Would a Radical Islamist Middle East Have Been Better?

At Foreign Policy Robert Kaplan points out something that I would hope were obvious. What Syria and Iraq have in common and the reason that there has been war and chaos in both is Ba’athism:

The United States intervened militarily in Iraq in 2003, 15 years ago this month, and the result was war and chaos. But the United States did not intervene in Syria in 2011 when the regime there was challenged, and the result was still war and chaos. Though the media has interpreted the past decade and a half of armed conflict in the Levant exclusively through the failure of U.S. policy, the fact that the policy in Syria was 180-degrees different from the one in Iraq and yet the result was the same indicates that there has to be a deeper, more fundamental force at work in both countries that journalists and historians must acknowledge.

That deeper force is the legacy of Baathism. A toxic mix of secular Arab nationalism and Eastern Bloc-style socialism that dominated Syria and Iraq for decades since the 1960s, it made the regimes of the al-Assad family in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq completely unique in the Arab world. Baathism, more than George W. Bush or Barack Obama, is the father of the violent Hobbesian nightmare that has devastated the lands between the Mediterranean Sea and the Iranian plateau in the early 21st century.

Let me be a bit more explicit than Mr. Kaplan in characterizing Ba’athism. Ba’athism is secular, multi-ethnic, and multi-confessional. In essence it is fascism with Arab characteristics. Both Syria and Iraq were autocracies ruled by minorities, the Shi’ite-affiliated Alawites in Syria and Sunni Arabs in Iraq. In a post-Ba’athist Iraq Sunnis are subordinated just as in a post-Ba’athist Syria Alawites would be subordinated although in Syria subordination would take the form of pogroms and genocide as was the case before the French put the Alawites in charge.

The critical problem is that in the absence of Ba’athism in Syria and Iraq they wouldn’t have become liberal democracies. That’s a fantasy harbored by neoconservatives and liberal interventionists. In the wake of the failure of Arab nationalism they would have taken the same path as so many other countries in the region: they would have become Islamist and increasingly radical, as we can see happening in Turkey right now.

Now the $64 billion question. Would a radical Islamist Middle East have been better than a secular authoritarian one? I don’t think so. And that’s why invading Iraq was so stupid and why helping the anti-government rebels in Syria was foolish.

4 comments… add one
  • Gustopher

    You’re missing a lot of steps between “Ba’athist Dictatorships are the best we can hope for in the Middle East” and “invading Iraq was a mistake”.

    Attempting to install a liberal democracy in multiethnic Iraq was a complete failure. Our nation building sucked. But there were a lot of options we didn’t try — splitting Iraq into three parts (with some mostly carrot based ethnic cleaning to shuffle people into the right area) and create three liberal democracies; installing a kinder, gentler dictator; installing three kinder, gentler dictators…

    To be clear, the invasion was one mistake, but the nation building was an entirely different mistake.

    Syria is a different problem — it’s become a haven for ISIS, and Assad is using chemical weapons. If Assad was using the chemical weapons on ISIS, I think we would have found some way to not notice.

    But, routing out ISIS is key to giving Iraq a chance at achieving semi-stable. I’d rather us keep that as the goal.

    I’m not opposed to taking measures against Assad if he uses chemical weapons again, though. More than bombing a runway, but something short of toppling him.

  • But there were a lot of options we didn’t try — splitting Iraq into three parts (with some mostly carrot based ethnic cleaning to shuffle people into the right area) and create three liberal democracies; installing a kinder, gentler dictator; installing three kinder, gentler dictators…

    You’re letting your imagination run away with you. During the period we occupied Iraq not a single opinion poll of Iraqis supported partition. Such a thing would have had to have been forced at the point of a gun. We weren’t willing to do that.

    We might have been able to spin Iraqi Kurdistan off. The Kurds would undoubtedly have gone for it. But there’s no way any partition that involved Kirkuk becoming a part of Iraqi Kurdistan would ever have been accepted by the Iraqi Arabs, Sunni or Shi’ite. There would have been continuous war.

    And partition doesn’t change the alternatives. The likelihood is that the result would have been a Sunni Islamist country and a Shi’ite Islamist country.

    The very notion that we can facilitate nation-building in the Middle East is an error.

  • Gustopher

    Partition could have happened through a deliberately weak federal government and three strong state governments. Technically one country, with clear mechanisms for secession.

    If a multiethnic Czechoslovakia cannot hold together, what hope does a multiethnic Iraq have?

    And unless your foreign policy is to just ignore the Middle East, we need to have options up to and including knocking over a dictatorship. And we need to do something with what’s left.

    Alas, the Middle East desperately tries not to be ignored, and our political class wants to meddle in it anyway, so a hands off policy isn’t realistic.

  • Gustopher

    Also, small, weak Islamist countries are better for us than large Islamist countries.

    The goal isn’t to make things perfect, just less worse than they ended up. Which is a pretty low bar.

    Yes, we shouldn’t have invaded. Both because we had no reason to, and because we were already committed in Afghanistan and we were hobbling that mission.

    But, once we did invade, we could have made less worse mistakes. Also, purging Baathists was a mistake.

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