There is much talk right now about America teaming up with Iran to push back the coalition of Sunni militias that has taken over Mosul and other Sunni towns in western Iraq and Syria. For now, I’d say stay out of this fight — not because it’s the best option but because it’s the least bad.
After all, what is the context in which we’d be intervening? Iraq and Syria are twins: multiethnic and multisectarian societies that have been governed, like other Arab states, from the top-down. First, it was by soft-fisted Ottomans who ruled through local notables in a decentralized fashion, then by iron-fisted British and French colonial powers and later by iron-fisted nationalist kings and dictators.
Today, the Ottomans are gone, the British and French are gone, and now many of the kings and dictators are gone. We removed Iraq’s dictator; NATO and tribal rebels removed Libya’s; the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen got rid of theirs; and some people in Syria have tried to topple theirs. Each country is now faced with the challenge of trying to govern itself horizontally by having the different sects, parties and tribes agree on social contracts for how to live together as equal citizens who rotate power.
Tunisia and Kurdistan have done the best at this transition. Egyptians tried and found the insecurity so unbearable that they brought back the army’s iron fist. Libya has collapsed into intertribal conflict. Yemen struggles with a wobbly tribal balance. In Syria, the Shiite/Alawite minority, plus the Christians and some Sunnis, seem to prefer the tyranny of Bashar Assad to the anarchy of the Islamist-dominated rebels; the Syrian Kurds have carved out their own enclave, so the country is a now a checkerboard.
In Iraq, the Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki — who had the best chance, the most oil money and the most help from the United States in writing a social contract for how to govern Iraq horizontally — chose instead, from the moment the Americans left, to empower Iraqi Shiites and disempower Iraqi Sunnis. It’s no surprise that Iraqi Sunnis decided to grab their own sectarian chunk of the country.
So today, it seems, a unified Iraq and a unified Syria can no longer be governed vertically or horizontally. The leaders no longer have the power to extend their iron fists to every border, and the people no longer have the trust to extend their hands to one another. It would appear that the only way they can remain united is if an international force comes in, evicts the dictators, uproots the extremists and builds consensual politics from the ground up — a generational project for which there are no volunteers.
What to do?
It was not wrong to believe post-9/11 that unless this region produced decent self-government it would continue to fail its own people and deny them the ability to realize their full potential, which is why the Arab Spring happened, and that its pathologies would also continue to spew out the occasional maniac, like Osama bin Laden, who could threaten us.
But the necessary turned out to be impossible: We didn’t know what we were doing. The post-Saddam generation of Iraqi leaders turned out to be like abused children who went on to be abusive parents. The Iranians constantly encouraged Shiite supremacy and frustrated our efforts to build pluralism. Mosques and charities in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Kuwait and Qatar continued to fund preachers and fighters who promoted the worst Sunni extremism. And thousands of Muslim men marched to Syria and Iraq to fight for jihadism, but none marched there to fight for pluralism.
I could say that before President Barack Obama drops even an empty Coke can from a U.S. fighter jet on the Sunni militias in Iraq we need to insist that al-Maliki resign and a national unity Cabinet be created that is made up of inclusive Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders. I could say that is the necessary condition for reunification of Iraq. And I could say that it is absolutely not in our interest or the world’s to see Iraq break apart and one segment be ruled by murderous Sunni militias.
But I have to say this: It feels both too late and too early to stop the disintegration — too late because whatever trust there was between communities is gone, and al-Maliki is not trying to rebuild it, and too early because it looks as if Iraqis are going to have to live apart, and see how crazy and impoverishing that is, before the different sects can coexist peacefully.
In the meantime, there is no denying that terrorism could be exported our way from Iraq’s new, radicalized “Sunnistan.” But we have a National Security Agency, CIA and drones to deal with that now ever-present threat.
Pluralism came to Europe only after many centuries of one side or another in religious wars thinking it could have it all and after much ethnic cleansing created more homogeneous nations. Europe also went through the Enlightenment and the Reformation. Arab Muslims need to go on the same journey.
It will happen when they want to or when they have exhausted all other options. Meanwhile, let’s strengthen the islands of decency — Tunisia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Kurdistan — and strengthen our own democracy to insulate ourselves as best we can.
Thomas L. Friedman is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.