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Monday, March 23, 2015
Failed States, “Islamic State,” or Citizen-States:
Three Realities of Arab Governance
President of the Republic of Lebanon, 1982-1988
The House of Commons
London, 23 March 2015
Reality of Failed States
Reality of the “Islamic State”
Reality of Citizen-States
Conclusions: Reaffirming Democracy
Ladies and Gentlemen, good evening,
It is a privilege to speak before this gathering, skillfully organized by the Henry Jackson Society under the distinguished leadership of its president, Professor Brendan Simms, and its executive director, Dr. Alan Mendoza. And what more appropriate venue could there be in which to address questions of governance—as I shall do in my remarks—than the House of Commons, a temple of civilized debate and the womb of global democracy?
Like the Henry Jackson Society and its community of supporters, I recognize the continuing relevance of two of the senator’s most deeply held convictions: first, his strategic-realist belief in military strength; and second, his democratic-idealist commitment to moral solidarity with those struggling to achieve human rights and democracy.
Today, I believe that Senator Jackson’s twin strategic and idealistic convictions must frame our thinking about the destabilized and destabilizing Middle East. The counsel applies equally to moderate Arab governments and the established democracies of Europe and North America.
The harsh realities of the Middle East region bring to mind the stark description of Hobbes: a “war of every man against every man.” Given the crimes committed by failed states and the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, a military response by moderate Arabs and their international partners is urgent.
Recognizing this fact, earlier this month the Vatican’s representative in Geneva issued an extraordinary call for the creation of a UN-approved multilateral force to stop ISIS “genocide”—this is the word he used—against Christians and other groups.
Although military force must be used against ISIS in the short-term, I submit that over the long-term only vigorous support for human rights, pluralism, and democracy as practiced by citizen-states can stabilize individual Arab societies and the Middle East as a whole.
Reality of Failed States
In the analysis that follows, I will survey aspects of three realities of Arab governance—namely failed states, the “Islamic state,” and citizen-states—and then suggest why a sustainable Middle East order will not emerge unless the established democracies support moderate Arabs in their campaign for pluralism and democracy.
Today, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen are the Arab world’s most prominent cases of failed or failing states. When an established sovereignty collapses, the origins and sources of this failure are varied and to an extent unique.
Yet, even while acknowledging the factors of singularity and complexity, it is legitimate to address Iraq and Syria in tandem because of key parallels.
Iraq and Syria escaped Ottoman domination only to fall under European control, during which they were objects of the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 and the subsequent drawing of their national boundaries by Britain and France.
The borders of independent Iraq and Syria both incorporated a kind of mosaic of communities. In Iraq, Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, Sunni Kurds, and Christian Arabs were prominent. Similarly, Syria contained Alawite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, Druze Arabs, Sunni Kurds, and Arab Christians.
In both Iraq and Syria, the ethno-religious mosaics that constituted the putative national community neither had, nor were given, a strong basis of cohesion. Authoritarian control became the pattern, and this ruling doctrine was pursued with a vengeance by a succession of bloody-minded dictators.
In the century following the World War I, the history of Iraqi and Syrian governance—and the history of Arab governance generally—has been dismal. These countries were not granted, nor did they subsequently create, either stable functioning states or societies characterized by tolerance and pluralism.
The failures of Arab governance have been legion, and can partially be summarized as narrow and unaccountable leadership; undue influence and even outright domination by military, police, and security forces; glaring economic inequality; stifling administrative and bureaucratic systems; cultural and educational dysfunction; lack of social and formal justice mechanisms; and indifference to the delivery of basic services.
These factors prevented the emergence of an intellectual vanguard or civil society leaders of the kind that could move Arab states and societies toward meaningful reform.
In recent years, when state authority buckled or collapsed under the pressures of Arab Spring protests, Islamist forces were an existing, and therefore seemingly viable, alternative governing leaders. Too often, however, the Islamists were politically authoritarian, culturally intolerant, and prone to inflicting violent repression.
Syria is an especially fascinating case of state failure because its ruling group engineered the partial destruction of the country in order to maintain control over core areas. The government’s ruthless stratagem had two tracks: first, allow radical Islamists to flourish and instill fear throughout the land; and second, systematically destroy moderate, pro-democracy elements.
The Syrian government’s strategy of provoking madhouse conditions on the periphery in order to validate a tenuous hold on the center was entirely in character, given its longstanding use of terrorism as an instrument of statecraft.
Now, beyond the immediate challenges of defeating the extremists entrenched across broad regions of Syria, the key question is: “Can the country be recreated as a viable state and society?”
Unfortunately, as time goes by, the chaos and violence intensifies and there are few prospects for reconciling Syria’s deeply traumatized and mutually fearful communities.
