An emerging Buffer-Crescent
John Snyder writing for Foreign Policy once offered as examples of idealist foreign policy, Bin Laden and Gandhi. Some might find equating the two to be perverse but in fact they have something specific in common. Snyder was comparing International Relations constructivism with Realism and Liberal Internationalism and in this context, constructivists share their opposition to methodological individualism, i.e. materialist approaches.
Ultra-salafists like Pacifists believe in natural law – that certain rights and values are immanent and naturally present in all individuals – and also believe in taking the initiative in promoting their goals: were they to take a tactical and for the lack of a better word ‘political’ approach, they’d be as centrist and unprincipled as those they criticise; they therefore prefer to take a stand and stick to it. As constructivists, idealists wish to engineer a new and virtuous world and they believe that ideas alone can guide change. They thus present themselves to the world and fight henceforth for the implementation of their ideals.
Bin Laden proclaimed Jihad on America, Gandhi warned the British to go. They differed on methods but the righteousness of their cause was never at stake. They both believed that their values were superior and universal. Islam is the only true religion and freedom to all peoples would be only conducive to inter-community dialogue and peace.
Of course an absolutist doctrine tends to emerge from and provide incentives for the increase in polarisation. This is clearly visible in the US today after all the gerrymandering that was seen throughout decades and which has generated a very politically divided atmosphere. The same is true of the Middle East where forces such as neoconservatives, jihadists and radical shia have been busy pushing the region towards extremes since the beginning of the century.
Until now the Middle East had broadly two buffer zones –areas where spheres of interest juxtaposed: Iraq and Lebanon with their religious and ethnic separations stood as irrevocably vulnerable to some form or another of foreign intervention. Lebanon tried to deregulate itself in a libertarian fashion in order to appease its neighbours but as soon as core national interests related to security came into question it fell into civil war and/or weak governability. With Saddam Hussein Iraq was multicultural and unified; without an authoritarian government however, it soon fell into ethnic and creed strife. None of these countries has ever existed before and it would now seem that such lack of precedent is not without reason for the absence of a strong national identity prevents them from ever rising above devolution or extreme centralism. In other words they are non-functional polities.
In spite of the artificial nature of the borders, the colonial legacy left in place a modicum of balance of power in the Middle East and this important legacy for stability has now been corrupted by the Freedom campaigns: in seeking to exogenously rid the region of its non-conformal nature with the values of the West, the successive interventions there have only managed to upset local hegemons or disrupt otherwise stable dependencies.
One of the nasty consequences of polity engineering has been a massive redistricting of the Middle East: just as in America gerrymandering led to more ideologically pure constituencies, so have the identity barriers deepened in this region – where they were already feeble. As a result, the viability of cohesive-enough polities to sustain the balance of power has eroded and with them stability. This is the direct outcome of trying to insert ‘fundamental’ rights in areas where security takes precedence, of trying to build federal models where civil society and democratic culture have little or no bearing on political priorities and needs. The Arab Spring seems to be continuing this trend, as ethnic tensions in Egypt, Libya and Syria apparently demonstrate.
On a wide perspective what were but two buffer zones for regional power centres – Iraq, Lebanon – have now become three – Syria. An immense Buffer-Crescent of instability is now a political reality in the Middle East and the Arab world seems to be its greatest victim. While the Iranian and Turkish polities have prospered, the Arab world seems to more and more bear the brunt of ethnic plurality. Apart from the Arab-shia/Curd components of the Buffer-Crescent, the Levantine ethnic exception to Middle Eastern Suni Arab majority is now also causing problems as a minorities meridian of Armenians, Alawites, Druzes, Maronites, Arab Christians and Jews stretches from the borders of Turkey to the Sinai, ready to be instrumentalised by the regional powers.
Rumours have it that Saudi Arabia and Jordan would be interested in having Syria’s Euphrates valley and Deir Al-Zour, along with its traditionalist Sunni population, amputated and eventually merged with Iraq’s Anbar province so as to create a polity loyal to Saudi Arabia and the GCC and which might thus be able to expand and consolidate the Arab anti-Iranian influence in the Mashreq.
In the long term, were this minorities-meridian to unite, it might constitute a strategic counter-balance to Arabs, Turks and Iranians. While its profuse diversity might hinder plans of geopolitical union, the Balkans are a good example of how polities can merge in order to face an external threat. Given unity, a political entente with one of the other hegemons – probably Iran – might help reshape a new balance of power.