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Western Europe, for the most part, rejected the Bush approach wholesale, embraced Obama, complained about Trump, denied the extent of the challenges, and opened its doors to Muslim refugees. That approach is rapidly changing the continent’s demographic and social structures. The backlash has already ended the EU’s internal open borders, pushed the UK to secede, and strengthened anti-immigrant parties around the continent.

Why is the Middle East undergoing these changes? What forces are driving them? Why has the sclerosis that dominated the last few decades of the 20th century disappeared so completely? Why have the Western powers seemed so clueless?
These questions are critical. Governments understandably react to the crisis of the moment; the Middle East of the 21st century has supplied a generous and steady stream of such crises. But whack-a-mole is a poor strategy. The challenges plaguing the region are far more likely symptoms of a deep underlying malady than unrelated occurrences. The region cannot stabilise, and American strategic interests cannot prevail, unless and until that underlying problem is identified, understood and addressed.

A century after the Ottoman Empire gave way to the modern Middle East, three conflicting visions of the region remain: the statist, the imperialist, and the nationalist. These visions are mutually incompatible. Each has strong and influential backers in today’s world. Stability is possible only if a critical mass of the region coheres around one of these organising frameworks and rejects the other two. Powerful forces with vested interests in the two rejected views will fight to remain relevant.

While those living in the region will bear the brunt of the ensuing battles, no part of the world will emerge unscathed. The United States and its Western allies cannot afford ambivalence. A victory for the imperial view — which remains more than possible — would end the liberal international order. A victory for the statist view would restore something close to the late 20th-century status quo, but it is by far the least likely outcome. Only a victory for the nationalist view — a Middle East comprised of strong, sovereign nations — is both achievable and consistent with Western interests. Contra Bush, Obama, and establishment conventional wisdom, the Trump strategy of principled realism would orient US policy around the promotion of the local forces best capable of inculcating healthy nationalist sentiments throughout the region. Such a strategy must rest upon an understanding of the three visions, their backers, and their implications.

The statist view is by far the most familiar. It has graced the map for nearly a century, and dominated discussion, analysis, and policy formation for just as long. It gave rise to a stable, if tense, status quo that persisted throughout the latter half of the 20th century. It has overwhelming consensus backing among Western academics, diplomats, and international organisations. It has become so entrenched in public consciousness that many believe it to represent a natural state of affairs worthy of survival.
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Lawrence James
September 5th, 2018
9:09 AM
The baleful history of the Balkan states after the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and the greater Serbia created in 1918-1919 suggest the history of the nation states in the Middle East will be unhappy. Whatever their faults, the British and French administrations in the Levant, Palestine and Egypt kept their inhabitants from each other's throats and dampened down religious antipathies.

Mitch S.
April 5th, 2018
11:04 PM
Excellent article pointing out the folly of the Western "statist" approach to the Middle East. But before looking to nationalism as a road to cease fires and peace, it's important to consider the influence of religion in the area. Yes Muslims are divided into Sunni, Shia etc, but they are still united in the belief in Islam's need to dominate especially in the greater Middle East (the "Ummah"). So secularists such as Nasser and Sadaam Hussein along with religious hardliners such as the Iranian Ayatollahs, saw ending the Jewish state as a vital act that would bring them power and prestige in the Mid-East and throughout the Muslim world. Even looking at the "nation-state" of Israel, the influence of religion must be kept in mind. The Jewish nation settled in Israel because of the religion's 2000 plus year dream of "the promised land". Secular imperial ambitions don't have that staying power. The Jews aren't imperialists because the religion is focused on the land of Israel with no aspiration for greater conquest. Still, religion has had an affect on the secular state's policy. Religious Jews don't look toward taking over Jordan or Egypt but there are religious Jewish groups who see it as forbidden to give up parts of the "Holy land" once Jews are in control. So taking Jews from parts of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and putting them in non-Jewish hands is something they strongly oppose, making such a deal more politically difficult (though I believe those groups don't have the power to stop such a deal on their own). Indeed the death of Yitschok Rabin can be seen as a result of religious passion rather than a purely political act. So what could possibly create conditions for some kind of peace? I agree the nation state is a good route but the religious imperative will have to be held in check. One possibility is accepting a view that world domination is the ultimate goal - but not for the current life. It is only something to be achieved after divine intervention. Just as Jews believe in the coming of the Messiah and Christians in the return of Jesus. In fact there is a small minority of Jews that believe the return to the Holy Land is only for messianic times and they oppose the current Jewish state. This would be the best possible way and while I hardly have the knowledge of Islam to speak with any authority, I have heard this is an approach some Muslims accept. The other, and perhaps prerequisite step would be to remove the religious obligation to drive the Jews out of Israel (or subjugate them) by making it seem impossible. I don't know how much is Arab practicality or Islamic doctrine but when Israel is seen as an undefeatable the door opens for negotiation. When Israel is put under pressure and appears vulnerable negotiations end. This is another thing Western states continually misunderstand. Israel's ties to the West, especially the United States are seen as a vital part of it's defensive power by the Arab world. When Western leaders try to create an atmosphere for peace by holding back support of Israel and reaching out to hardline regimes such as Iran it raises the possibility that Israel may not be invulnerable and there may be a religious obligation to pursue it's destruction

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