In the absence of an international force strong enough to impose order from the outside—for which there is zero prospect—the Syrian wound will continue to bleed until some internal coalition can bring about the beginnings of order.
Longer term, to be successful such a Syrian coalition must inculcate a spirit of common identity and the substance of national unity.
Post-conflict Syria—which is really a synonym for post-Assad Syria—will almost certainly feature key solutions already applied in post-Saddam Iraq, such as greater autonomy or even quasi-independence for the Kurds. Other communities within Syria will almost certainly demand autonomy arrangements, as well.
Because it will be easier for external powers than for the warring parties to agree on the broad outlines of a Syrian settlement, progress should be achievable on the international level first.
For this reason, however unproductive and frustrating the Syrian peace process has been, ongoing efforts by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov must continue and intensify.
Also on the international plan, a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear status might recalibrate the region’s diplomatic gears, leading to progress on multiple fronts, including Syria.
In contemplating prospects for moving Syria from a failed state to a recovering state to a citizen-state, this much is clear: the same ruling group that destroyed most of the country to save the remainder for itself must not be permitted to seize power again. If they do, then it will validate their methods of mass slaughter, terrorism, chemical weapons, and ethnic cleansing.
Reality of the “Islamic State”
Discussing the reality of Syria as a failed state is an appropriate prelude to addressing the reality of the so-called “Islamic State.” This is because—as I intimated a moment ago—there is an organic, functional link between the conduct of the Syrian government and the rise of ISIS across large areas of Syria and Iraq.
The essence of ISIS is not difficult to capture and is revealed in the vocabulary that must be used to describe their operations: massacre, execution, beheading, crucifixion, murder, rape, sexual slavery, and burning alive. These are not just horrific words and actions that the world associates with ISIS; rather, they are horrific words and actions that ISIS gleefully associates with itself, as documented in their endless stream of social media productions.
If the nature of ISIS is apparent and requires no explanation, then their logic—if that word can be applied—is also simple enough. For ISIS, the alternative to the Arab world’s failed states is not a new and modern future; rather, it is a reign of terror validated by pseudo-religious justifications.
Although ISIS is alarming in its fanaticism and immediate successes, we must remember that the movement contains weaknesses that will almost certainly lead to its decline, at least as a major force.
Almost immediately, ISIS spurred creation of a counterveiling coalition of international, regional, and local forces.
Furthermore, ISIS contains pronounced internal divisions, composed as it is by a motley assemblage of former non-Arab Al Qaeda, renegade Baathists, disaffected Arab youth, and wayward European teenagers.
Finally, chaos destroys, but building lasting alternatives requires leadership skills and governance capacities that ISIS has not yet displayed. At some point, the dynamics of rule by chaos will provoke a popular reaction against such extremism.
Reality of Citizen-States
If failed states and the so-called Islamic State are not feasible guardians of Arab civilization, then Arab reformers and their international partners must seek recourse to a third option, or what can be called citizen-states.
Briefly, I would like to address some realities of Arab citizen-states, focusing on select examples rather than a comprehensive survey. Specifically, I will survey Tunisia as an emerging citizen-state, Jordan as a developing citizen-state, and Lebanon as an established citizen-state.
These three small but disproportionally influential countries individually offer the Arab world alternatives to the nihilistic extremism of ISIS and the vacuous brutality of failed states; and together, they form a kind of triptych illustrating what an Arab world defined by democracy, freedom, and human rights might look like.
What is the definition of a citizen-state? A citizen-state, I submit, is one in which the following elements apply: the wellbeing of the individual is paramount; politics and religion are separated; executive governance is transparent, and accountable to parliamentary oversight; elections at all levels are free and competitive; the judiciary is independent; and pluralism flourishes in the form of gender equality, religious tolerance, autonomous civil society, and cultural expression.
Tunisia’s emergence as a citizen-state is, perhaps, the greatest success of the reform movements known as the Arab Spring. A key factor enabling Tunisia’s success was its strong tradition of vibrant civil society, including influential labor unions.
A significant measure of credit for the recent political success of Tunisia must rest with a former leader, President Habib Bourguiba. Beginning in the late 1950s, he emphasized education and gender equality and thereby helped create the basis for a culture of tolerance and human rights.
During its Arab Spring transition, Tunisia’s civil society strength provided a counterweight to Islamist influence, a situation that created the need and political space for mutual compromise.
For its part, Jordan can be designated as a developing citizen-state given that it has emerged as one of the Arab world’s strongest defenders of religious pluralism. Jordan has done this, in part, by assuming a prominent role in the anti-ISIS coalition.
Even before the rise of ISIS, Jordanian officials strongly defending the rights of Christians and other non-Muslims in the Arab world. In late 2013, for example, King Abdullah declared to his fellow Arabs:
“The protection of the rights of Christians is a duty rather than a favor. Christians have always played a key role in building our societies and defending our nations.”
