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.

Second, the United States was still deploying aid to Middle Eastern governments with the goal of rallying their support for American foreign policy objectives (on such hugely important issues as the Arab-Israel conflict, oil export policies, the war on terrorism and Iraq). So even as the United States sought internal change, it was still relying on friendly governments to support U.S. policy initiatives.

Finally, the shift to NGOs did little to improve sentiments towards America in the region. The October 2005 survey of Arab public opinion revealed that most respondents concluded that the United States was not serious in its advocacy of democracy--and that the Middle East was even less democratic than it was before the Iraq War. Moreover, when experiments in electoral democracy did move forward--sometimes under U.S. pressure--the results were not what the United States had hoped for.

What has become apparent is that the United States, even as powerful as it is, can engineer neither public opinion in foreign countries nor the outcome of elections. The notion that mere support for some middle "civil society" space between authoritarian, paternalistic governments and mass Islamist movements was likely to yield the emergence of a third and better way was problematic from the outset. U.S. aid policies had the unintended consequence of shifting the balance between the two dominant forces in Arab politics today: ruling elites--who could be co-opted or persuaded to align with U.S. policies--and Islamist parties. It is nearly impossible to engineer a third way--a mass movement that could have both impeccable democratic credentials yet could support U.S. policies.

So on the eve of the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January, as the evidence mounted that elections might displace Fatah in favor of Hamas, the Bush Administration abandoned its focus on NGOs and returned to the traditional, pre-9/11 pattern. It initiated a last minute effort to fund public-works projects in the Palestinian areas, without mentioning the American role and allowing the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority to take full credit. The project was a desperate attempt to shore up the party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In the end, the effort was too little too late, but it represented a striking reversal of the aid strategy of the post-9/11 era.

The shift in the U.S. aid strategy toward the Palestinians on the eve of the elections was a signal of concern. And withholding aid to a Hamas government until it changes its positions on Israel and terrorism (even if it pursues a reform agenda at home) is a signal of a partial return to the aid policy of old: using American largesse largely as a tool for rewarding or punishing states on the basis of their foreign policies, far more than on the basis of the degree of internal democracy.

Better a Bad State than No State?

while the United States belatedly tried to forestall the victory of Hamas, three years of experience in Iraq have largely undermined the sentiment that the state is "the problem" in the Middle East.

Consider the stunning magnitude of the failure to bring stability to a unified Iraq. Iraq has been the top priority of the world's only superpower for the past three years, and a central one for many regional and international powers. The United States, intent on keeping Iraq together, has spent more resources in that country than any state has ever spent on another in the history of the world.

It is popular these days to explain Iraq's continued troubles and increasing sectarianism by focusing on the particularities of Iraq's society or poor U.S. planning. One can hardly deny that these are important factors. But they mask a more troubling reality: Even with the best American planning and Iraqi intentions, preventing civil conflict in Iraq would still have been an uphill battle. The problems in Iraq are more closely related to the almost inevitable consequences of dismantling institutions of sovereignty.

In the Middle East, nearly all of the projects of change in the 20th century, even the bloody military coups, maintained the institutions of government, especially the army, and thus preserved the state. In the one major civil war to beset the region, in Lebanon from 1975 to 1990, state institutions collapsed. Sixteen years after the Taif Accords, the Lebanese state remains so weak and fragile that it is unable to defend itself or to disarm militias on its territory.

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