Defining the Arab State

Issandr el-Amrani has a very angry response to Aaron David Miller’s piece on the post-Arab Spring decline of the Arab state. Though el-Amrani raises a couple of important points, the piece seems as full of misperceptions that he accuses Miller of.

El-Amrani’s underlying point—that the Arab states are not simply “tribes with flags”—is a strong one, and I think Miller undermines his own argument by falling back on that assertion. But contrary to what el-Amrani seems to indicate, Miller wasn’t arguing that the state has collapsed everywhere in the Arab world, much less so in the Middle East (where he notes Israel, Turkey, and Iran have remained coherent and strong). El-Amrani uses the examples of the UAE, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to prove his point. But apart from the fact that Miller explicitly put Saudi Arabia in the category of states “holding their own,” these examples underline Miller’s point that it’s about “basic coherence and governance.”

It’s not about feeling good about the Arab Spring, as el-Amrani dismisses Miller’s piece, but about questions of legitimacy and governance. That’s a legitimate concern to note, as different groups compete with each other, either violently or non-violently, to define the state and its basis for legitimacy, laws, and norms.

Indeed, Karl reMarks notes this in his own response to Miller, and which el-Amrani cites approvingly. He acknowledges that “the collapse of the state, in varying degrees in each of the three states [Egypt, Iraq, Syria], is an undisputable phenomenon.” reMarks’ critique is centered on the reasons for the failing nature of these states, and that’s certainly something to engage and debate.

Also contrary to what el-Amrani seems to assume, Miller wasn’t providing a normative take on the aftermath of the Arab Spring, but more like a logistical take. Will these Arab states remain functioning as central authorities, with institutions capable of asserting that authority across all of society?

I share el-Amrani’s yawn with the language Miller uses in his piece, which is—as with his other ones—filled with clichés. I suspect this is because Miller simply writes too much, and for a non-specialist audience. It seems the easiest thing to do. But that’s a different motivation than the implicit orientalism that el-Amrani hints at.

Finally, el-Amrani inserts his own cliché as much as he criticizes Miller for doing so. Referencing Miller’s take on the Hamas-Fatah split and the sectarian divisions in Iraq, el-Amrani faults Miller for ignoring the Israeli occupation and the American invasion. Obviously both are relevant, and I seriously doubt Miller isn’t aware of these as constraining factors. (In fact, he references colonial interference as a contributing factor.) But neither was relevant to his particular point, which is that Palestine and Iraq are simply unable to get their internal houses in order so as to provide good governance to their people. Explaining why certainly requires an account of the Israeli and American presence, but that wasn’t the point of Miller’s piece.  Moreover, Miller puts Palestine and Iraq in the category of “pre-Arab Spring” countries with governance problems.

The underlying problem seems to be that Miller and el-Amrani are approaching the issue from two different angles. Miller doesn’t claim that states don’t exist in the Arab world, or even that they will collapse entirely tomorrow. He admits that borders are well entrenched, and that efforts to redraw them have been few in number, and failed completely. Rather, Miller defines the state as “effective” and “possessing the capacity to protect the wellbeing of all of its citizens.” Surely, with the violence being visited upon the citizens by the governments and other citizens, this is an obvious and legitimate argument to make.

El-Amrani seems to assume that Miller is making the opposite argument. He contends that Miller confuses “the dysfunctions of Arab states with the absence of a state.” But that line of thinking doesn’t appear in Miller’s argument. Nowhere does he say there is the absence of a state; at best, only Lebanon is listed as a “non-state,” but Miller doesn’t connect this to the Arab Spring but its own long-standing internal divisions and problems.

Perhaps El-Amrani disagrees with Miller’s proposals for stabilizing the Arab states, which include strengthening national institutions and broadening their legitimacy. After all, if the Arab state is already doing fine, then it requires something else to fix the problems currently roiling them.

Miller’s assumptions of the weak foundation of the Arab states—something that’s been a perennial concern throughout the literature on the Arab state—should be engaged on their merits. Otherwise, serious policy solutions can’t be debated.

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2 thoughts on “Defining the Arab State

  1. Without responding at length (am writing this on an iPhone) , it’s not the prescriptions miller has for addressing Arab dysfunctions that I have a problem with, is is that they are trite and banal. They are of the “can’t-we-all-get-along?” variety: obvious but so general they offer no help.

  2. Fair points. It may be that writing for a general, non-specialist audience precludes specifics. Or it may be that Miller still operates under the same framework he used while in government. But point taken.

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