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America as a Revolutionary Force

Has the U.S. invasion of Iraq spelled the end of the Arab ancien régime?

March 8, 2005

Has the U.S. invasion of Iraq spelled the end of the Arab ancien régime?

We Americans are the force doing to the Arab tyrants and kings what World War I did to the old empires of Europe and the Middle East.

But this notion is as difficult for us to take seriously as it would have been for an observer in 1914. No one then would have said that Austria-Hungary, the Russian Empire or the Ottoman Sultanate would soon be history.

And yet, elites on the insides of those rotten enterprises knew better. They knew they had no long-term future without reform. Reform was urgent — but also, somehow, simply could not be implemented. It is never in the interest of old elites to willfully be the cause of their own undoing.

Each empire had suffered for decades from the radicals, the incendiaries and especially the liberals among them — prefiguring their fate. Then, war and fate came in a rush.

Before the Iraq war, change in the Muslim Arab world had few prospects. Arab elites that had long ago been champions of change — especially in Egypt — had become an old ruling establishment.

Then, as the resisters of change, their status quo rule came to represent the benchmark of “stability” — and thus the perpetual goal of pre-war U.S. policy. “Change” was rhetorically pushed into the indefinite future, or otherwise framed as mere hope for material improvement in people’s way of life.

Political change in the American sense of the “good” — representative government and democratic institutions — was generally acknowledged to be “unrealistic.”

In contrast, all other sorts of political change thus implied revolution and a descent into “chaos” and the primitive.

Thus, there could be no real change. Only “pressure” — and “crafty rulers” can always manage pressure.

So it may still be standard procedure to refer to the prospect of change in the Arab world today as pressure on traditional relationships — whether between old regimes and the societies they rule, or between both society and regimes and their long-standing relationships with the United States.

But it would be a mistake to continue in the mindset and language of the old status quo — after we have chosen to violently destroy it.

If “pressure” was once a symptom of big change that could be managed and contained, pressure today looks more like signs and portents of a very different future.

How might the 1914 metaphor be applied to the inner Muslim world today? What do we remember being present in the fall of Old Europe? If we look at the old Middle East establishment, what do we see?

Traditional structures of rule are fragile — and change is an awaited expectation among Muslims. This contrasts to the relative stability we became accustomed to over the past 25 years.

Today, the Arab region is poised for big change — even though things may seem superficially stable. Like the brittle European and Levantine empires in 1914, this comparison is starkest in the corruption and cracking authority of long-standing ruling establishments.

Their survival is increasingly dependent on internal security forces — and on selling the people the conviction that such forces will always put them down, crushing even the most restive movements for change.

Thus, old rulers can pretend not to care that they are American satraps. And yet, their only authority is American authority.

The United States has decisively legitimated and accelerated change. In historical terms, the invasion of Iraq was both the announcement and the first great event of an era of transformation.

American leaders sought to shape the space that they opened up — but are now no more than participants in what they unleashed. Two aspects of the U.S. intervention in the region remain significant.

First, there is no believable path back to the ante-invasion status quo. The regional framework that America ran for 25 years is gone with the wind.

Second, strategic pressures are likely to encourage more — rather than less — U.S. change-initiatives. Thus, we have the prospect of big change in ten years or less.

The region is now highly networked in terms of Muslim identity. Events in one place impact the region as a whole. A normally quietist Muslim identity has been distorted by this change dynamic.

Muslims now feel collectively connected as participants in a larger struggle — both within Islam and against the invader.

Insurgent movements intensify a sense of collective effort and, operationally networked across the region, mirror it as well. Furthermore, if insurgents undercut the legitimacy of one regime, all feel the subsequent erosion.

Muslims increasingly identify insurgent fighting groups as their community’s once-and-future change agents. This is a movement of emotional and cultural legitimation, driven by the dramatic narrative of American occupation of Iraq.

Thus, insurgents are gradually becoming — through their relationship with U.S. activity in the Muslim world — the expected basis for future Muslim political formation.

As a result, the insurgency begins to take on a sort of successor-authority in the Muslim mind. That is hardly the response the U.S. government planned to trigger with the invasion.

And yet, that is the force it has created — perplexingly and perhaps disastrously.