This summer, the Islamic State will probably lose its capitals in Syria and Iraq, and possibly, any hope of surviving as a traditional territorial state. For three years, however, the ISIS caliphate functioned as a state—blood-trenched, appalling, and wildly unpopular—but a state nonetheless.
Its fall certainly doesn’t preclude other jihadi movements from replicating Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s feat in the future. And the Islamic State’s material success highlighted just how awful many other governments in the region are. Too often, Middle Eastern states tolerate rampant torture, repression, surveillance, and rights-stripping; the nihilistic horrors and excesses of ISIS weren’t categorically different, but they took these practices to another level.
With the Islamic State downgraded from contender state to insurgency, we now would do well to ask: What is the best long-term antidote to extremist violence?
The answer might lie not in countering violent extremism, but in investing in strong states. And crucially, our experience with state failure and abusive governance in the Middle East should force us to update our definition of a strong state. It is not, as American policy makers have historically believed, a state ruled by a strongman willing to accept phone calls from Washington.
In actuality, a strong state is one that effectively controls its territory and governs its citizens, providing stability and continuity though humane rule and rights for its citizens. Any state that rules through caprice and violence is inherently unstable, even if it possesses a monopoly of force within its borders. Such are the lessons of the failed and failing states of Arab region, whose erosion has allowed violent extremism to flourish. To significantly reduce extremist ranks, it does not suffice to target individuals. A country has to build (or rebuild) an alternative to authoritarian thuggery: a bureaucratic state and security services that actually provide security rather than repress citizens.
Effective governance means humane governance. Anything else is a short-term fix.
Fighting the Wrong War
There are two things that the West, and primarily the United States, must grapple with in order to reverse the jihadi tide that will continue to lap at its shores long after Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Caliphate recedes as a grisly but mercifully short chapter in geopolitical history.
First, we need to embrace robust liberal pluralism as our most potent weapon against the ideology of jihadi nihilism, violence, and intolerance. Over the long haul, the West’s openness, prosperity, and education make for better societies than anything on offer from repressive religious extremists or Middle Eastern despots. Not only should we refrain from apologizing for this characteristic; we ought to tout it as the leading edge in our counter-extremism campaign.
We need to admit that our misguided foreign policy and indiscriminate use of violence in the wars against terror since 9/11 have bred a great deal more outrage, extremism, and terror than they have contained.
Second, we need to admit that our misguided foreign policy and indiscriminate use of violence in the wars against terror since 9/11 have bred a great deal more outrage, extremism, and terror than they have contained. We might not have created the problem, but we have definitively made it worse. We continue to employ the same fruitless “capture, kill, contain” techniques, to our continued disservice. As a result, the cancer that presented as the “caliphate” will in due course metastasize somewhere else.
The prime candidates for the next outbreak of hypertoxic jihadi extremism are places where the United States, or allies with its support, are creating famine, mass displacement, and wantonly killing civilians—while supposedly pursuing extremists, using the hard-to-monitor blunt weapons of aerial bombing, drones, and special forces.
Such battlefields, sadly, exist today in places that only occasionally draw attention, like Yemen, Libya, and Afghanistan, and also in more uniformly ignored war zones in places such as Mali and Nigeria. Declining and eroding states have opened the gates to extremists of all sorts in a long list of poorly governed spaces, including parts of the Sinai, Somalia, South Sudan, Lebanon, and the Philippines.
Embracing Conflict and Despots
By the end of his time in office, President Obama was deploying U.S. special forces simultaneously to 139 countries—that is, two-thirds of all the countries in the world. Not all of those deployments were active conflict zones, but the United States is fighting in undeclared wars in several, including Syria and Yemen. Endless war only serves to weaken states—the very things we need in order to live in a secure world.
The coalition against ISIS relied on nasty alliances of convenience with dictators, authoritarians, and militiamen, many of whom were in thrall to sectarianism and bloodlust. This devil’s bargain is the same principle that guided the Obama administration’s clumsy embrace of the Gulf Cooperation Council monarchs and their war in Yemen, and which drives the Trump administration’s much warmer embrace of Arab despots.
In his debut foreign trip in May, President Trump cast aside any pretense of valuing democracy or decency in our allies. “We must seek partners, not perfection—and to make allies of all who share our goals,” President Trump told the heads of state assembled in Riyadh.
Trump echoed the refrain of the region’s despots, who self-servingly claim that their failing brand of governance is the only alternative to the Islamic State and its imitators.
“Our partnerships will advance security through stability, not through radical disruption,” Trump said. “Wherever possible, we will seek gradual reforms—not sudden intervention.”
