners, including Daesh and Iran-backed Shiite paramilitaries; in Yemen and Libya, militias essentially vie for resources in a sophisticated economy of war. In much of the region, violence has asserted itself as the only source of wealth redistribution, and the primary vehicle for individual social ascension. Often, combatants on different sides are in fact ideologically interchangeable, fighting for a living more than a worldview. 

In this context, Daesh is introducing a new model: a decentralized network that rests more on acquiescence than adherence; internal coordination using modern communication technologies; a loose and evolving narrative; a governance paradigm that puts little on offer but doesn’t necessarily obstruct quite as much as predatory regimes or pillaging militias; and a combination of pragmatic engagement with their environment and utterly ruthless violence in overcoming any resistance. The Islamic State itself may recede, but the bottom-up dynamic that shaped its design is likely to be replicated. 

There is, it may be said, an element of constructiveness to the chaos. As the superstructure fails to provide, societies and individuals are doing more for themselves through privatized, ad hoc solutions, creating informal socioeconomic and political structures to fill the vacuum. In many countries, most basic services have already shifted to the private sector—when this frequently fails to satisfy, households must improve their lot through initiatives of their own. The urban landscape is ever more dominated by informal habitat: Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp seems to be inaugurating a whole new era by becoming the first informal city in a region of informal neighborhoods. Even the provision of security is increasingly the object of devolution, all the way down to individuals who cannot place their trust in relevant institutions, and activate their networks to anticipate, identify and address threats (feeding, again, into the increasing dominance of militias in their various forms). Paradoxically, societies appear empowered even in the desperate act of emigration, which has developed into a sophisticated, connected economy that individuals navigate using the wealth of information made available through social media.  

One thousand and one shades of grey

This tectonic shift—from top-down authoritarian regimes exercising strict control over their societies to burgeoning grassroots, communal identity structures—poses immense challenges to Western governments, who for decades have felt comfortable only dealing with central authorities. The sheer level of fragmentation is, to say the least, intimidating: even relatively nuanced discussions are rendered abstract and reductive by the constant and accelerating multiplication of identities and factions. Virtually every constituency we might speak of can—and, for the sake of meaningful analysis, must—be broken down into sub-constituencies whose fast-evolving composition, alliances and enmities quickly become dizzying. 

An intelligent conversation will, for instance, distinguish the principal actors among Kurdish camps of Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi lineage, but only a select few can hope to parse the umpteen subsidiary acronyms and the political and military rivalries they denote. A well-informed analyst grasps the policy-relevant distinctions between Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra, but what about the difference between Jabhat al-Nusra in Idlib as opposed to in Daraa? Even the Sunni Arab tribes with whom the American military partnered in Iraq in 2007-2008 are more complex and fractious than they were a decade ago, having developed new factions and fault-lines under the continued strains of war and repression. The list goes on, and only gets messier.

The central lesson of 2011 was that Middle Eastern societies, in all their ever growing complexity, could no longer be ignored. Policymakers and commentators have been quick to forget it, hastening back to the comfort zone of shallow “strategic thinking” in which one ponders whether Assad may not be the “lesser evil” or Iran a more “effective partner” than traditional allies. To a baffling extent, these conversations occur in complete oblivion of popular feelings, social trends, economic factors and the basic issue of legitimacy—as though these were not precisely the factors that turned the region upside down almost five years ago.

This is not to say that meaningful analysis is nowhere to be found—it is almost always available to some degree, but its volume and influence are dwarfed by those of the more emotional and reactive lines of argument. Most troubling of all is the frequency with which nuance, when it does rise to the surface, is shouted down or ignored outright in deference to reductive and preordained conclusions that better comport with our worldviews.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq is, of course, the textbook example of bending reality to conform to our wishes—but what of the West’s non-policy in Syria? Disturbed by the carnage but, from the beginning, unwilling to take any action that might stop it, Western officials have sought refuge in a seemingly endless string of wishful thinking. In the very early stages president Bashar Assad would save the day; soon thereafter the regime would inevitably fall; the silent majority would ultimately have the better of it; its economic base would crack and crumble; an Alawite coup d’etat was in the works; a hurting stalemate could only force negotiations; Russia was about to leverage Assad’s departure; and some would like the list to go on, with the impending defeat of the Islamic State by Russian strikes, Iranian troops and sectarian militias, after which all will undoubtedly be prepared to negotiate a civilized endgame. Meanwhile inaction, from the start, was justified with reference to the fear of chaos, even after a surreal, nightmarish chaos had long since taken root and begun to flower.

