Saturday, January 13, 2007

Robert Kaplan on [the demise of] Arab Nationalism

ROBERT D. KAPLAN is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and a visiting professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. He is the author of "The Arabists," among other books.January 7, 2007.

Okay, then. We know he's a card-carrying expert. And like most experts he knows how to write clearly and advance an argument. This piece in the LA Times sparkles with insight and is a must-read.

...just as communism exited the European stage exposed for what it always truly was — fascism without fascism's ability to make the trains run on time — secular Arab nationalism will exit the stage revealed for what it always was: a despotic perversion of the western nation-state that lasted as long as it did mainly because of secret-police techniques imported from the former Soviet Union.

Arab nationalism's roots go back to the revolt against European colonialism in the early decades of the 20th century. But as it developed, it faced a serious problem: Because it was organized around the artificial national borders that these same colonialists had drawn — which generally ignored ethnic and sectarian lines — the result, in too many cases, was multiethnic rivalry and the subjugation of one part of the population by another.

In Iraq, for instance, the national borders created a state in which the majority Shiites were subjugated by the minority Sunnis (as we all now know). In Syria, the majority Sunnis came to be subjugated by the minority Alawites, who constitute a branch of Shiism (and who had been favored in the armed forces by the French). In Lebanon, it was the Shiites who ended up subjugated by both Christians and Sunnis.

And this...

The two extremes in the Arab world became Tunisia and Iraq. Tunisia, a small country of Sunni Arabs with no internal divisions, which traced its borders back to ancient Carthage, produced Habib Bourguiba, the Arab version of the enlightened Turkish modernizer Kemal Ataturk. Iraq, a Frankenstein monster of a country assembled from warring ethnic and sectarian groups by the British, produced Saddam Hussein, the Arab Stalin.

After you read the whole thing and finish cooing over Kaplan's insights, take another look. The elephant in the room is the unmentioned fact that post-colonialism, post WWI, post-WWII, and post-Cold War, the overarching dynamic of the region has been the quest for petroleum and all that goes with it. Long before the term "NGO" was coined, the most important of all non-government organizations was (and continues to be) a business "community" that morphed from "colonial" to "global" without taking a breath.

Any survey of modern MENA development that fails to mention oil is like a diorama at the zoo. Nice habitat, but where is the animal?
(And yes, even if the topic was "Arab Nationalism," no political commentary can carry much weight without considering the importance of economic issues.)

H/T Chirol at Coming Anarchy

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