There is much talk about America teaming up with Iran to push back the coalition of Sunni militias that has taken over Sunni towns in western Iraq and Syria. For now, I’d say stay out of this fight – not because it’s the best option but because it’s the least bad.
After all, what is the context in which we’d be intervening? Iraq and Syria are twins: multiethnic and multisectarian societies that have been governed, like other Arab states, from the top down. First, it was by soft-fisted Ottomans who ruled through local notables in a decentralized fashion, then by iron-fisted British and French colonial powers and by nationalist kings and dictators.
Today the Ottomans are gone, the British and French are gone, and now many of the kings and dictators are gone. We removed Iraq’s dictator; NATO and tribal rebels removed Libya’s; the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen got rid of theirs; and some in Syria have tried to topple theirs. Each country is now faced with trying to govern itself horizontally by having the sects, parties and tribes agree on social contracts for how to live together as equal citizens who rotate power.
In Iraq, the Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki – who had the best chance, the most oil money and the most help from the U.S. in writing a social contract for how to govern Iraq horizontally – chose instead to empower Iraqi Shiites and disempower Iraqi Sunnis. It’s no surprise that Iraqi Sunnis decided to grab their own sectarian chunk of the country.
So today, it seems, a unified Iraq and a unified Syria can no longer be governed vertically or horizontally. The leaders no longer have the power to extend their iron fists to every border, and the people no longer have the trust to extend their hands to one another. It would appear that the only way they can remain united is if an international force comes in, evicts the dictators, uproots the extremists and builds consensual politics – a generational project for which there are no volunteers.
What to do? It was not wrong to believe post-Sept. 11 that unless this region produced decent self-government it would continue to fail its own people and deny them the ability to realize their full potential, which is why the Arab Spring happened, and that its pathologies would also continue to spew out the occasional maniac who could threaten us.
But the necessary turned out to be impossible: We didn’t know what we were doing. The post-Saddam generation of Iraqi leaders turned out to be like abused children who went on to be abusive parents. The Iranians constantly encouraged Shiite supremacy and frustrated our efforts to build pluralism. Mosques and charities in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Kuwait and Qatar continued to fund preachers and fighters who promoted the worst Sunni extremism. And thousands of Muslim men marched to Syria and Iraq to fight for jihadism.
It feels both too late and too early to stop the disintegration – too late because whatever trust there was between communities is gone, and too early because it looks as if Iraqis are going to have to live apart, and see how crazy and impoverishing that is, before they can coexist peacefully.
There is no denying that terrorism could be exported our way from Iraq’s new, radicalized “Sunnistan.” But we have an NSA, CIA and drones to deal with that now ever-present threat.
Pluralism will happen when they want it to or when they have exhausted all other options. Meanwhile, let’s strengthen the islands of decency – Tunisia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Kurdistan – and strengthen our own democracy to insulate ourselves as best we can.