I recently called “for a new Republican foreign policy,” arguing that events in the Middle East would render the democratization strategy obsolete, while giving birth to a more realist brand of hawkishness in its place. Since, in this view, the Arab Spring may be giving way to a dangerous mix of failed-statism and Huntington-style civilizational clash, it’s worth revisiting Robert Kaplan’s extraordinary 1994 essay, “The Coming Anarchy.”
A good 17 years in advance of events, Kaplan put his finger on what now looks to be the most likely outcome of the so-called Arab Spring. Kaplan’s vision has sometimes been treated as an alternative to Huntington’s model. In fact, Kaplan sees Huntington’s clash scenario as complementary to his own premonition of state breakdown. Kaplan was writing as a lonely realist in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet block, pouring pessimism on the triumphal spirit of the original Democracy Spring. Kaplan didn’t deny that Fukuyama’s vision of the End of History would unfold in the West. Yet Kaplan maintained that the world would soon be divided between Fukuyama’s healthy, well-fed, and technologically pampered Western “Last Man,” and Hobbes’s poor, brutish, and brutalized First Man.
Kaplan’s essay is astonishingly prescient, not only about the rise of Islamism, but also about the faltering state context within which jihadism would emerge and flourish.
Our new war in Yemen nicely illustrates Kaplan’s point. Yemen is no Samantha-Power-style humanitarian intervention, but a much-needed anti-terror operation. Our still largely covert attack has been necessitated by the partial collapse of Yemen’s government and the consequent emergence of an al-Qaeda refuge in the south.
Some claim that the Saleh regime in Yemen purposely withdrew government policing from certain areas, so as to spook the West into backing him as a bulwark against al-Qaeda. Whether that’s true or not, the fact that this is even thinkable as a tactic is telling. We are facing in Yemen either a quasi-failed state involuntarily yielding havens to terrorism, or a state’s manipulation of its own fragility to blackmail Western powers into help. Either alternative bodes ill for the future.
Yemen’s economic collapse has also raised fears that an enraged and hungry populace may fuel an alliance of criminal gangs and jihadists seeking to overthrow the government and impose sharia law. All this is an almost perfect instantiation of Kaplan’s dark vision.
Some hope that Saleh’s tribal opponents will contest and win a democratic election that restores stability to Yemen. Others fear that the triumph of Saleh’s rivals would represent only a shift of tribal and factional power, not the advent of a real democracy. With the economy in crisis and the public more aware than ever of its power to topple governments, it’s tough not to wonder whether any government in Yemen will be able to consolidate its hold for some time. We may be entering an extended Kaplan-like era in which unstable autocracy (perhaps under a faux-democratic veneer) vies indeterminately with anarchic criminality, sectarianism, ethnic and tribal division, and jihadism. In other words, as I’ve argued, the entire Middle East may soon be Pakistan writ large.
Right now, our developing war in Yemen is being quietly talked up as the prototype of the more modest terror-fighting tactics of the future. In this view, ambitious and expensive counter-insurgency operations that require boots on the ground will give way to focused anti-terror operations run by special forces and executed by drones from the air. Yet that method depends on hard-to-obtain intelligence and government cooperation, and may result in an endless series of pin-pricks as large stretches of the Middle East slide into relative chaos. Just look at our drone attacks in Pakistan, which hamper and degrade al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but without either dislodging them or eliminating Pakistan as a refuge for our enemies in Afghanistan.
Our current strategy of counter-insurgency combined with democratization has a powerful logic. It rightly recognizes that a viable long-term plan for defeating terrorism has to drain the swamp that generates terrorism to begin with. If democratization turns out to be unworkable and counter-insurgency on a region-wide basis is too costly to both our soldiers and our purse, we are left with a very large problem indeed. Yet this looks to be the way the region is headed.
It may be that we are going to be pushed in the direction of quick in-and-out punitive expeditions, sans nation-building. That would be a decidedly imperfect compromise, but perhaps the only viable alternative to expensive, deadly, and draining Afghanistans, on the one hand, or Pakistan-style drone wars of limited effectiveness, on the other. That would leave Republicans somewhere between Marco Rubio and Rand Paul.
None of this is to say that we should prematurely withdraw from Afghanistan. But what if growing chaos in the Middle East, combined with Islamist-influenced governments with armies, make future Afghanistans too costly to repeat but too dangerous not to do something about? In that case, we’re going to need a new plan.