Say, did you see the news from Libya—the last country we bombed because its leader crossed a red line or was about to? I keep reading about how Iraq was the bad war and Libya was the good war and Afghanistan was the necessary war and Bosnia was the moral war and Syria is now another necessary war. Guess what! They are all the same war.
They are all the story of what happens when multi-sectarian societies, most of them Muslim or Arab, are held together for decades by dictators ruling vertically, from the top down, with iron fists and then have their dictators toppled, either by internal or external forces. And they are all the story of how the people in these countries respond to the fact that with the dictator gone they can only be governed horizontally—by the constituent communities themselves writing their own social contracts for how to live together as equal citizens, without an iron fist from above. And, as I’ve said before, they are all the story of how difficult it is to go from Saddam to Jefferson—from vertical rule to horizontal rule—without falling into Hobbes or Khomeini.
In Bosnia, after much ethnic cleansing between warring communities, Nato came in and stabilized and codified what is in effect a partition. We acted on the ground as “the army of the centre”. In Iraq, we toppled the dictator and then, after making every mistake in the book, we got the parties to write a new social contract. To make that possible, we policed the lines between sects and eliminated a lot of the worst jihadists in the Shiite and Sunni ranks. We acted on the ground as the “army of the centre”. But then we left before anything could take root. Ditto Afghanistan.
The Barack Obama team wanted to be smarter in Libya: No boots on ground. So we decapitated that dictator from the air. But then our ambassador got murdered, because, without boots on the ground to referee, and act as the army of the centre, Hobbes took hold before Jefferson.
If we were to decapitate the Syrian regime from the air, the same thing will likely happen there. For any chance of a multi-sectarian democratic outcome in Syria, you need to win two wars on the ground: one against the ruling Assad-Alawite-Iranian-Hezbollah-Shiite alliance; and, once that one is over, you’d have to defeat the Sunni Islamists and pro-Al Qaeda jihadists. Without an army of the centre (which no one will provide) to back up the few decent Free Syrian Army units, both will be uphill fights.
The centre exists in these countries, but it is weak and unorganized. It’s because these are pluralistic societies—a mix of tribes and religious sects, namely Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, Kurds, Druze and Turkmen—but they lack any sense of citizenship or deep ethic of pluralism. That is, tolerance, cooperation and compromise. They could hold together as long as there was a dictator to “protect” (and divide) everyone from everyone else. But when the dictator goes, and you are a pluralistic society but lack pluralism, you can’t build anything because there’s never enough trust for one community to cede power to another.
In short, the problem now across the Arab East is not just poison gas, but poisoned hearts. Each tribe or sect believes it is in a rule-or-die struggle against the next, and when everyone believes this, it becomes self-fulfilling.
That means Syria and Iraq will both likely devolve into self-governing, largely homogeneous, ethnic and religious units, like Kurdistan. And, if we are lucky, these units will find a modus vivendi, as happened in Lebanon after 14 years of civil war. And then maybe, over time, these smaller units will voluntarily come together into larger, more functional states.
I still believe our response to Assad’s poison gas attack should be “arm and shame”. But, please do spare me the lecture that the US’s credibility is at stake here. We’ve struggled for a long time, and still are, learning to tolerate “the other”. That struggle has to happen in the Arab/Muslim world, otherwise nothing we do matters. What is the difference between the Arab awakening in 2011 and South Africa’s transition to democracy in the 1990s? America? No. The quality of local leadership and the degree of tolerance.
©2013/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist with The New York Times.
Edited excerpts. Comments are welcome at email@example.com