You are here:  Home  >  International Law  >  Current Article

Anarchy, ISIS, and Democracy in the Middle East

By   /  February 5, 2015  /  Comments Off on Anarchy, ISIS, and Democracy in the Middle East

    Print       Email

As the United States contemplates the use ofmilitary force against ISIL, Congress and President Obama should work together on a strategy before authorizing and implementing military force. There are two general policy positions on the shape of U.S. force: limited intervention using the Powell Doctrine, or correctly implementing what President George W. Bush set out to do in Iraq, establishing a working democracy in the Middle East.Middle East

The Powell Doctrine[i] seems to be the more popular approach, however, a limited intervention can only hope to contain the ISIL at best. In order to eradicate Islamic militantism in the Middle East, the United States needs to state institutions that would replace religious identities with national identities.

President George W. Bush’s would be legacy was a democratic Middle East. President Bush was a strong proponent of democratic peace theory, the theory democracies are more stable and democracies do not fight democracies. The current situation in the Middle East, however, is either a complete failure of democratic peace theory, or a failure to correctly implement a democratic system. For example, John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations made the point that the Middle East is more unstable now than at any point since the 1976 war between the Arab states and Israel. He said that many post-Arab Spring states are in danger of dissolving. For example, Libya has been torn apart in the aftermath of the political power vacuum following the Arab Spring.


Why is there is too much anarchy in the Middle East?


The United States has failed at developing democracy in the Middle East – which has led to increased instability and anarchy – because U.S. foreign policy has misunderstood the formula for building democracy-dependant institutions. The United States is just the latest Western nation to fail in the Middle East. As the U.S. contemplates increased military action in the Middle East, specifically authorization of military force in Syria, the U.S. needs to consider the path that created so much anarchy in the first place.

Anarchy in the Middle East comes from a chain of conditions that explain and even predict why the Middle East is largely anarchic, and this formula should be applied to U.S. policy going forward—especially when looking at recent foreign policy failures going back to the justification of the Iraq War. Anarchy in the Middle East has its roots in the post-imperial power vacuum. As Robert D. Kaplan explains, the vacuum left by the sudden withdrawal of colonial institutions created the perfect environment for dictators to flourish. Instead of forming institutions that occur organically in democratic states, the dictators formed intelligence states to control the behavior of their populations. The lack of institutions barred the population from participating in the political process, which led to the development of “feeble identities”—people saw themselves as subjects rather than citizens.[ii]

The existence of a weak national identity allowed for what Kaplan called “Doctrinal Battles” to occur; religious and tribal identities took the place of a national identity. The final factor, “Information technology” was the match that lit the powder keg. Kaplan’s argument is that the internet and social media make it easier for factions to recruit and organize, giving groups a larger voice.

De-Ba’athification in Iraq led to a brain-drain of the Iraqi elite and dissolution of Institutions—essentially, the Ba’athist party was the institution that kept Iraq working. Once the Ba’athist party was removed, there was no government.

By 2005, when the violence in Iraq was at its worst, identities were broken down into sub-religious, quasi-tribal categories. Sunnis were fighting Sunni, both of which were fighting with the Sunni led al-Qaeda in Iraq, not to mention the Shiite and Kurdish partisans.

The United States attempted to create an Iraq identity within the Sunni population. The United States sponsored Sunni militias called “The Sons of Iraq.” The program was a system where the United States paid local sheiks to maintain these militias as a peace keeping entity. Essentially, when some sort of violence broke out in a sheik’s territory, the local U.S. military commander would threaten to cut off the money or even use a rival sheik’s militia to keep the peace. The doctrine, aptly called “Money as a Weapon” dramatically reduced violence across Iraq, until the program was suspended.

As U.S. policy makers are deciding what to do about ISIL, they must decide on the endgame of U.S. intervention in the Middle East. Will the United States continue the Bush Administration’s doctrine of democratization? If so, what will the United States do to prop up stable institutions that are not reliant on the United States?

If the United States does not want to commit 100% to institution building, then rely on the Powell Doctrine: “intervention only when it can be quickly and easily accomplished.”





Photo Curtesy of Karl-Ludwig Poggemann (Licensecropping authorized

[i] See Robert D. Kaplan, The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War at 123 (Vintage Books 2000).


[ii] See generally Robert D. Kaplan, The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War at 3-57 (Vintage Books 2000). (Explaining that anarchy in the Africa comes from a the end of imperialism creating power vacuums that were filled by post-colonial dictators who created intelligence states instead of developing institutions. The lack of national institutions led feeble identities, subjects instead of citizens, which created doctrinal battles between religion and state identities. With the development of information technology, non-state identities have been proliferated to the point where they compete with national identities).


    Print       Email

You might also like...

The President’s Authority to Disclose Information, and the National Security Threat of the Nunes Memo

Read More →
%d bloggers like this: