Balance of power politics is ready for a makeover—and a comeback. The Middle East is shattering along ideological and kinship lines, and Western visions of pluralism are shattering with it. The politicians in Baghdad have postponed efforts to form a government until possibly mid-August—national unity or otherwise—as Nuri al-Maliki continues to resist calls for resignation or a sectarian reconciliation program as a prerequisite to American assistance in fighting the Islamic State. Meanwhile, the Kurds of northern Iraq plan to forge ahead with a referendum on independence. Back in Damascus, the Alawite dictator Bashar al-Assad remains locked in a zero-sum conflict with majority Sunni rebels of every political persuasion.
Attempting to hold Iraq and Syria together while cajoling the constituent parties to find common ground is noble but very likely futile. It may even be counter-productive. The region’s political and kinship communities are undergoing what Joshua Landis has called a “Great Sorting Out”, or political and geographic reconfiguration, much like European nations experienced during the conflict-ridden 20th century. As this process unfolds, the United States and other major powers should strive to maintain a balance of power in the Middle East, not just among states, but among sects. As part of this approach, the US and other international power brokers must accept—or even promote—the redrawing of Middle Eastern borders. Ultimately, this may be the wisest and most fruitful path to the development of stable political cultures and legitimate, sustainable institutions in the region.
The Security Dilemma and Failed States in Iraq and the Levant
Between and among states, the balance of power approach often gets a bad rap. It is associated with superficial alliances and the treatment of people and polities as pawns in a game of chess. In the modern Middle East, it is associated with the carving of Great Power spheres of influence and support for brutal strongmen. When mismanaged, the balance of power can lead to war. Yet the fundamental purpose of a balance of power is to preserve peace, and in the absence of shared political norms among nation-states or reliably-enforced international laws, it is the best that we can do.
Ironically, a balance of power is functionally what America and the West prescribe within many Middle Eastern countries under the guise of pluralism, and it is failing miserably within certain existing borders. In Iraq, Americans want Maliki to more equitably share resources and power with the Sunnis. His failure to do so has contributed to an existential crisis for Iraq and the rise of a newly-declared Islamic State. In Syria, Sunni protesters sought to rectify an imbalance of power that favored the Alawite minority; Assad’s resistance has wrought a nightmarish civil war. Even a Lebanese state structured to balance power among Sunnis, Shiites, and Christians faces gridlock and may teeter on the brink of renewed violence a generation after its own civil war.
The failure of the balance of power within these states is due not to primordial hatreds, but largely to the shallowness or absence of shared notions of civic identity and interests. All states, but especially those made up of diverse populations, require their leaders and citizens to agree upon rights, obligations, and sources of political legitimacy. They require a social contract and a civic national identity that exceed in value and importance such traits as creed or ethnic origin. This civic identity must be substantive. It is not enough to wave an Iraqi flag and claim patriotism—one must be able to explain the political values behind that flag. If the state is merely an arena into which different kinship groups are thrown and told to distribute power and resources among themselves, then competition and conflict along kinship lines is virtually assured.
That is the story of much of the Middle East, and it is why states like Iraq and Syria are not worth preserving from either a strategic or a moral standpoint. The state apparatus in both Iraq and Syria has been used not to unite and to build stable civic value systems, but to repress and deter competing kinship groups within political arenas drawn up by European powers nearly one hundred years ago. A Hobbesian approach to the security dilemma has long dominated the internal politics of both states. Barring the remarkable appearance of politically- and military-strong cross-sectarian coalitions in Iraq and Syria, these two states’ dissolution is a superior alternative to sectarian war under the dubious pretense of preserving the nation.
The balance of power should no longer be viewed as a cynical method of Great Powers or be relegated to the arena of Middle East intra-state politics. Instead, it should be re-conceptualized as a way to prevent a wider, catastrophic, and more enduring regional war waged along confessional lines, as well as a means for providing room to kinship groups to delineate substantive political value systems. It is desirable that Sunnis and Shiites join forces to successfully fight the bad guys (Assad and ISIS) and govern cooperatively and effectively in Syria and Iraq, but it is not foreseeable. ISIS, or the Islamic State, is very strong both financially and militarily, and its fighters are highly motivated. Meanwhile, the Iraqi army is in shambles. Without extensive American involvement, an Iraqi government operation to roll back the Islamic State is likely to rely heavily on Shiite militiamen and thus take on the trappings of a sectarian war, even if the operation has token Sunni political backing.
A Return to Wilsonian Self-Determination
A non-cynical, constructive balance of power begins with the basic premise that self-defined political groups, whether they are ethnicities, sects, or even tribal associations, should not have to fear constant and imminent threats from neighboring states or co-nationals. This is a core norm in international society, but the current configuration of state borders is working against it in Iraq and Syria, and international institutions are impotent to enforce it. Thus, all parties should relent to the establishment of smaller, more homogenous states, including a division of Iraq and Syria along largely sectarian lines (and an independent Kurdistan). The strategic objective of the United States—the world’s sole superpower and the Middle East’s offshore balancer—should be to preserve a balance of power among the region’s sectarian actors so that each may develop politically of its own accord. Rather than the Sykes-Picot agreement, Woodrow Wilson’s self-determination of peoples serves as a point of reference.
