It is bad Arab governance — and its causes — and not pan-Arab aspirations, with which Efraim Karsh should be concerned.
About one thing Karsh is absolutely right: successive modern Arab rulers have exploited both pan-Arab ideology and the existing problems of the Arab-Israeli issue for their own selfish purposes of self-aggrandizement, and worse, they often impose their own abusive authoritarian rule, one that has reached the most atrocious levels in the history of the Ba‘th parties. Indeed, in my view the single biggest failing of the Arab world, and its single biggest tragedy, has been its inability to develop a democratic order. One can find fault with the contemporary Arab state system without invoking pan-Arabism.
But both Washington and Tel Aviv have happily abetted this failing. Apart from a few verbal platitudes, neither the United States nor Israel, for a variety of reasons, has shown serious interest in the development of Arab democracy. However much they complain about the status quo, both have preferred it to democracy. Both prefer to deal with dictators than face a long overdue democratization process. Certainly, we cannot place all the blame on the West for this Arab predicament, but the Arab world might be a rather different place today had Washington chosen to make liberalization and democratization a priority.
A pan-Arab state is not, of course, realistic, but we cannot ignore one striking reality linked to the concept: of all the peoples of the world today, it is Arabs—even at the popular level—who feel a longing for a greater sense of political or cultural union of some kind—while the rest of the Third World is thinking about how it can break apart into narrower ethnic units. (Otherwise it is only a coalescing Europe that today also bucks globally fissiparous trends.) And there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this idea; to the contrary. Sadly, a potentially positive idea—pan-Arabism—has been poisoned or twisted by harsh or incompetent leadership bent on acquisition and retention of personal power at all costs. Political Islam reinforces this aspiration for a broader, not a narrower umma
(community of believers). Surely a quest for closer unity is a progressive force in a world in which the ethnically-based nation-state has presented us with a largely ugly model.
Most of the Middle East's borders are, yes, as arbitrary and externally imposed as they ever get in this world, with the exception of desperately troubled Africa. Obviously it would be utopian to redraw the borders of the Arab world in line with some abstract ideal. Yet the future of the Arab world may indeed witness some future regrouping of many of its states, reflecting popular desires as well as concrete benefits—but this time not via the instant unity of shotgun marriages consummated in a hug and a kiss by dictators at the airport, but through democratically achieved forms of federalism.
Karsh disparagingly refers to pan-Arab aspirations to "eliminate the traces of Western imperialism and unify the Arab nation"—but does he actually mean to suggest that these are unworthy goals? Are these not the goals of most Third World states today in some form?
Tellingly, Karsh suggests that pan-Arabism brought other Arab states into the equation of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, thereby complicating the process. That is indeed accurate: Israel would indeed probably prefer to deal with stateless and unarmed Palestinians alone in negotiation. But this surely is a one-sided argument. Jews—or any other people—have a right to a homeland, yet Karsh surely cannot be unaware that the creation of the state of Israel was still an unparalleled event in modern history, traumatic for the region, in which a group of Western (and later Middle Eastern) immigrants established a permanent state on Third World soil. The disturbing colonial symbolism of this act, whatever its moral merits for persecuted Jews, remains powerful in regions that lay under Western imperial control for decades or even centuries before. Therefore Arabs—and Muslims more broadly —indeed do care about the struggle and the peace process in a special way. That interest cannot be explained away even if indeed, some Arab leaders have definitely exploited it for political advantage.
Karsh argues that the Hashemites somehow invented pan-Arabism for quite selfish reasons. That they had non-democratic, expansionist, and self-serving goals is quite evident.—in an era of rampant fascism across half of Europe, by the way. But pan-Arabism would still exist without the Hashemites. Pan-Arabism may be a construct, an "imagined community," but so are the founding myths of many states (including the United States and Israel). Karsh should cut the Arabs some slack on this. The reality is that most Moroccans are quite interested in what happens in Iraq, just as Syrians follow Algerian affairs. With new technology, Arab media—indeed the Arabic language—grows at accelerating rates ever more homogeneous or "pan-Arab." What other region of the world, except possibly Europe, is as focused upon itself as a coherent region? No doubt Arab attempts to create a true political order out of this cultural reality have so far miserably failed. But that does not eliminate the prospect that under better leadership and a democratic order future Arabs may be more successful at forging creative new political ties that are at least as logical and culturally feasible as the European Union experiment. It was unthinkable sixty years ago; the Arab project is similarly remote today.
Karsh indeed may wish that the Arabs were more tractable and that the Palestinians were alone in negotiations. Pan-Arabism to be sure is somewhat hostile to Israel at this juncture, but it is in Israel's interest—as it is in Washington's—to work for the truly just peace that will eliminate the need for Karsh and others to bemoan some of the deep cultural roots of the Arab world. These cultural roots can bear highly positive and constructive fruit in the future—but it will never happen without both a truly just settlement and a wholesale change in the authoritarian leadership of Arab regimes across the boards.
Karsh yearns for a Middle East that accepts realities as he perceives them; perplexed, he seeks reasons for why this does not happen. His thesis is that "the contemporary Middle Eastern system based on territorial states" is under assault, thereby complicating if not hindering a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Now, it is quite understandable that there should be frustration – on both Arab and Israeli sides – with current negotiations, but Karsh prefers to delve into his own vision of Middle Eastern history to provide an explanation for what is wrong. He presents familiar complaints about the delusional quality of pan-Arabist aspirations and rejects pan-Arab rhetoric as self-deluding and counterproductive. In the end, he presents an historical account distinguished by a heavily Western optic that, in my view, avoids dealing with the genuine realities of Middle East or Arab history.
Graham E. Fuller is a former vice-chairman of the National Intelligence Council at CIA.