The Middle East Challenge: A Western-Arab-Israeli Pact

When the response to Al-Qaida was destroying the old order without replacing it with a new order, a violent, savage disorder ensued.

Ari Shavit
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A site hit by what activists said was an airstrike by Assad forces, in southern Idlib, Syria, September 25, 2015. Credit: Reuters
Ari Shavit

Of all people, it was the neoconservatives who seemed to get it. When 19 young zealots attacked the United States 14 years ago, the weird intellectual sect that surrounded President George W. Bush realized that this wasn’t an isolated event.

The radical right philosophers understood that behind the planes that dived into Manhattan and Washington there was more than Osama bin Laden’s small, ingenious terror organization. Behind the attacks was the political disease afflicting the Middle East that cannot give its young people freedom, prosperity and hope.

But after they diagnosed the disease, the neoconservatives only intensified it. Their senseless war in Iraq didn’t heal the region and didn’t spread democracy in the east, but the opposite. It created a catastrophic chain reaction that led to the rise of the Islamic State, which took over large swaths of Iraq and Syria and struck in Paris as well.

The process that began on September 11, 2001, and continued with war, withdrawal and chaos, returned with a vengeance on November 13, 2015, making it clear to all what we’re up against – the collapse of the Middle East. For years the region was ruled by a corrupt order based on unenlightened despotism. The corrupt order produced despair, which erupted in the form of Al-Qaida.

But when the response to Al-Qaida was destroying the old order without replacing it with a new order, a violent, savage disorder ensued. This disorder is spreading – Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, the Sinai Peninsula. The disintegration of Arab nation-states is causing a dysfunctional region; the Middle East is in an uncontrollable spiral.

The West still refuses to understand what’s going on. First it tried to fix the Arab world aggressively. Then it tried to flee the Arab world haphazardly. Then it tried to pretend that the Arab world didn’t exist.

But the Arab world is alive and kicking and hurting, shouting and bleeding. And it’s a terror attack away from Europe. This is why the judgment year 2015 arrived. First the January terror attacks on Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher, then the summer refugee wave, and now the Black Friday of the 11th arrondissement.

Anyone who still thinks that more vigorous intelligence work, more hermetic security and heavier airstrikes will solve the problem doesn’t understand the problem.

The really dangerous thing about the Islamic State isn’t its organizational structure but the state of mind it represents. The really threatening thing about the Islamic State is that it’s a chilling symptom of the political bacteria devouring an entire region. Without a comprehensive look at the Middle East’s collapse, there’s no chance to stop the barbarism and bloodshed.

So now we must return to exactly where we stood the day after the Twin Towers fell. On the one hand, we must understand what the neoconservatives understood – the basic problem we face is the modern Arab nation’s political failure to set up one state combining democracy and welfare.

On the other hand, we must do the opposite of what the neoconservatives did. We must work with the region, not against it. We must listen, not coerce. We must find the stabilizing forces, get them to work together and forge a Western-Arab-Israeli pact that fights the Islamic State but also dries the swamps of desperation from which ISIS arises.

It won’t be easy. It won’t happen overnight. But it’s time the international community understood the Middle East challenge it’s up against and dealt with it seriously, resolutely and creatively.