History might prove him wrong, but he was only saying out loud a view privately shared by many of his White House predecessors. Iran was the only state singled out for doing anything to promote terrorism, as if state policies adopted by American allies, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, and Egypt, had played no role in abetting violent extremists.
This mistake has become a cornerstone of American foreign policy, repeated over and over again. If unshakeable support for despots provided insurance against runaway violence, today we’d be living in a quiet, peaceful world. It’s not just that devil’s bargains are distasteful and betray our core values; they also don’t work.
If unshakeable support for despots provided insurance against runaway violence, today we’d be living in a quiet, peaceful world.
Only effective, humanistic states provide an alternative to a governance wasteland that promotes apocalyptic preachers and young people who embrace death in the absence of a sustainable future.
States in the Middle East and North Africa region are failing. Successful states must exercise their authority over, and elicit loyalty from, a plurality of citizens. Even homogenous states are to a certain degree multiethnic and multisectarian. Difference must be managed, not ignored or suppressed.
Such states have been built before in the Middle East, and have prospered. Even in today’s dark period, there are plenty of states that muster a significant degree of state authority and competence. Egypt, until recently, was an example of how a flawed state could still perform most of its core executive and security functions.
It’s a debatable proposition that authoritarians are the answer. History suggests that sometimes authoritarians can be effective long-term leaders. Their success depends on resources, competence and a commitment to results. Gamal Abdel Nasser was no democratic civil libertarian, but he was genuinely invested in modernizing his country. For decades, he delivered results that seemed to mitigate his authoritarian tendencies. Toward the end of his rule, the balance had shifted—an increasingly erratic and paranoid Nasser presided over a state that stagnated economically and no longer proved capable of securing its borders. Hence a period of domestic paralysis coupled with the catastrophe of the 1967 war.
There are plenty of other examples, ranging from the resurging conflict in southeastern Turkey to flare-ups in rural Tunisia, to suggest that a cloak of stability thrown over incompetent rule and mass repression is only a short-term fix: the simmering violence in every Middle Eastern conflict zone testifies to it.
In the post-colonial Middle East, we mostly see weak states. Policymakers by necessity often focus on the crumbling and collapse, since they cause the biggest problems. But let’s not forget that the reverse is possible. A strong state, an effective state, even a decent state, can be imposed in a country that appears in the grip of anarchy and chaos. It’s happened before and could happen again.
Must a Strong State Be a Just State?
A state that succeeds as a state provides basic security and services. It can be an awful state in many other regards, usually by abusing minorities or withholding political rights, but consolidated states offer continuity, loyalty and a kind of security that’s been in increasingly short supply. (I have written elsewhere about the resilience of the state as the main unit of analysis; here I want to expand on the possibility that only a humane, rights-based state can provide lasting stability.)
The default—the continuing collapse of states in the Middle East—promises more instability. To reverse the poisonous forces ascendant in the Middle East, states must consolidate power and the impose central authority on the full spectrum of militias and political stakeholders. Otherwise, sectarianism, local warlord rule, runaway mafias, and foreign intervention will continue to steer events in places like Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
It is possible that a state can succeed without humanism. Saudi Arabia is an excellent test of the proposition. The monarchy offers no pretense of rights, but promises to take good care of its citizens. The most colossal failures in recent times, like Bashar al-Assad, Saddam Hussein, and Moammar Qaddhafi, failed not because of their egregious human rights abuses but because they hollowed out the state apparatus and lost physical control. So it’s possible that a well-executed, abominable police state can indefinitely keep the lid on a population. The popular explosions in Iraq, Syria and Libya, however, suggest that brute-force repression is always a temporary solution.
But for a state to truly thrive, it needs to address the basic needs of its people, which include a modicum of political rights. Otherwise they will not be invested in the state which rules them. We need new, better models of governance, which are inclusive and provide genuine political feedback. They need not look just like Western democracies. Nor, however, can they trample their people’s rights. Citizens in the Middle East, like everywhere else in the world, demand decent treatment from their government, and they expect some say over how they’re ruled. They also have a historical memory of times and places when different identity groups coexisted without violence, as well as when political loyalties came with dividends—and not merely with the threat of reprisal against the disloyal.
The long-term recipe for a Middle East free from the scourge of violent extremists is the same as it is everywhere else: effective rule by states both strong and humane, that recognize pluralism, rule of law, and human rights.
Cover Photo: Two men carry sick and injured children to safety through the rubble of a street in the old city of Mosul on June 24, 2017. © UNHCR/Cengiz Yar.