In these ways, political communities in the former secular Arab nationalist republics have sought to demarcate new borders either within or across the twentieth-century Middle East political map. The long-term status of these de facto attempts to redraw boundaries will be likely to remain uncertain, but de jure changes to the political map face the reality that no military power is willing and able to unilaterally impose new borders, and there is no consensus among the various regional and external state powers or non-state actors to effect changes to the existing political map. Under these circumstances, the status quo is likely to endure.
Nonetheless, durable political compacts will have to address the distribution of combatants along ancient geographic boundaries that have political and historical resonance. Ancient patterns and precedents can inform this project. The region’s chaotic and fragile political environment summons us to think imaginatively and differently about the challenges that lie ahead. The twentieth-century discourse on the Middle East gave us ways of thinking that were inevitably shaped by the politics of European colonization and decolonization, the Cold War, an overreliance on elite palaces to mediate our understanding of societal change, and by an assumption that the demarcated state borders of the post-Ottoman era were permanent and politically viable. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the attacks of 9/11 and the ongoing tumult unleashed in the “Arab Spring,” we need to think differently about the region’s political recovery.
As the secular nationalism of the last century has deteriorated or vanished from the region, policymakers are left with the task of deciding what ideologies will help to advance the West’s interests as the region rebuilds its social compacts. What ideas will lead to a stable political order that can help secure energy supplies, combat religiously inspired terrorism, stem the flow of refugees, and promote the region’s reconstruction and economic growth? Will the placing of sovereignty among citizens—the core idea of democracy which Athens invented—appear in the region in a new, Islamically-legitimated way and how should the United States respond? What ideas might create allegiance to the state and transcend religious and ethnic identities? These are policy challenges borne of analysis that incorporates an understanding of the ancient world.
Andrew Skitt Gilmour served as an intelligence analyst for thirty-two years at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He is the recipient of the CIA’s Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal and the National Intelligence Exceptional Achievement Medal and holds degrees from Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University.
This does not constitute an official release of CIA information. All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of the Central Intelligence Agency or any other U.S. government agency. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. government authentication of information or CIA endorsement of the author’s views. This material has been reviewed by CIA solely for classification.
This article is excerpted and adapted from the author’s recently published book, A Middle East Primed for New Thinking: Insights and Policy Options from the Ancient World (Washington, DC: Center for the Study of Intelligence, 2019.)
Image: Wikimedia Commons