Tribes with flags

I have mixed feelings about the NYT‘s Tom Friedman, but sometimes he does hit the target. This morning he has a bleak assessment of the options for Syria and Iraq, and indeed for the Middle East generally. In a nutshell, he argues that

a unified Iraq and a unified Syria can no longer be governed vertically [i.e by dictators] or vertically [i.e. “by having the different sections, parties and tribes agree on social contracts for how to live together as equal citizens who share power”]. The leaders no longer have the power to extend their iron fists to every border, and the people no longer have the trust to extend their hands to one another.

His conclusion is bleak:

It feels both too late and too early to stop the disintegration — too late because whatever trust there was between communities is gone and Maliki is not trying to rebuild it, and too early because it looks as if Iraqis are going to have to live apart, and see how crazy and impoverishing that is, before the different sects can coexist peacefully.

He’s right. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Ralf Dahrendorf and his views about how complex and fragile a plant democracy is, and how it can only grow and flourish in complex soils which take a long time to evolve. Friedman sees it that way too:

Pluralism came to Europe only after many centuries of one side or another in religious wars thinking it could have it all, and after much ethnic cleansing created more homogenous nations. Europe also went through the Enlightenment and the Reformation. Arab Muslims need to go on the same journey. It will happen when they want to or when they have exhausted all other options. Meanwhile, let’s strengthen the islands of decency — Tunisia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Kurdistan — and strengthen our own democracy to insulate ourselves as best we can.

Well, yes but… A futile but sobering counterpoint to that would be to reflect on how so much of this Middle Eastern mayhem is a legacy of European colonialism, and of the way the soi-disant ‘peacemakers’ in Versailles created all these fake and untenable countries by drawing arbitrary lines on maps.