Daesh has provided an escape of sorts, allowing Washington and its allies to finally do something while not, in fact, doing anything. Through its calculated use of ultraviolence, the group has built itself up into an epitome of evil—the clear-cut, black clad enemy all crave in a landscape otherwise defined by innumerable and ever-shifting shades of gray. Even better, it doesn’t present the conundrums of a regime to topple, an identifiable army to destroy, a partner to reform, a conventional economy to sanction or an enemy to diplomatically engage. It is an elusive adversary dwelling in forsaken lands, which lends itself to shadow fighting, in the form of senseless “strikes” against fleeting targets and a feel-good public relations crusade. 

And some continue, puzzlingly, to indeed feel good about it, or at least pretend to—the killing of this or that famous jihadist is celebrated, President Obama touts Daesh’s “containment” the very week that the group breaks out and strikes in Beirut and in Paris. And then more bombs are dropped, because Daesh is indeed evil, because the punishment—however ineffective—is cathartic, and because nobody knows what else to do.

The nuclear antidote?

Other than Daesh, no single issue since the outbreak of the Arab uprisings has carried quite as much psychological and emotional baggage as the Iran nuclear deal—an achievement which has, for many, taken on the role of a sort of anti-Daesh, a clear-cut positive agenda one could pursue without the burden of ambivalence.

Any available analysis has been almost entirely derived from and driven by binary positions taken in favor of or against the agreement—which would have made some sense if there were any way of forecasting its outcome. The amount of hyperbole used in one direction or the other was bewildering: while opponents decried a Faustian bargain, sympathizers celebrated a “triumph of diplomacy” that would, in time, make the world better—a rush to conclusion reminiscent of Barack Obama’s 2009 nomination for a Nobel peace prize, even before he had truly settled into office.  It is remarkable that a particularly complex negotiation, delivering a technical document frankly unintelligible to non-experts, and whose effects will take years to assess, would prompt such thoroughly polarized reactions. They have everything to do with what both sides project onto the deal. 

The least interesting camp, analytically, is the opposing one. The fears evoked by Tehran’s re-legitimization and empowerment are pretty straightforward for countries and people that view Iranian foreign policy as a threat. Most supporters of the deal—not least Iranian officials themselves—make no mystery of their satisfaction at the fact that it comes at the expense of Israeli and Saudi interests. Many go further and argue that is should serve as a basis for an entirely new strategic paradigm, in which Tehran would become a central partner for Western governments—a source of angst or anger not just among so-called “traditional allies”, but also many ordinary citizens across the region who interpret Iran’s behavior as hegemonic. They may be mistaken, but it will take more than words to convince, for instance, millions of Syrians subjected to chemical weapons, ballistic missiles and barrel bombs deployed by the “axis of resistance”. 

These concerns are understandable, although we may debate the extent to which the agreement would in fact introduce something fundamentally novel as opposed to reflecting and endorsing dynamics already at play: Iran’s ascent and assertiveness; the Arab world’s disarray; Western ambivalence and powerlessness; and Israel’s relative estrangement from the U.S. At this stage, it updates rather than replaces, so-to-speak, the region’s incredibly dysfunctional operating system. Its short-term outcomes, for that matter, are already in plain sight: Saudi Arabia’s Yemen intervention kicked in as a preemptive consequence of the deal in the making, and Tehran continues to escalate support for its proxies in Iraq and Syria. 

More intriguing are the often tacit but nonetheless redemptive, grandiose hopes vested in the nuclear deal by its proponents. Although they typically are quick to hide behind the argument that the agreement has only limited aims, these in no way justify, precisely, the amount of energy, capital and hyperbole they devoted to it. Rather, they flow from the “transformative powers” of a diplomatic breakthrough, which would see Iran open up to the world, reinforce the more pragmatic strands within its polity, and endow its society with the means to exact political change. From there, the sky is the limit to our eager expectations: Tehran could only, in due time, inch closer to Western views about stability in Iraq, transition in Syria, de-militarization of Hizbollah, normalization with Israel and Saudi Arabia—a brave new world with a “regional security infrastructure”. All told, the agreement is less supported (and, symmetrically, rejected) for what it does than for what it may do. 

