In classic American Western movies, a common theme is that of the brave sheriff of a small town whose task is to maintain law and order. The sheriff often finds himself in need of assistance to capture a dangerous threat, usually a gang of criminals led by a tough guy. When the sheriff is unable to single-handedly apprehend the outlaws, he forms a posse of local volunteers whom he temporarily deputizes to give them the legal authority to participate in tracking down the criminals.
What we have coming together in the “coalition” led by the United States to defeat ISIS is the modern equivalent of a posse in Western movies. One of the common features of a posse is that sometimes its members are reluctant volunteers, because they are not trained fighters and are often scared of being hurt or killed. They come together with a sense of protection from two sources – their collective number when a dozen or more posse members stand together; and the leadership of the brave sheriff who is always out front leading the battle. They often do little fighting themselves, but assist in logistics that support the sheriff, such as tying up and bringing to jail the captured bad guys, providing cover fire without endangering themselves, or blocking the bad guys’ escape routes.
The United States actions in taking the lead to harness regional and global assets to defeat ISIS is impressive, but it is also telling of several troubling trends. The most important is the startling reality that Arab governments and societies, whose practices allowed dangerous phenomena such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS to grow, seem unable or unwilling to take decisive action to protect themselves when the moment of reckoning arrives – as it has now.
In three domains in particular, Arab governments generally have proven negligent or totally incompetent in addressing the root causes of the birth and rise of the sort of Salafist-takfiri militancy that defines Al-Qaeda and ISIS. That is why these governments seem handcuffed in responding more forcefully.
The three things that explain the birth and spread of these extremist movements and also the reluctance of Arab states to fight ISIS seem to me to be: The erratic provision of socioeconomic development patterns that respond to citizens’ basic needs, including a sense of social justice in society; the lack of a public political space in which ordinary citizens have an opportunity to express their views, hold power accountable and somehow share in decision-making, even at the most rudimentary and symbolic levels; and the inability to harness plentiful security resources to defend national sovereignty against foreign threats, whether primarily from Israel or Western armies that invade Arab lands with dizzying regularity, or from foreign involvement in Arab affairs by Russia or Iran.
Most Arab governments seem logistically unable to play a direct role in attacking ISIS, or find it politically damaging with their own publics to be seen working closely with the U.S. in yet another assault on an Arab target. Arab power elites also have learned by experience that if they wait long enough, the U.S. will step in and protect them from the dangers generated by their own practices.
The key lesson to me from this sad state of things is not really what it says about radical Islam and its discontents, as confused political hucksters and money-minded carpetbaggers such as Tony Blair would have us believe.
It is rather about the cruel reality of modern Arab statehood and governance. The modern Arab security state that has dominated and defined our entire region both creates monsters such as mass corruption, terrorism and Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and is unable to fight them when they expand.
It is not surprising that when the threat becomes serious, Arab leaders wait for the U.S. to save their skins. After all, British and French bureaucrats once created many of our countries, so perhaps reliance on Western support is in our political chromosomes (or reliance on Iran, in the case of Arabs such as Hezbollah, the Syrian regime or some major Iraqi groups).
ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the former Mehdi Army in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, half a dozen militias in Libya, and dozens of other armed groups that now strut on the battered stage of modern Arab statehood show clearly that the most serious underlying threat to most Arab countries is not primarily an itinerant reactionary movement of misfits such as ISIS.
Rather, it is the dysfunctional, paternalistic, often corrupt and largely amateurish nature of statehood and governance that our Arab elites have practiced for half a century now.
If a coalition to fight ISIS does not simultaneously acknowledge and start to address these facts, the sheriff and the posses of our modern Middle East will be busy for many decades.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.