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

Once the institutions of sovereignty are destroyed in any state, especially one with a heterogeneous society, the odds are against any effort to build a stable alternative in the same generation. In the absence of effective central authority, all it takes is a small, determined minority to prevent unity.

Unloved but Desired

In the beginning, the American War on Terror and the Iraq War had a significant impact not only on public opinion towards the United States in Arab and Muslim countries, but also on notions of identity and the view of the state. Governments, already unpopular on account of their authoritarianism and corruption, were even more resented by cooperating with the American-led war in Iraq against the will of the vast majority of their populations. Moreover, Arabs and Muslims in general pervasively saw the wars on terrorism and Iraq as broadly aimed at Muslims. These perceptions help explain the rising strength of Islamic identity immediately following the Iraq War, as measured in public opinion polls.

Although most Arabs continued to attribute American behavior in Iraq to traditional American interests, primarily oil and Israel, the aim of "weakening the Muslim world" was later seen to be almost the equal of those interests (with few people believing that American policy is actually driven by the pursuit of democracy, peace, or human rights).

All of this led to an increase in the number of those who gave their primary allegiance not to their national government, but to an Islamic or Arab identity. In the 2004 polls that I conducted with Zogby International in six Arab countries (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates), we asked people which aspect of their identity (Arab, Muslim or national) was most important to them, assuming that all matter. A plurality identified "Muslim" as the most important in four of the six countries.

A repeat of the same question in October 2005, however, showed a marked increase from the year before in the number of people who identified their state identity as most important. Perhaps more significant there was a substantive rise in the number of people, now constituting a strong majority, who agreed with the proposition that the task of their national government is to secure the welfare of its own citizens, rather than what would be good for Muslims and Arabs more broadly. Even among those who said that "Muslim" is their strongest identity, only a minority said that the government should be serving the interests of Muslims in general (as opposed to Muslims within national boundaries).

This last point is important. Although many may want the clergy or Islamic parties to win in their elections, their view of the world is still statist. In fact, most of the Islamist parties have had a primarily statist agenda, distinct from that of the global jihadists; this includes the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in the Palestinian areas. Hamas has certainly been a violent organization and has yet to accept Israel. But it has continued to distance itself from global Islamist groups, including Al-Qaeda, and its leaders were criticized by global Islamists as being un-Islamic for visiting Moscow this past February while the Russian state remains at war with Islamists in Chechnya.

Although one cannot say with certainty, it does seem that renewed interest in and allegiance to the national state has to do with developments in Iraq. Most Arabs believe that Iraqis are worse off than they were before the war, according to the polls. This may be in part because most Arabs look at Iraq from a Sunni prism (as most Arabs are Sunnis), but they also broadly see in Iraq a frightening state of anarchy, violence and disintegration of society that they don't wish for their own communities.

At the same time, the message of Al-Qaeda and other global Islamist groups is not resonating with them. They may want to see Abu Musab al-Zarqawi force the United States out of Iraq, but they certainly don't want him to rule over their children. This is also borne out by the polling data: only 6 percent said they sympathize with Al-Qaeda's aim of establishing a Taliban-like state. A plurality, however, does support Al-Qaeda's confrontation with the United States.

In short, despite continued frustrations with governments in the region and the rising tide of Islamic parties, the situation in Iraq over the past year has intensified the fear of anarchy and thus rallied favorable opinion towards the state.

Authoritarianism or Anarchy?

Events in Iraq have caused both Washington and the Arab public to realize that while governments badly need reform in the region, anarchy can be even worse than authoritarianism. Authoritarian rulers must constantly be pressured to reform--but not at the cost of dismantling the state or giving rise to another form of authoritarianism.

All of Iraq's neighbors, for their own reasons, have sought to avoid a divided Iraq. Likewise, all of the major factions in Iraq have an interest in preventing civil war: The Shi'a prefer to have the majority voice in a unified Iraq; the Sunnis fear being left with a rump, resource-poor region; and the Kurds don't want to risk a Turkish intervention that would deprive them of their hard-won, de facto independence.

The tragedy of civil war lies not only in what it means for Iraq's people but also in what the consequences would be for international security--the danger of drawing other states in, the potential of spillover to neighboring countries, the erosion of the balance of power in the region in favor of Iran and the creation of a hospitable environment to international terrorism.

Rogue states can be dangerous, but collapsed states are even more threatening to international security. When it comes to local and regional security, states--with all their flaws and weaknesses and the need to improve them--remain the most effective actors. The Iraq War demonstrates that we cannot afford to take state governments for granted.

Confronting troubled and troubling states is sometimes necessary, but dismantling them is a far riskier undertaking. Many states need to be improved or enhanced, others challenged and sometimes fought, but the dismantling of states constitutes one of the greatest dangers to our international system.

As we consider options toward other states not to U.S. liking, such as Iran, the removal of some governments may seem desirable from many vantage points, but not any cost. The next user of weapons of mass destruction is more likely to be a terror group, such as Al-Qaeda, than any state. In its history, the United States has deterred the most ruthless and powerful states, including the Soviet Union. Groups such as Al-Qaeda are constrained only by the limits of their capability. Where there is absence of central authority, they expand. Al-Qaeda didn't exist in Iraq before the war but now thrives there despite the presence of the most powerful military in the world.

From this perspective, a central measure of success of the intervention in Iraq would be thus: Three years later, have the prospects of regional and global security increased or decreased? The answer would return the focus to the continued centrality of sovereign institutions in maximizing international security, even as the nature of threats is changing.

Shibley Telhami is Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and a non-resident senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Essay Types: Essay