Countering Terrorism Through Nation-Building

The turmoil in the Middle East over the past few months did not come from nowhere. The Middle East has long been characterized by failed ideologies and the propensity to entrench political regimes through large-scale suppression of civil society.

The failure to address genuine socioeconomic problems has radicalized its people and extremism is the norm. Now, with the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the century-old regional landscape is under dire threat. In fact, a new order has begun to take shape since in the Arab world, and it is the extremists – those who showed initiative, capitalized on protests, and filled the void of a disorganized and sometimes nonexistent opposition – who are taking the lead. The appeal of radical Islam has propelled them to the global stage.

Yet, in spite of this alarming growth of extremism, Middle Eastern governments have shown no serious commitment to good governance, democracy, and human rights. The post-colonial Middle East, which first witnessed the rise of communism and Arab nationalism, was defined early on by bloody coup d’états, corrupt monarchies, and brutally suppressive regimes. By aligning with world powers, autocrats secured their permanence but also produced weak and fractured societies. They suppressed their people in the name of Arab nationalism, Palestinian liberation, and anti-imperialism, and ignored the responsibility of real nation-building.

The international community, has similarly failed to address these problems in the Middle East. Favoring a policy of realpolitik, the United States and Europe did little to bolster democratic principles in these countries. Rather, driven by economic and security concerns, they have turned a blind eye to human rights violations by their regional partners.

The early positive indicators of the Arab Spring have quickly turned into a nightmare; regime changes have mostly led to violence and radicalization in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Egypt. These weak and largely dysfunctional states are now fertile grounds for extremism and terrorism. Left alone, the future remains bleak. Although there is a long and likely bloody path ahead, it is imperative that local, regional, and international stakeholders generate long term plans to root out these systemic problems.

For the first time in decades, there is a broad-based agreement that terrorism is a major global threat. The current U.S.-led coalition has won the explicit or implicit support of almost all stakeholders. It is time to plan a new Middle East order in which, instead of failed states, countries are able to flourish, prevent terrorism and grant minorities their right to self-determination. Human rights, nation-building, and good governance must become the centerpieces of the future.

On its own, the Middle East will not stabilize, pacify, or democratize. To its credit, Iraq is trying. It has formed a new government of national unity and is fighting ISIS throughout the country. The Iraqi presidency has launched a process of “reconciliation” in which all Iraqi parties can participate. But the United States has an opportunity to reverse its old interest-driven policies and show greater interest in the future of the region. It can lead by bringing together local stakeholders to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Kurdish-Turkish peace process, and Shiite-Sunni tensions.

Although the Middle East needs U.S. support, local leaders cannot abdicate their responsibilities. They must also invest in nation-building, education, civil society, and institutions of democracy, otherwise the region will continue to inch toward further chaos and terror.

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