The Return of the State in the Middle East

Even in the best of times, Americans, in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson’s aphorism that “the government that governs best governs least”, have always been uncomfortable with the idea of “the state.” After 9/11, these suspicions about the role of “the state” in world politics rapidly spread in our political discourse. Ironically, even though the attack was launched by a well-organized, non-state transnational actor, its cause and the threat that it was likely to pose in the future were seen to be largely a function of problematic states.

In the first State of the Union address after 9/11, President Bush identified the principal threat to the peace and security of the United States as emanating from the world’s rogue states, especially the “Axis of Evil” (Iran, North Korea and Iraq). That none of the 9/11 attackers came from these states mattered little in this configuration. The second target, beyond the rogues, comprised the nondemocratic states of the Middle East; the absence of democracy was identified as the root cause for the emergence of Al- Qaeda.

In addressing the threat, the president and his team made the case that the pursuit of profound political change in the region must be sought, even if such change destabilized the existing states of the region. In this view, some even saw the desire to maintain “stability” as a relic of Cold War thinking that had merely prevented moves toward constructive change.

For different reasons, public opinion in much of the Arab and Muslim world reflected intense frustration with the existing political order in the region. Opinion polls indicated a seemingly low level of identification with a person’s state; a 2004 survey indicated that a plurality of Arabs identified themselves primarily as “Muslim” or “Arab”, rather than as citizens of a specific state. Not a single sitting Arab or Muslim ruler received more than single-digit admiration in the Arab world outside their own countries.

But over the past year, and again for very different reasons in each case, there has been a profound change in attitudes toward the state both in the region and in Washington. There is new appreciation for the role of the state in the Middle East, given its ability to provide security for its residents, and in Washington, given its contribution to regional stability. This is driving a correction in American policy priorities and reflects a significant and measurable shift in public opinion in the region. We are witnessing the return of the state.