Now it’s getting interesting — and by interesting, I mean of course a little scary. ISIS or ISIL or whatever the Sunni Islamist extremist group is being called this week has not only erased the Syria-Iraq border that followed the old Sykes-Picot line, but also captured two towns on the Iraq-Jordan border. It’s reasonable to presume that ISIS militants are equivocal at best about the legitimacy claims of the Jordanian royal family — part of the Hashemite royalty that got edged out of control of the Arabian peninsula by Ibn Saud and Co, currently backers of said ISIS. On the other side of what used to be the country of Iraq, they are moving ever closer to Baghdad.
The advance of ISIS has prompted the revival — or re-manifestation — of the Mahdi army, and numerous smaller Shiite and local militias, determined to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Iraqi army. The Shiite forces are well-supplied by Iran, and the coming likely clash between the two forces would appear to be the de facto dissolution of Iraq as a state — although the militia’s intent appears to be to hand back power to the state once it has cleared ISIS out. Just in case there was any doubt about boots on the ground — John McTernan, global Labo(u)r’s one-man omnishambles, appears to be the only one advocating this — the militias have made it clear that while some might welcome American airstrikes on ISIS forces, any Western re-occupation would be resisted by the Shiite militias themselves.
The fact that Iraq has become a site of struggle — between Sunni-Shia, or Saudi clients and Iranian clients — has led to renewed calls for the state’s dismantling from outside. This was the easy solution offered when the “welcomed with open arms victory” started to fall apart in 2005. Though couched in the language of anti-colonialism — that Iraq was a post-Ottoman confection, designed as a bulwark against the Bolsheviks — the idea of federating Iraq from without was simply an extension of colonialism, quite literally in this case. Implicitly, it suggested that there were “natural” states and contrived ones, these being hard and fast categories.
But all states are contrived to a degree, and naturalise themselves — projecting the idea that they are some expression of pre-political unity — by suppressing internal minorities and mythologising their past. Even so-called nation-states, formed around a shared culture, consolidate their messy realities, usually by creating an official language out of a continuum of dialects that once shaded gradually into the next area.
The European nation-state and second-wave imperialism (following the 1875 Berlin conference/carve-up) were thus complementary — we, the Europeans, project out our national essence onto a series of peoples we border and sort indiscriminately. That works fine until you start to believe your own mythology, and things start to come apart behind you. For it cannot be missed that, as the state is under pressure in Iraq and Syria, Ukraine and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the same thing is happening less violently in Western heartland. Scotland will go to a referendum in three months, one the “yes” case will probably lose — but if it wins, it would reverse the consolidation that cleared the way for the creation of the British empire in the first place. In Catalonia, in northern Italy, in Belgium, the container of the nation-state is losing its legitimacy. In the United States, the Tea Party has tried to create a sort of cultural secession, denied the possibility of a real one. Legitimacy has come under attack from every direction (only the most mythologised states, with some basis in history — Danish, the Dutch — have seen a rise of old-style nationalist movements).
The coming apart here and there is a consequence of the same process — the repudiation of any notion of territorial integrity in the era of the “new world order” and the bypassing of democratic polities via the mechanism of the European Union. Trying to assert the asymmetry of borders — that the US or UK had a right to “defend” itself by eviscerating those of others, that questions of economy and society could be floated upwards into the EU to become a technocratic issue — Western powers have undone the nation-state system that underpinned their projection of power onto others.
This coming-apart is why what remains of the neocons and the old Atlantic alliance enthusiasts are so panicked — less because of the territory they might take than because of the challenge it is to their easy idea of dominance. It’s a measure of the political toll this is taking that it has reached the heart of the heartland — the US Republican Party, where Rand Paul has done the unthinkable and put the blame for the chaos in Iraq on the 2003 invasion, rather than on the 2011 withdrawal, the convenient Republican fiction to date. Rand is not Ron, and the gesture is not quixotic — he is still rolling the dice on a possible presidential bid, and is presumably convinced that it can be done from an anti-imperial position. That would have the fissure line of the matter running not merely through the “Middle East”/west Asia, but through the centre of power itself.
Paul Jr. has not relinquished the idea that airstrikes could be applied, so you wouldn’t want to exaggerate the shift. But the true measure of the new limits to western power is that any action will produce more resistance to this power asymmetry. Radical Islamists want their own countervailing power against the empire — the caliphate, a supra-state, which supra-states like NATO and the EU have portrayed as a mediaeval conception, rather than a material political possibility. ISIS is unlikely to achieve it, and Iraq has a chance to recompose itself in some form if its people want to. There is no reason why a collective commitment cannot be made, even to a contrived country (with or without the Kurds, who appear to be making a break for it).
Julius Nyerere made Tanzania into such a “commitment-state’, in the post-colonial era, and Yugoslavia might have survived in some form had better leaders been willing and able to stand up against the balkanising effects of Germany and others. At root, the idea that Iraqis are wholly beholden to sectarian and “tribal” networks is the final expression of imperial racism. The odds may be against a recomposed Iraq — but no one thought ISIS would take the centre of the country, either. All a little scary — but supremely interesting.