Pity the leaders of the Sunni Arab states. The Islamic State is forcing them to make a painful choice. On the one hand, they can relinquish their elite positions to follow the dream they claim to share: a restored Caliphate set amidst a unified Arab empire.
On the other, they can reject Caliphate and empire, affirm their individual national sovereignty, and recognize the legitimacy of self-determination for the region’s minorities. The American interest in their choosing the latter is clear.
Time is not on their side. Their world is collapsing. The Iraqi and Syrian states have dissolved into ethnic warfare. Minority faith communities have been targeted for genocide. Iran is expanding its Shiite revolution. The Islamic State has declared a Caliphate. The Arab/Israeli conflict is no closer to resolution than ever. And nearly 20 million people in the region are now displaced or stateless.
Positive developments are impossible until the region stabilizes, and stability is impossible without redrawn borders and massive population movements. Yet Western policy seems committed to some mildly improved version of the status quo ante.
Such thinking ignores the fundamental reality of a lost century. The European decision to replace the Ottoman Empire with allegedly multi-ethnic states ignored the region’s history. For 2500 years, ruling empires had proclaimed the supremacy of their own people and relegated all others to second-class citizenship (or far worse).
When the Ottomans fell, the Sunni Arabs believed their turn had come. When the Europeans refused the Arab imperial claim and instead carved the region into states, they created a Sunni elite with a vested interest in ensuring that the Arab empire never became a reality.
But the people living within the European-drawn state lines felt neither kinship towards each other nor any sense of national distinctiveness, and their leaders invested little in the "nation building" needed to instill them.
A century later, events across the region leave little doubt how the people see themselves. Their allegiance is to their ancestral Sunni Arab, Shiite, Jewish, Christian, Kurdish, Alawite, and Druze nations — not to the artificial Iraqi, Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian, or (putative) Palestinian states.
The error of the 1920s was its elevation of states representing territory above nations representing people. It was a colonialist move that all but guaranteed instability. The challenge of the 2020s will be handing each authentic nation a defined, defensible territory capable of sustaining a viable state — a moral arrangement that promotes stability, security, and development. In the entire region, only one indigenous nation has been so consolidated — the Jews, into the small part of their historic homeland that lies west of the Jordan.
Because Israel began with a strong national identity, its leaders could forego "nation building" to focus instead on the security and economic challenges of "state building."
As the Mideast continues to implode, stability, humanity, and American self-interest all point in the same direction. U.S. policy should empower the region’s nations to follow the successful Israeli model rather than everyone else’s failure. Ideally, this means advocating for the integration of displaced and stateless people in compact territories, among their ethnic kin. It means opposing the banishment of refugees (and the export of their conflicts) to the West. And it means not holding minorities where they either threaten instability or risk genocide.
Though both the Sunni Arab states and the region’s minorities would benefit from such an approach, so far only the Kurds seem enthusiastic about embracing the Israeli model. The thought terrifies the Arab states. For a century, they have claimed to champion the empire while working against unification. They are now facing Islamists working to make the unified empire a reality. Their people are more than able to tell the difference.
Because the Arab/Israeli conflict has never been about borders, the incessant focus on "Palestine," "Land for Peace," and the "Two-State Solution" was badly misdirected — and doomed to fail. None of these formulations address the core conflict: The incompatibility of minority self-determination and Arab/Islamic imperialism presents a zero-sum conflict. It will continue until one side wins and the other loses.
Either the imperial dream will die as the Arabs accept the legitimacy of minority self-determination, or an ascendant Empire will crush minorities and Arab states alike.
The U.S. must steel the Sunni leadership to disavow the imperial dream in thought, action, rhetoric, and public education — for the sake of their own survival, for the sake of Western interests, and for the sake of humanity. The inter-Arab struggle against the unifying force of Islamism is futile unless and until the Sunni Arabs shift their dreams — philosophically and behaviorally — away from an empire glorifying their supremacy towards a region divided among its indigenous nations.
Sunni Arab leaders must choose a side in their internal struggle between empire and states, between submission to the Caliphate and survival that allows space for Israel. Only those who choose survival are potentially worthy American allies.
Bruce Abramson is the President of Informationism, Inc., Vice President and Director of Policy at the Iron Dome Alliance, and a Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research.
Jeff Ballabon is CEO of B2 Strategic, Chairman of the Iron Dome Alliance, and a Senior Fellow at the American Conservative Union's Center for Statesmanship and Diplomacy. To read more of their reports — Click Here Now.
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