Accepting the reality of the Islamic State, either de facto or de jure, is indeed problematic. ISIS is a threat to virtually every state in the region, as well as to Europe and the United States. It is also a gross violator of human rights. But the point is not to legitimize a caliphate as much as to recognize the value of delineating territory where Sunnis can self-govern and hash out what exactly Sunnism means to the life of a polity in the 21st century. In a sign of just how much Iraq’s Shiite leadership has alienated people along sectarian lines, multiple reports suggest that secular Sunnis have so far welcomed and cooperated with their ISIS conquerors. But beyond a shared sectarian enemy, their political views are fundamentally at odds, and it is only a matter of time before the Islamic State’s heavy-handedness stokes a second Anbar Awakening. The Islamic State must indeed be defeated, but it should be defeated by Sunnis. The cancer of austere, violent Sunni Islamism cannot be decisively defeated by the West or by the Shi’a; it can only be permanently discredited by members of ISIS’s own sectarian kinship group.
Breaking Iraq and Syria into smaller, more homogenous states would allow their respective citizens and politicians to cease thinking of politics as a competition between kinship groups and answer important questions about other, ideational sources of political legitimacy, particularly religious sources. For the Sunnis, is Islamism the answer? If so, in what form? Does ISIS or the Taliban provide the model, or perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood or another movement? How does the Shi’a belief system actually inform political norms, behavior, and legitimacy? To what extent is Shi’a Islam compatible with pluralistic democracy? Such a debate is alive in well in Iran as regards the system of veliyat-e faqih. There is a genuine, politically-significant difference in Sunni and Shiite belief systems about hierarchy and legitimacy. New borders and a sectarian balance of power would better enable the region’s sects and other kinship groups to focus on these important questions and debates, and to devise civic value systems and institutions that draw upon their belief systems. There is likely to be variation in institutions and civic value systems across countries of similar kinship. France, Germany, Canada, and the United States all base their political life and institutions on the European liberal tradition, but they are hardly identical in how they do so. Ultimately, the new, smaller, and more homogenous states of the region may decide that it really is in their interest to pool sovereignty and resources and to closely coordinate policies. This, too, would match the historical trajectory of Europe from World War to the European Union.
Fostering a Stable Balance of Power
There are, admittedly, problems with this plan. Egyptian society is currently fracturing along a secular-Islamist fault line. The Muslim Brotherhood made strides in implementing an Islamist vision before getting muscled out by the military, and Egypt’s fate is uncertain. In Palestine, Hamas—which is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood—has long competed with Fatah for the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people. The parties are currently committed to a unity government, but they have very different visions of a future State of Palestine, and as with past attempts, cooperation could soon break down. These two cases make clear that national or sectarian homogeneity is no panacea. But the strong sense of national kinship felt by the people of both Egypt and Palestine does appear to reduce the risk of devastating, viral conflict within their borders and across the region.
A second difficulty of this plan is the fact that, should a new group of states be established in the Levant and Mesopotamia, minorities would remain in each. Their fair treatment should be a condition of aid from the international community. Finally, there is the risk of terrorism emanating from the Islamic State, particular against Western targets, and expansionist war against countries and actors on the Islamic State’s periphery. Thus, the international community should maintain counterterrorism vigilance and draw red lines for the Islamic State well outside of Baghdad and at the borders of Jordan, Turkey, and Iraqi Kurdistan. The United States should communicate with Iran and the Shiites of southern Iraq in order to contain the Islamic State without sparking all-out sectarian war, and provide support to all groups in the region whose political platforms promote stability and human decency in a difficult world—whether that decency draws on Liberal, Islamic, or other traditions.
We of the West, and especially of the United States, wish that the region’s actors would adopt liberal democracy. We also prefer battle lines to be morally distinct. But distrust and cross-cutting interests render perfect moral clarity impossible. For example, the two countries with arguably the greatest ability to affect the outcomes in Iraq and Syria are the United States and Iran. But due to the complexity of their own relationship, incentives to work together tend to be offset by incentives to maintain leverage against one another. Meanwhile, Hezbollah, officially designated a terrorist organization by the United States, serves as a potentially helpful buffer on the new Islamic State’s western flank. And despite the vile Assad, the Shiites of Syria surely deserve protection from a new Sunni tyranny that could descend upon the ruins of that country. The difficulties are compounded because no major external power wants to take the side of one sect while incurring the wrath and losing the trust of representatives of the other.
Under such conditions, we cannot afford to obsess with moral clarity about friends and enemies. The best bet is to separate the fighters and foster a stable balance among them through aid, diplomacy, small troop presences, and limited strikes so that they can look inward as kinship communities and so that, at long last, the region’s polities can develop freely, organically, and substantively.