Can the Middle Eastern Humpty Dumpty Be Put Back Together Again?

by Graham E. Fuller

As mayhem and anarchy spread like a contagion across the Middle East, can the Middle East, like Humpty Dumpty, be put back together again?

Some pundits say no. Yet, for a variety of admittedly highly debatable reasons, I still believe that yes, it can be salvaged. The status quo may not be viable, but what alternatives are there? Here are a few—conflicting ones.

Bring back imperialism. After all, didn’t the old-fashioned imperialists manage to keep the lid on? But that time is long past. Who today has the money, resources, energy, or will to pick up this near hopeless task—except for an undying band in Washington that still believes in Pax Americana? Furthermore, there is no way the peoples of the region will stand for another self-appointed western saviour to come in and “rescue” them (and stay a while)—beyond immediate humanitarian aid or international peace-keeping. Mandates are over.

Complete hands off by the West. The West could hardly have done more damage to the region over the years through its imperial mapmaking, political interventionism, wars, destruction of infrastructures and societies, and unleashing of refugee flows. Even were the West suddenly to become wise and constructive overnight, it can’t play big brother forever. The peoples of the region desperately require the chance to gain their own political maturity—through learning to manage their own states, societies and futures. Constant outside political interventionism in the Middle East has only led to fatalism and the political infantilization of its peoples.

Some might say the region is historically and culturally incapable of overcoming conflict, “it’s in the genes, you know.” Yet it might be sobering to remember here that Europe has been the scene of at least one or two thousand years of constant warfare— political, religious, tribal and ethnic, involving kaleidoscopic border changes, right down until the end of World War II. (Plus the post-Soviet turmoil.) No model there. We cling tenderly to the hope that at least Europe by now may have actually put an end to those bloody centuries of its history. The jury is still out.

Redraw the borders. The last borders, after all, were designed by European imperialists to serve their own interests. But redraw them how? Even illogically delineated states have by now taken on a certain life of their own. Redrawing borders raises mind-boggling questions. On what basis will they be drawn? Ethnically, tribally? Culturally? Religiously?  Who will be consulted and how? One can imagine a plethora of ongoing never-ending referendums, each bitterly contested by those perceiving themselves to be the losers.  And indeed every change does bring new winners and losers. And what governments will be empowered to supervise and approve the changes?

Prioritize restoration of order. Conservative theory holds that nearly any form of order is preferable to most forms of disorder. Hence dictatorship, however bad, is preferable to anarchy. The West has happily bought into that formula, but only as long as the dictator was “ours”; we must overthrow of course the ones who are not.

So do we hold our nose and restore dictators who can at least maintain order while the longer term process of “organic” political change can start to take place? Bring back Saddam’s ghost? Keep Asad? Empower the Saudis to keep the lid on in the Arabian Peninsula? Bless Sisi’s law-and-order in Egypt?

I am disturbed by that option. Yet, as retrogressive as it is, it might keep the lid on and, so the thinking goes, help eliminate at least the radical jihadi forces. But of course it has been just those dictators who have helped produce the political despair that has spawned angry Islamist movements everywhere.

Prioritize military suppression of the jihadists? The jihadists may be the most immediate barrier to restoration of order and governance. Yet past military suppression and ongoing war has unleashed anarchy and produced the terrible political and social conditions we see today—that then lead to the emergence of Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISIS among others.

International peace-keeping? A dangerous and thankless task; specialists know that you can’t really “keep” peace until the battle lines have been identified and frozen. But who will do it? When major world powers get involved, local crises often turn into surrogate battlegrounds for other great power agendas.

In reality any such forces must be truly international. The presence, say, of US, UK, French, Russian, Chinese, Pakistani, Indian or UN forces must all be acceptable; none should be peremptorily ruled out. We don’t need locked-in spheres of foreign influence. For the West there are no vital stakes in preserving or denying a sphere of influence here or there.

One might argue that regional states are better equipped to do peace-keeping than outsiders, possibly more acceptable—but even that principle is debatable. Are Turks, Iranians, Saudis or Egyptians more favourably viewed by Middle Eastern societies in turmoil than outsiders would be? Not necessarily, but it is their region, and perhaps they are more willing to act. Will they will make serious mistakes? Yes, but hasn’t also the West done precisely the same, on a colossal scale?

There is no grand answer that covers all contingencies. To date my bias has been towards early removal of all western boots on the ground (especially the volatile American ones). That would remove one major source of anger and permits the region to learn to manage on its own. (And for Washington it is never the right time for US forces to leave; and thus a relationship of codependency emerges.) In principle a hands-off policy should be the western default position. But each country poses different urgencies.

Above all certain human priorities cry out.  War must end. Killing must stop. People must have shelter, food and medicine. Essential security must reign, even if only in refugee camps for now. Constitutions and democratic process rank only as distant secondary needs.

The initial democratic gains brought by the Arab Spring have largely collapsed. Has there been any learning curve among the peoples of the region? Perhaps, but good governance is a slow, and never-ending process. Only Turkey and Iran, in their own way, are truly launched on the process—maybe Tunisia, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia.

Yet we cannot fall into despair simply because the process is a long one—as it was in the West. Some of these difficulties simply reflect the human condition—everywhere. But a prioritization of the urgent human needs of the region is required—to provide at least some crude compass in dealing with this mess.

For now, whether governments are Islamist (but not jihadi), military, democratic, pro-West or pro-Russian may not matter much while the restoration of order is taken as the urgent task at hand. This is not a very gratifying approach, but war—civil or externally visited—takes the greatest human toll and produces the deadliest of anarchy whose repercussions affect the entire world.

Photo by Derek Key via Flickr

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle). This article is reprinted, with permission, from

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