There is, meanwhile, no particular reason to dismiss the countless, more ambiguous scenarios one can all too easily imagine. Iran could choose to comply within limits while using carefully calculated provocations to both enjoy sanctions relief and maintain a politically expedient level of tensions with the U.S. in order to preserve the regime’s ideological underpinning. It may implement the deal irreproachably while finding reasons to pursue the exact same regional policy; indeed, if the dismal performance of its allies in Syria and Iraq, the inflammatory role of the sectarian militias it backs, the dangerously rising tensions with Riyadh, and its loss of blood, treasure and soft power could not convince it otherwise, it’s unclear how Western engagement will. 

Besides, purported “hardliners” and “pragmatists” in Tehran have—for all their competition at home—shown no visible disagreement on regional issues. In any event, the Supreme Guide having just turned 76, the current political landscape that revolves around him gives us little indication of what the future holds one way or another. The keen desire to believe in diplomacy’s “transformative power” for the better is mysterious in light of the recent precedent with post-Soviet Russia, which has become more trouble than good news. The parallel, as always, has its limits, but remains a cautionary tale if there ever was one.

The audacity of hope

The roots of such optimism are therefore to be found not in articulated thinking but in a curious combination of Western failure and faith. We are at the end of a remarkably short-lived Western era, which has bestowed us with a set of potent beliefs and nothing to uphold them. After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, when the U.S. inherited the world, took ownership of its problems, and controlled its international system of governance, the West also happened to enjoy relatively strong economies, confident societies, no clearly-defined enemy and no serious pushback. 

Over twenty years we developed a new approach to conflicts, in which our interests and ambiguities would be wrapped up and veiled in the narrative of “conflict prevention and resolution”. As was the case during the Cold War, we would project power for the greater good, but this time in a more scattered way, through peace-making or -keeping, the imposition of a set of binding norms, the containment if not removal of “rogue” states, and by supposedly helping societies realize their democratic potential. 

With time, our obvious double standards, the accumulation of operational fiascos, and growing resistance to this agenda worldwide reinforced the quest for a new paradigmatic “enemy”, sought and found in the struggle against an ill-defined “terror”. The development of a Western-styled police state, the closure of our borders to people in need, and the increasing resort to mindless “strikes” primarily designed to keep societies and their problems at distance, flow from there.  

The Arab uprisings came to compound all the intrinsic contradictions and shortcomings of our posture. In a matter of four years, the whole agenda was turned on its head. In a nutshell: Libya nailed the coffin of regime-change; Egypt of democratization; and Syria of human rights and humanitarian intervention. The UN plunged back into paralysis. Weak economies, anxious societies and governments increasingly skeptical about their own ability to shape events decisively have put the “Western moment” of the 1990s and 2000s behind us. As all else failed, the concept of an amorphous war on terror, once associated with a divisive George W. Bush administration, has won over many of its strongest critics. 

Enter the Iran nuclear deal. Not only does it come in to save us, it is hoped, from our disastrous track record of dealing with the Arab uprisings, but it redeems some of our calamitous military interventions, diplomatic snubs and destructive embargos. The agreement comes across implicitly but forcefully, in many Western narratives, as a triumph of genuine Western values—as if we were crying out loud: this is what we truly stood for all along. At its backdrop, everyone is expected to ultimately see the light, and understand that Syria needs a transition, that Iraq and Yemen should be inclusive, and that the nuclear freeze is for the better good. As if other players—still engrossed with fighting enemies they intend to defeat and wars they want to win—will one day wake up and embrace the rehabilitated “conflict prevention and resolution” agenda.  

The sense of redemption attached to the nuclear deal has much to do, more particularly, with the Iraq invasion and its catastrophic knock-on effects. This is ironic in more ways than one. First, the deal will entrench and possibly exacerbate the fallout of the Iraqi tragedy, further disrupting the regional balance of forces by expanding an Iranian presence that sadly boils down to supporting militias. This trend might well have continued regardless of an agreement, which is precisely the point—the deal has strictly nothing to do with redressing the Iraq blunder, and our feelings about the latter should not affect our analysis of the former. Incidentally, Obama has done nothing to “end” the Iraq war; he’s simply washed his hands of it and passed it on. 