[Christian Science Monitor, 22 December 2013]
Jordan has also staked significant claim to citizen-state status through its impressive record of economic development, achieved in part by establishing itself as a focal point of regional commerce and an entrepôt for international firms seeking entry into Middle East markets.
My own country—Lebanon—can be designated as a citizen-state, although one subject to siege-like conditions. A decade ago, Lebanon was recovering materially, psychologically, and spiritually from a cycle of internal conflicts largely fueled by external forces.
Then came another devastating war with Israel. Subsequently, and continuing to this day, Lebanon absorbed shock waves from the Syrian conflict.
The consequences for Lebanon of the ongoing Syrian crisis have been tremendous. In January, an official with the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, told America’s National Public Radio:
“…the international community has got to provide more support to Lebanon....They are totally overwhelmed. I mean, you imagine what it would be like if one-quarter of the U.S. population were refugees? Everything is being overstretched. [The Lebanese] need a lot more help than they’ve been getting because Lebanon simply is buckling under the pressure of 1.1 million refugees.”
[Ron Redmond interviewed by Steve Inskeep, “Lebanon Imposes Restrictions On Syrian Refugees,” National Public Radio, 6 January 2015 (http://www.npr.org/2015/01/06/375308947/lebanon-imposes-restrictions-on-syrian-refugees).]
Some estimates put the number of refugees currently in Lebanon at 1.5 million. One out of four people now residing in Lebanon is a refugee. Translated into British terms, this would be the equivalent of hosting 16 million desperate people in need of every possible necessity of life, from food to housing to education to employment to medical care.
Beyond immediate risks, the presence in Lebanon of a vast population of Syrian refugees threatens to upset permanently the country’s delicate national equilibrium, which rests on an intricate balance among constituent communities.
These conditions directly threaten the future of Lebanese democracy. A chief symptom of Lebanon’s increasing paralysis is the embarrassing, counterproductive, self-defeating, and partially self-inflicted vacancy of the presidency.
A fully functioning Lebanese state is important not only for managing the country’s ongoing refugees crisis. Lebanon as an idea—a concept of tolerance—has wider Middle East significance in that it is the only Arab state founded on the principle of all-sectarian inclusion and conciliation.
If this formula works in Lebanon—and can be seen to be working across the Arab world—then it could also be applied in post-conflict situations in other Arab countries.
For those who doubt that Lebanon was, or can again be, a true citizen-state, a powerful rejoinder is found in the record of the Cedar Revolution of 2005—an event, it must be remembered, that foreshadowed the Arab Spring and pre-dated it by several years.
Reflecting on the significance of the Cedar Revolution, a multi-religious movement for democracy and freedom, a veteran British journalist wrote at the time:
“Never before have we seen anything like it in Lebanon. Never before have we seen anything like it in the Arab world....It was an insurrection by the people against the lies and corruption of government as well as the foreign control they have lived under for so many decades.”
[Robert Fisk, “Cry Goes Out for Freedom in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square,” The Independent, 15 March 2005, p. 24.]
Despite the twin nightmares they have become, Syria and Iraq offer strong evidence that democratic, or at least pluralist, social and political systems can be established in the region. In this regard, we must cast our memories back to pre-civil war Syria.
At that time, and for well over six months, the only “weapons”—and I use this word in quotation marks—the only “weapons” deployed by the Syrian opposition against their dictatorial and increasingly murderous government were songs of freedom and peaceful demonstrations in favor of universal human rights. This example from Syria is key evidence that radical and violent sectarianism is not the preferred option of Arab peoples struggling against state oppression. Dictatorial governments—not the people—have unleashed waves of violence and destruction.
Conclusions: Reaffirming Democracy
One factor that has exacerbated conflict in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and other places has been the relative disengagement of the leading democracies from these crises.
This Chamberlain-like passivity is starkly apparent when one compares the deep and abiding support of Russia and Iran for the Assad government with the more or less hands-off approach of the United States, Britain, and France toward Syria, except with respect to containing ISIS.
Surveying the darkening European scene in late 1934—almost two years after Hitler came to power in Germany—a senior French diplomat lamented that, “the law of the gangsters is being imposed everywhere” and that “brigands have more energy than the honest men.”
[Philippe Berthelot quoted by Richard D. Challener, “The French Foreign Office: The Era of Philippe Berthelot,” in The Diplomats, 1919-1939, ed. Gordan A. Craig and Felix Gilbert (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953),pp 84-85.]
The echo of this dispiriting comment applies disturbingly well to today’s Middle East, and is indicative of a wider “crisis of confidence” that inhibits the leading democracies from pursuing robust policies.
