Arab “Nationalism” and the Iraqi Implosion

isis-terrorist-665x385Jonathan Keiler’s interesting piece in the American Thinker on The Collapse of Arab Nationalism is misnamed. It is not that I disagree with most of Mr. Keiler’s assertions, but that the central premise of the title is that Arab Nationalism exists at all. It doesn’t, except for a few pockets where the tribal orientation has been sufficiently overridden by authoritarian governments and modernism that tribalism has ceased to be a major focus of their society. To understand the situation better, one has to examine some of the foundations of Arab society, as it has traditionally existed.

One of these foundations was quoted by Leon Uris in The Haj:

“…before I was nine I had learned the basic canon of Arab life. It was me against my brother; me and my brother against our father; my family against my cousins and the clan; the clan against the tribe; and the tribe against the world. And all of us against the infidel.”

This statement, which history proves a correct depiction, is, perhaps, the most important fact of Arab existence. It goes to the heart of why Arab nationalism has not existed except to the extent that the various tribes have been forced to follow strongmen such as Saddam Hussein or the Assad family in Syria. As long as these men were able to maintain control over the regions they claimed then pseudo-nationalism appeared, only to disappear when the strongman lost his strength. This is what lies at the heart of the Iraqi army running away or surrendering when faced with a US invasion. The average Iraqi soldier felt much more personal allegiance to his family or tribe, or his own skin, than to a ruler from some other tribe, regardless of the supposed national connection. As many analysts have pointed out, the vast majority of Arab “nations” were carved out of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, largely at the whim or interest of the European powers. Those groups who had a “nationalist” identity such as the Kurds, of what is now northern Iraq, were neglected or forgotten.

As Keiler points out, there have been attempts to build nationalist identities within some of the Arab national boundaries. The most successful of these may well have been Egypt because it had a national tradition of sorts that existed for centuries, and the attempt at installing socialism by Nasser did much to erode the tribal identities. Today’s Egypt is also highly commercialized, which has placed financial interests ahead of tribal ones. The average Egyptian is often more likely to follow the money than the dictates of a tribal “leader” because the rewards of self interest generally trump others.

Pan-Arab nationalism, as exemplified by the abortive attempt at unifying Egypt and Syria as the “United Arab Republic” fell apart largely because political rulers are unwilling to cede authority to another. Each wants to dominate. This is also why the question of whether Iraq had chemical or biological weapons was so difficult to answer. The influence and power that Saddam Hussein carried was a direct reflection of what military might he had or appeared to have. Therefore, it was in his best interest to appear more powerful than he really was.

The other foundational problem lies in Islam, which militates against any form of national identity outside of the Islamic system. This is, in part, why ISIS is so successful in recruiting; because it goes to the top of the hierarchy by attacking the “infidel.” It is the only thing that stimulates “nationalist” ideals and actions. The other major factor in recruiting success is that ISIS seems to be winning, although this is largely because there is insufficient organized resistance. And the ISIS leadership wisely has been going after soft targets and propaganda victories, which are more productive at this point.

However, Islam is not a unified body any more than the Arabs are. In fact, the Shia / Sunni split is only one of the problems that complicates matters. Particularly because each side considers the other to be “infidels.” At the foundational level there are a variety of different interests who all seek to claim rule of the Islamic controlled regions. The fact that no clear law of defining the right to rule exists makes it is possible for numerous individuals to claim that they are the rightful “Caliph.” And in many instances they must fight against other claimants to the throne, or to conquer people who do not voluntarily submit.

Which brings us to Iraq. Rather like Tito holding Yugoslavia together while he lived, Saddam Hussein did the same to Iraq. When the US invaded, partly for the purpose of removing him as an undesirable influence in the region, it ignored the fact that while he was a troublemaker and a problem internationally, he actually helped maintain a balance of power in the region. His position was similar in that respect to Mubarak in Egypt and Khadafy in Libya. As long as his control of his region was secure and his only conflicts were with his neighbors, then he actually was a stabilizing force. When he was removed this created a power vacuum which others moved in to fill.

America, to its credit, attempted to do something about this by installing a new Iraqi government, but it failed to learn the lessons of the German and Japanese “nation building” exercises following 1945. Both nations were devastated, militarily and civilly. The US moved in and created new systems designed to past institutions with new ones more compatible with peaceful coexistence. The military presence remained long enough to secure compliance and prevent a resurgence of previous sentiments that could have derailed the process. (This is not to forget that the US presence was also related to the Cold War.)

In Iraq it was the exact opposite. The US created a new government with an Islamic rather than nationalist central focus. It thus encouraged a continuance of the very problems that plagued the population previously. Then, assuming that after a few short years, the region had been nationalized and was politically stable, it pulled out everything and created a new power vacuum into which the ISIS militants stepped, as if they had been waiting for just that to happen. Likely, they were, given that the US had been telegraphing its intent for some time.

Now, with this rogue, terrorist entity running rampant throughout the region America’s supposed leadership is expecting the locals to do the heavy lifting in subduing the problem they largely were responsible for creating. But the locals are not prepared socially, culturally and psychologically to do so. So instead of fighting they run and leave behind the weapons that were provided for them to defend themselves.

Iraq was not a nation. To build it into one would have taken decades of social and cultural reconstruction. Because of US idealism and a rose-colored view of its achievement in placing a supposed government in place, it had really done nothing except destabilize the region. Now we are paying the price.

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