Second, the dogmatic, hyperbolic, binary debate surrounding the nuclear issue has suspiciously too much in common with the climate that prevailed in the run-up to 2003. The neocons and their supporters had an epiphany: war was to be the solution. Just knock down the obstacle of tyranny, and the best in some foreign society will take over, putting it back on track with the normal course of history; empower the pragmatists, the moderates, those who share our values, and they will triumph over the hardliners, in a millenarian understanding of politics pitting good people against the forces the evil.

Today, the more enthusiastic advocates of the deal come dangerously close, with a tweak: everything but war! Diplomacy, engagement, economic transformation are the solution. Given the messy situations in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, Iran became the showcase for a U.S. policy driven everywhere else by what remains an ill-defined “opposite of war”. (Even the fight against the Islamic State is mostly a public relations device, rather than a military campaign that allocates appropriate resources in the pursuit of realistic objectives.)

The problem with both the neocon proposition and its liberal rejoinder is what they have in common: the obsessive rejection of one extreme of the foreign-policy gradient; the excessive faith in the other, as if international affairs did not take place in an imperfect world of muddled outcomes; and the assumption that “Americanization” of the other, in some shape and form, can be the desired and expected consequence—a uniquely American form of bipartisan naiveté. The invasion was, notwithstanding other motivations, largely the product of emotional, romantic visions of America’s ideological righteousness and its emancipatory power, which we still see at work today.

In this sense, there is unexpected continuity between Bush and Obama, despite the latter’s efforts to portray himself as the former’s antithesis. A potentially important factor in the psychology surrounding the nuclear deal is the coincidence of strikingly similar political transitions in both Tehran and Washington. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and George Bush were outsiders, representative of the depth of their respective societies, decisive but instinctive, inspired verging on millenarian, in conflict with the more sophisticated elites and projecting the worst stereotypes of their country abroad. Their successors, Hassan Rouhani and Barack Obama, belong organically to those sophisticated elites, are highly cerebral and calculating, are disconnected from the uncouth masses but also from essential parts of the apparatus of power itself, and spectacularly redress the reputational issues stemming from their brasher predecessors—except, that is, in the Middle East, where their image is often worse.

In a word, just as Obama was the best leader some Iranian officials could hope for, Rouhani was this U.S. administration’s dream come true. The nuclear issue made for a civilized, complex, intellectually arousing discussion with tough but urbane Iranian negotiators—the very contrary of the dirty wars, uncomfortable moral dilemmas and emotional mess otherwise presented by the Middle East to an administration essentially fatigued with anything Arab. Not surprising the two sides could connect.        

But that is precisely the reason to be cautious. The polite chess-game that could play itself out in the comfort of fancy hotels is off the table. Now, back to earth, with the real-life challenges of implementing the agreement and managing its unintended or unexpected consequences. If the Middle East was prevented from ever bursting into an insulated negotiations room, the negotiators themselves now have to step out into the wilderness. It has been striking, in recent years, to witness how easily and enthusiastically Tehran would be sucked in and engrossed in all its Arab neighbors’ turpitudes, by contrast with the White House under Obama. Here the parallel stops, and Iran brings no particular sophistication to the issues. It is up to the Americans to shed their proverbial Manichaeism and accept that the Middle East is overwhelmingly—and perhaps increasingly—shades of gray. 

The right to ambivalence

In conversations with outside observers, just painting things as they are all too often raises accusations of being “pessimistic”. Rather, commentators and policymakers tend to jump on anything that they perceive as a source for “optimism”, grasping at piecemeal or speculative achievements while waving off the ambiguous, frequently ominous dynamics that lurk in the background. Daesh, they point out, is on the backfoot, but what will become of the territory it has lost to devastating bombardment and sectarian militias? 

However much we may crave one, there will be no “triumph” in the foreseeable future; it is unlikely, too, that we are anywhere close to a turning point for the better. Prepare for years of false hopes, real dangers and, in the best of times, least bad options. As the old order comes crashing down, a new one will only slowly emerge. It will doubtless proceed from some combination of the current set of failed elites, policies and structures, and the new generation whose formative experience was precisely all this failure.

