international analysis and commentary

What America should have learned about the Middle East since 2001

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Given all the tumult since, it is very hard to conjure up the triumphalist ethos that pervaded the American foreign policy elite following the scattering of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard in the early spring of 2003. It was the apogee of the neoconservative moment, when as the only global superpower America seemed – like the Roman Empire of old – to truly bestride the world like a colossus. In that waning moment, the Indian summer of the notion of a unipolar world, I attended a Council on Foreign Relations task force meeting on Iraq that I will never forget.

One of the points made over and over again was that if state building in Iraq was to have a chance of success, outsiders inserting Western liberal democratic values into that now conquered state as soon as possible was an absolute prerequisite. It was suggested that embedding Western notions of women’s rights into both government institutions and civil society should be one of America’s immediate priorities. While such rights in general are certainly worthwhile, this attitude – shared by a vast majority of the great and the good present – struck me as the height of lunacy.

I could visualize American governmental representatives soberly working their way through the teeming streets of Najaf to meet with intermediaries of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the senior Shia cleric in Iraq and a man with an immense local following, earnestly telling him that, like it or not, he must support imposing a Western view of women’s rights on his people, or else. Despite his reputation for saintliness, the Grand Ayatollah’s response, I surmised, would not be printable. Forgotten in all this high-mindedness was the simple fact that, if we were ever to leave Iraq, we would need the Grand Ayatollah’s help far more than he would need ours; this was probably not the ideal way to attain it.

The attitude that prevailed in 2003 in Washington government circles simply ignored Iraq’s unique history, politics, culture, ethnology, sociology, economic structure, and religious orientations. What did these trifles matter, compared with our eminently reasonable view of how the world should work?

I saw – then as now – what was so horribly wrong with the common philosophy of all the state-building experts. These thoughts came to me then, without remembering their origin: “Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not win it for them.” To help them – not to dictate to them, bully them, ignore them, or pontificate to them – to help them help themselves.

I had not known in that Spring of 2003 that my ringing dissent was cribbed from T.E. Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – who in the long-ago Great War had written the “Twenty-Seven Articles” as a guide to British officers serving in the Arab Revolt in August 1917. I looked up the quotation, and began to find the man. It has been a rewarding journey in the desert. For if American conventional wisdom about state building has been proven almost uniformly wrong since 2001, there are answers out there. Here is what I, guided by Lawrence’s very different philosophy, think ought to be learned about the past dozen doleful years in the Middle East.

The true seven pillars of wisdom
Two broad lessons must delineate our intellectual journey. First, and putting it gently, American over-involvement in the region has failed, as Iraq illustrated beyond any shadow of a doubt that US boots on the ground do not magically create stable local political states.

However, as the IS crisis has made graphically clear, American non-involvement is also not a recipe for success, either. A Goldilocks middle road, with America as an involved but not dominant player in the region, helping over time to help create a stable balance of power in the Middle East and then serving primarily as an off-shore balancer, seems to be the way forward, given our bitter experience over the past dozen years.

Second, this bitterly acquired wisdom points the way to a strategy based directly on Lawrencian thinking. The key is managing to steer between the two dangerous shoals of neo-conservatism (perpetual over-involvement) and isolationism (perpetual under-involvement). The starting point for thinking differently about the Middle East must lie in Lawrence’s insight that local political legitimacy (not democracy as such) must play a central role in constructing a stable, self-sustaining regional order.

Third, this means it is critical for America to accurately assess the unit of politics in a failed state. For example, in the case of Iraq the unit of politics is religious and ethnic, not that of a homogenous national people. After a decade of Western attempts to make “Iraqis” of the locals, they still primarily identify themselves (and vote accordingly) as Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds. As that is what the people in Mesopotamia think of themselves, it would behove Americans to look at them in the same manner.

Fourth, too often Americans and the West have hastily cobbled together rickety regimes in the Middle East that do not fit these local domestic realities. In Iraq, with its deep-seated ethnic and religious divisions and complex internal politics, a far more confederal approach – one in tune with its three major organic building blocks – suits the facts on the ground far better than the imposition of overly-centralized control, a condition that is sure to alienate these core groups, thus ensuring endemic instability.

It is to the Obama White House’s credit that it is pressing Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to devolve significant power away from Baghdad to the restive Kurdish and Sunni regions. Such a new approach amounts to Iraq’s last, best, chance to hold together.

Fifth, to work against the grain of history is to fail at state building. A rare example of state building success – post-war Japan – provides more proof of the vital need to work with local cultures. While Douglas MacArthur may have known precious little about American political culture, he did know a great deal about the ways of his defeated Japanese foe.

By preserving the Emperor and running the country as just the most recent military shogun, MacArthur, in the tradition of a liberalizing shogun, launched the vital agricultural and industrial reform process that set Japan on its way to becoming an economic giant. But it was the same process of renewal following military defeat that had occurred throughout Japanese history, from the time of the Tokugawa shogunate through the Meiji restoration. Nothing new was invented here; rather very old proclivities in Japanese culture were used to renew itself.

Sixth, the locals should make their own choices, as local elites must be made the primary stakeholders in any successful state-building process. Lawrence practiced this principle in Arabia by stressing that all orders given the Hashemite army should come through the sherifs, and not be given by British officers. This is not due to some misty-eyed anti-colonial view, but primarily is down to the fact that only by proceeding in such a manner can local organic legitimacy take root, an absolutely vital characteristic of any self-sustaining country.

Seventh, and finally, even a cursory glance at this very different strategy leads one to the conclusion that the operational way forward during the present IS crisis is for the US to be involved far more in Iraq than in Syria. In the former – certainly in the case of the Kurds, possibly in the case of the Shia and hopefully in the case of Sunni tribal leaders – there are broadly pro-Western forces on the ground with the requisite local legitimacy for America to work with. Painfully and obviously, the same cannot be said of the situation in Syria.

As such, as long as the Pentagon can keep to its Iraq-first strategy in Iraq – and avoid being sucked into the Syrian vortex – there is a chance the situation can be put right. Predictably, such a strategy will enrage practically everyone, from neoconservatives wanting to go all-in in Syria (despite the fact that “moderates” are very thin on the ground) to isolationists decrying American involvement in this thankless region at all. As FDR would have it, “judge a man by his enemies,” as this Goldilocks strategy would correct the excesses of both camps. If America can learn these painful Lawrencian lessons from the post-2001 era, then at least all the suffering that has taken place since will not have been in vain.