We need a new foreign policy in the Middle East, but we can’t develop one until we clearly see what’s happening there. Americans look at the Middle East and tend to see a collection of conventional states on a very long-term evolutionary path toward democracy. That is a mistake. Middle-Eastern states are more like magnets exerting force that weakens with distance from the center. The magnets are at low-power now. The dream of democratic evolution in this region, meanwhile, has been revealed as a fantasy. Yet we are reluctant to acknowledge this. Consider John McCain and Lindsey Graham on a mission for Barack Obama in Egypt.
If the “Arab Spring” wasn’t a flowering of liberal democracy, what was it? It was a marker of failed modernization, an index of the inability to reconcile traditional social practices with a Western-style economy and state. The failure to blend tradition and modernity into a workable synthesis led to an economic impasse and stifled aspirations. The same slow-motion social and economic collapse that led terrorists to finger America as a scapegoat for the region’s problems a decade ago has now advanced to the breaking point.
Once regimes throughout the region lost legitimacy and were shown to be vulnerable to overthrow, just about every group under suppression rebelled. Yet there was no guiding idea behind the rebellion, which is why it took different forms in different places. Autocracy was rejected, yet nothing substantial was put in its place. “Islam is the solution” came closest to a general response, but that turned out to be more slogan than governing philosophy. Elections, when they happened, were tools to take power, not indications of the advance of liberal democracy in the Western sense. We falsely believed that others wanted to be like us, that history was moving in the right direction — our direction. It wasn’t.
Spreading anarchy is a better organizing concept for what’s happening in the Middle East than fitful democratization. The most helpful take on this so far is Robert Kaplan’s piece, “Is Arab Chaos America’s Problem?” Kaplan suggests that, troublesome as it is in cases like the threat to our embassies, Middle Eastern chaos may be more tolerable and more advantageous than we realize. Leaning how and when to tolerate Middle Eastern chaos, and when not to, may be the key to formulating a new American policy for the region. But we won’t get there until we recognize that what we’re seeing is widespread social collapse on a template still defined by traditional Middle Eastern social forms.
You can’t modernize and democratize states that barely exist to begin with. You can only manage the chaos.