Even more troubling, this crisis of confidence seems to have seriously undermined confidence in democracy itself; certainly, in its universal applicability.
Although I can not speak for the spirit of Henry Jackson with the same authority as the distinguished members of this Society, I think it is reasonable to conclude that he would counter democracy’s crisis of confidence by, among other measures, proclaiming democracy’s many and enduring successes.
In this regard—and because we are in London—we must remember that in the decades after the Second World War, the transformation of most of Europe into a zone of peace and prosperity could not have happened without a great turn toward democracy by European societies. Britain, of course, played a leading role in bringing about this historic outcome.
Restoring international democracy’s self-confidence would help affirm Senator Jackson’s approach of defining the vital interests of a great power while also asserting an obligation to press for the application of democratic practices more broadly across the society of nations.
Barack Obama—whose tenure represents a retreat to the bastion of Realpolitik—at least rhetorically supports democracy promotion. Last month, speaking at the summit on countering violent extremism, President Obama said:
“…we must recognize that lasting stability and real security require democracy. That means free elections where people can choose their own future, and independent judiciaries that uphold the rule of law, and police and security forces that respect human rights, and free speech and freedom for civil society groups. And it means freedom of religion—because when people are free to practice their faith as they choose, it helps hold diverse societies together.”
[“Remarks by the President at the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism,” 19 February 2015 (available from [https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/02/19/remarks-president-summit-countering-violent-extremism-february-19-2015]; accessed 25 February 2015).]
If President Obama’s excellent words are to be applied to an Arab world engulfed in chaos, then what is needed above all is a well developed, articulated, and executed strategy to support civil society activism, pro-democracy training, and accountable governance.
Observing the foreign policies and diplomacies of the democracies, I am struck with their boundless enthusiasm for promoting trade agreements, but half-hearted commitment to championing democracy and pluralism abroad.
New proposals for stabilizing the Arab world through support for democracy could and should draw on Britain’s long tradition of creative statecraft.
Of course, Britain and other democracies can do little for the cause of human rights and freedom in the Arab world if Arabs who support these noble goals do not help themselves. This is why for more than a decade I have been calling for an approach called the “Arab Marshall Plan.”
Evoking Marshall’s historic plan helps highlight a key parallel between post-World War II Europe and today’s Middle East: namely, the specter of extremism haunting the scene and consequent need for opposing measures of moderation. In Europe, the threat came from political extremism named Communism; in the Middle East, it is religious extremism called terrorism.
Similar to its predecessor, a program such as the Arab Marshall Plan could counter extremism by enabling:
First, what can be called “inspirational moderation”; Second, physical reconstruction and economic development; and Third, new systems of governance, both domestically and on the level of regional cooperation.
“Inspirational moderation” is vital because it can help move Arab societies to embrace democratic ideas as a prelude to democratic systems.
“Economic development” is essential because it is difficult for people to embrace human rights if they lack essential services like electricity, education, and medical care.
“New systems of governance” are necessary because, in the words of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, “[m]issiles may kill terrorists, but good governance kills terrorism.”
[Quoted in Peter Baker, “Obama Calls for Expansion of Human Rights to Combat Extremism,” New York Times, 19 February 2015 ([http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/20/world/obama-extremism-summit.html]; accessed 20 February 2015).]
The bedrock themes of the Arab Marshall Plan—like that of the original Marshall Plan—would be true partnership and deep cooperation; in the present case, between the international democratic community and the Arab democratic community, a battered but still resilient force for change.
Based on my decades-long knowledge and experience of the Arab world, I am certain that only a program like the Arab Marshall Plan—eventually resulting in the construction of citizen-states—can save the Arab world from the consequences of failed states and the Islamic State.
Only through a bold program similar to the Arab Marshall Plan can the Arabs preserve the core of their civilization and position themselves to join the broad trajectory of history in the twenty-first century.
This trajectory is characterized by an increasing tempo of change, growing interconnections between cultures, and expanding popular participation in politics.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I have spoken at length, and wish to thank you sincerely for lending me this distinguished platform, at an institution which remains a great beacon of global democracy.
Friends, please allow me one additional moment to close with a heartfelt plea.
Earlier, I mentioned how the people of Syria struggled peacefully to attain their universal human rights; they have paid a great price for doing so.
Similarly, my fellow Lebanese democrats, my own political party, and even my personal family, have made great sacrifices to defend and implement ideals of freedom and human rights.
For their part, the great democracies of Europe and North America must not abandon the emerging community of Arab democrats at this important juncture.
Amid this struggle of civilization against barbarism, let us recall the French proverb which says: “The only battle you are sure to lose is the one you refuse to fight.”
For me personally, I will never refuse to fight for liberty and dignity.