The Return of the State

The Return of the State

Mini Teaser: Five years ago, the Arab state was the problem.  Now it is seen as the solution.

by Author(s): Shibley Telhami

Even in the best of times, Americans, in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson's aphorism that "the government that governs best governs least", have always been uncomfortable with the idea of "the state." After 9/11, these suspicions about the role of "the state" in world politics rapidly spread in our political discourse. Ironically, even though the attack was launched by a well-organized, non-state transnational actor, its cause and the threat that it was likely to pose in the future were seen to be largely a function of problematic states.

In the first State of the Union address after 9/11, President Bush identified the principal threat to the peace and security of the United States as emanating from the world's rogue states, especially the "Axis of Evil" (Iran, North Korea and Iraq). That none of the 9/11 attackers came from these states mattered little in this configuration. The second target, beyond the rogues, comprised the non-democratic states of the Middle East; the absence of democracy was identified as the root cause for the emergence of Al-Qaeda.

In addressing the threat, the president and his team made the case that the pursuit of profound political change in the region must be sought, even if such change destabilized the existing states of the region. In this view, some even saw the desire to maintain "stability" as a relic of Cold War thinking that had merely prevented moves toward constructive change.

For different reasons, public opinion in much of the Arab and Muslim world reflected intense frustration with the existing political order in the region. Opinion polls indicated a seemingly low level of identification with a person's state; a 2004 survey indicated that a plurality of Arabs identified themselves primarily as "Muslim" or "Arab", rather than as citizens of a specific state. Not a single sitting Arab or Muslim ruler received more than single-digit admiration in the Arab world outside their own countries.

But over the past year, and again for very different reasons in each case, there has been a profound change in attitudes toward the state both in the region and in Washington. There is new appreciation for the role of the state in the Middle East, given its ability to provide security for its residents, and in Washington, given its contribution to regional stability. This is driving a correction in American policy priorities and reflects a significant and measurable shift in public opinion in the region. We are witnessing the return of the state.

From NGOs back to Governments

For much of the Cold War, the aim of American foreign policy was to promote the stability of allied states, as long as their foreign policies remained helpful to the United States. U.S. aid was primarily a reward to governments for pursuing pro-American foreign policies and was unrelated to whether any attempt was made to promote political and economic reform.

But as Americans discovered that Arab and Muslim publics were highly resentful of American foreign policy, some of the blame shifted to the governments in the region. Why, many wondered, was there such a profound anti-American feeling even in Arab countries such as Egypt and Jordan, where the United States had spent billions of dollars in foreign aid over the years? Why does everyone in Egypt know that the Japanese had built the Opera House in Cairo, but few seemed aware of the more meaningful and substantial projects that the United States was supporting, such as improving sewer systems all over Egypt?

The perception that the absence of democracy in the Arab world was part of the problem for America led to the conclusion that authoritarian governments, even friendly ones, were the source of the problem. Moreover, direct aid to governments was seen as facilitating the ability of regimes to solidify authoritarian rule--compounding the region's democracy deficit and further radicalizing the population.

The new post-9/11 American aid strategy aimed at two things: to begin to take direct credit for major American projects that benefited the local populations in the Middle East; and to divert aid, to the extent possible, away from governments in favor of non-governmental organizations.

In the short term, the strategy was intentionally designed to weaken the state. That goal could be seen as beneficial if the result was to prod authoritarian regimes toward reform and to assist in the emergence of civil society.

But the United States ran into several problems. The seemingly neutral activity of shifting aid from the state to NGOs had the consequence of eroding the power of friendly governments that were dependent on the distribution of aid to maintain the allegiance of their citizens, most visibly in the case of the Palestinian Authority. At the same time, such a process did not enable the United States to engineer more favorable governments--as was evident in the electoral successes of the Islamists in Egypt, the Palestinian areas, Iraq and Lebanon. So if the goal was to promote democratic reform in governments, the policy was a failure.

Essay Types: Essay