How, then, can we best navigate the road ahead, whose terrain is as dangerous as it is unpredictable?

A central goal must be to establish a measure of clarity and continuity after a half-decade of vacillation and ad hoc, reactive efforts to keep pace with a fast-changing region. American Middle East policy since the Arab uprisings has dabbled in regime change in Libya, cosmetic interventionism in Syria and Iraq, drone strikes here and there and full-throated backing for political processes (no matter how shallow) wherever they seem appropriate. Perhaps the lone unifying theme has been a tendency for “box-checking” in the absence of any intelligible end-game or strategic (or ideological) framework. The costs of vanishing red lines and other such incoherencies are already taking shape, with Washington’s friends and foes alike escalating their own brands of destructive, polarizing violence region-wide in the absence of any Western inclination to promote a positive vision or, at least, impose restraint.

A first step is therefore to rein in our affinity for empty gestures in all their forms. The pitfalls of broken promises, hollow threats and strategically incoherent airstrikes are self-evident, but the habit of propping up political and diplomatic processes as an end unto themselves is likewise pernicious. Each time regional or international actors invest in dead-end negotiations or cosmetic political reforms, the result is intensified polarization and disillusionment with politics as the alternative to violence. Such initiatives should, therefore, receive Western support only insofar as they are pursued seriously rather than as political theater. Low-key, dogged negotiations between Libyans or Yemenis make immediate sense; not so the circus of world leaders parading in support of Syrians left to watch the spectacle. 

Rather than pouring resources into political and military endeavors that achieve little while often making matters worse, we should invest far more seriously in alleviating the massive human suffering that will define the region for years to come. This means redressing not only the politically loaded subjects of funding shortfalls and paltry resettlement quotas—although these are at the heart of the issue—but also subtler failings in an aid regime hampered by bureaucratic inefficiencies, inter-organizational competition and coordination failures. Likewise, it would be more constructive to invest in a broadening of humanitarian programming beyond short-term relief aid to include more medium- and long-term initiatives in areas such as education and governance, and developing creative platforms to support the multitude of micro-projects local societies depend upon to fill the gaps left by cumbersome top-down campaigns. 

We share in the responsibility for the region’s troubles after a century of constant Western interference, from the encroachment of colonial powers to the creation of Israel through to the invasion of Iraq. But, precisely because Western influence has been so pernicious, the Middle East must also do more for itself on every level. The area is immensely rich, and this doesn’t apply to oil states only: massive wealth accumulated by the private sector even in relatively poor countries is going to have to find ways to trickle down if socioeconomic distortions at the backdrop of the uprisings are to be resorbed in any meaningful way. The business establishment must undertake a conversation about its own responsibilities, in such fields as philanthropy, social impact entrepreneurship, job creation, and private equity for small and medium-sized enterprises, all of which are nascent at best. Part of the discussion must bear on the legal framework required to confidently move away from cronyism and the accumulation of unproductive capital, and back into the real economy, that of ordinary people earning wages. 

Increased focus on humanitarian relief and private sector engagement should come as part of a broader recognition that the military-centric paradigm through which Western actors approach the Middle East has conclusively failed. By making violent counterterrorism and massive weapons transfers the two most reliable hallmarks of Western policy in the region, Washington in particular has spurred an ongoing arms race, wrought new destruction and sown fresh popular grievances and fissures in diverse corners of the Middle East. It should be little surprise that a policy of military escalation absent any substantive treatment of the political, social and economic drivers of regional upheaval has been self-defeating, fueling jihadism and instability rather than curtailing them.

A more constructive approach thus requires that we recognize our reactive, bomb-first policymaking for what it is: at best a necessary stopgap and at worst a cover for our own longstanding and continued failure to articulate well-rounded and far-sighted strategies in such a complex region. The sooner we transcend the comforting but futile vernacular of good versus evil—of “destroying” amorphous and resilient enemies who are the symptom and not the disease—the sooner we may stop doing harm and, if we indeed choose to be optimistic, hope to achieve some good.

Peter Harling has lived and worked over the past two decades in Iraq, the Levant, Egypt and the Gulf, as an academic, consultant and political analyst. Alex Simon is an MA candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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