In classic American Western movies, a common theme is the brave sheriff of a small town whose task to maintain law and order often finds him in need of assistance to capture a really dangerous threat, usually a gang of criminals led by a tough guy. When the sheriff is unable single-handedly to apprehend the outlaws, and needs more armed men, he puts together a posse of local volunteers whom he temporarily deputizes to give them the legal authority to participate in tracking down and arresting or killing the criminals.
What we have coming together in the “coalition” led by the United States to defeat the “Islamic State” (IS) in Syria-Iraq is the modern equivalent of a posse in Western movies. One of the common features of a posse is that its members sometimes are reluctant volunteers, because they are not trained fighters and often are scared of being hurt or killed. They come together with a sense of protection from two sources — their collective number when a dozen or more posse members stand together, and their leadership by the brave sheriff who is always out front leading the battle. They often do little fighting themselves, but assist in logistics that support the sheriff, like tying up and bringing to jail the captured bad guys, providing cover fire without endangering themselves, or blocking the bad guys’ escape routes.
The United States’ taking the lead to harness regional and global assets to defeat IS is impressive, but also telling of several troubling trends. The most important one is the startling reality that Arab governments and societies whose practices allowed dangerous phenomena like Al-Qaeda and IS to grow seem unable or unwilling to take decisive action to protect themselves when the moment of reckoning arrives — as it has now. In three domains in particular, Arab governments generally have proven negligent or totally incompetent in addressing the root causes of the birth and rise of the sort of Salafist-takfiri militancy that defines Al-Qaeda and IS, which is why these governments seem handcuffed now in responding more forcefully.
The three ‘negligent or totally incompetent things’ that explain the birth and spread of these extremist movements and also the reluctance of Arab states to fight IS seem to me to be:
• the provision of socio-economic development patterns that respond to citizens’ basic needs, including a sense of social justice in society;
• the shaping of a public political space in which ordinary citizens have an opportunity to express their views, hold power accountable, and somehow share in decision-making, even at the most rudimentary and symbolic levels; and,
• harnessing plentiful security resources to defend national sovereignty against foreign threats, whether primarily from Israel or Western armies that invade Arab lands with dizzying regularity, or from foreign involvements in Arab affairs by Russia or Iran.
Most Arab governments seem logistically unable to play a direct role in attacking IS, or find it politically damaging to them with their own publics to be seen working closely with the United States in yet another assault on an Arab target. Arab power elites also have learned by experience that if they wait long enough, the United States will step in and protect them from the dangers they generated by their own practices.
The key lesson to me from this sad state of things is not really about radical Islam and its discontents, as confused political hucksters and money-minded carpetbaggers like Tony Blair would have us believe. It is rather about the cruel reality of modern Arab statehood and governance — the modern Arab security state that has dominated and defined our entire region both creates monsters like mass corruption, terrorism and Al-Qaeda-IS, and simultaneously is unable to fight them when they grow and expand.
It is not surprising that when the threat becomes really serious, Arab leaders wait for the United States to save their skins. After all, British and French bureaucrats once created many of our countries, so perhaps reliance on Western support is in our political chromosomes (or reliance on Iran, in the case of Arabs like Hizbullah, the Syrian regime, or some major Iraqi groups). IS, Al-Qaeda, the Mahdi Army in Iran, the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in Palestine, Hizbullah in Lebanon, half a dozen militias in Libya, and dozens of other armed groups that now strut on the battered stage of modern Arab statehood clarify that the most serious underlying threat to most Arab countries is not primarily an itinerant reactionary movement of misfits like IS; rather, it is the dysfunctional, paternalistic, often corrupt and largely amateurish nature of statehood and governance that our Arab elites have practiced for half a century now.
If a coalition to fight IS does not simultaneously acknowledge and start to address this fact, the sheriff and the posses of our modern Middle East will be busy for many decades.
Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global