It is time to redesign the Mideast—for the inhabitants. Borders should reflect local aspirations, not the wishes of colonialists, corporations, or kings…and certainly not sectarian or religious extremists. This vision will remain a dream and the reality a nightmare, however, until the legal, institutional, and financial structure for implementing foreign policy is reformed to make it a little easier for politicians to choose constructive peace over destructive war.
A sort of raw democracy is spreading across the Mideast, not the nice Western kind with elections but the disorganized kind where desperate people vote by putting their lives on the line, and the list of places where significant social groups have formed to demand self-rule is impressively long: Palestine, Iraqi Kurdistan, Rojava, Sunni Iraq, Sunni Syria, and Houthi Yemen are among the most obvious, with Turkish Kurdistan next in line.
Can the world, which so loves to interfere in the Mideast, come up with a plan for facilitating the rational and peaceful realization of group aspirations for self-rule? This process is occurring already by extremely painful and dangerous self-organization, in a manner utterly devoid of fairness in view of the absence of any mediating structure. Houthis fighting for survival morph into aggressors against the rest of Yemen; jihadis take over Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis fighting for political rights; Syrian Kurds have the temporary support of both Washington and Moscow but face the threat of a Turkish invasion; Palestinians are left to be crushed, ignored by the world. Surely, the world can do better than either allowing the temperature of this political conflagration to continue to rise or returning to arbitrarily selected oppressors licensed to kill inside their borders.
The U.N. should declare a new class of political entities—essentially, autonomous regions—and define for them a bill of rights. The concept is of course hardly new, but the legal edifice and bureaucratic support structure fall far short of what is needed to address current global demands for redress of political suppression of minorities. The U.N. should further set up an office to which aspiring autonomous regions can apply for international recognition. While putting a concept on paper offers no guarantee of anything, once set up, precedents tend to gather momentum. Just look at the Magna Carta. With this precedent set and the U.N. office opened, Iraqi Sunnis, for example, would have an officially recognized third option, in addition to their two current choices of submitting to discrimination from the Shi’i regime in Baghdad or joining the Islamic State jihad.
For starters, these “autonomous region” entities should declare their borders and agree not to attack outside those borders, while other states should be prohibited from attacking across the borders into the regions. In other words, there should be no such nonsense as Ankara asserting the right to fire cannons into Syrian Kurdish areas or Israel asserting the right to steal the homes of Palestinians on the West Bank…or Syrian Kurds taking over Sunni villages. This would also establish a default procedure for such messy cases as the Houthis moving from defending themselves to attacking other social groups: to apply for protection, they would have to agree to vacate areas inhabited by non-allied groups.
Putting a little muscle behind the nice words, the U.N. should have a permanent force of mediators to facilitate the holding of votes in contested areas and to adjudicate disagreements. For example, a rule should be incorporated into international law for how to resolve delicate counterclaims about villages whose inhabitants were removed (ethnic cleansing) to permit another ethnic group to steal the land.
Self-governing regions have existed for centuries, but in each case every detail has to be argued out anew: there is no standard approach. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in a manner designed to ensure the failure of the Hamas regime, which was not even allowed the freedom to maintain the local sewage system or import medicine yet Israel asserted complete freedom to bombard Gaza at will. Although this was an obviously unjust situation, Israel had not exactly violated a clear international law because it is not at all clear what international laws apply to “autonomous regions” or “ghettos” or whatever the legal term for Gaza may be. International law should be crystal clear: either a state “owns” a subordinate territory, in which case it has responsibilities to the residents or it walks away, in which case it loses all rights to interfere (a child is either a dependent or a free adult, and, by the way, even children may have some rights). A standard U.N. approach would facilitate matters by offering an abused population the ability simply to point to the rules and call for their enforcement.
Reality’s obvious cold splash in the face regarding this theorizing is the absence of force to compel all sides to follow the new rules. The designing of government, legal systems, democracy, justice is the work of centuries, many centuries, but it has to start somewhere. Today, the urgency of stopping the painfully clear decline of civilization in the Mideast, or perhaps more properly, in the behavior of the world toward the Mideast, demands some action. The outdated and much abused concept of state sovereignty, exploited by repressive regimes everywhere to justify their mistreatment of minorities (at the moment including Tel Aviv toward the Palestinians, Damascus toward Sunnis, Ankara toward Kurds) needs, in the name of civilization, a major overhaul: a concept that came out of the sectarian violence of the 30 Years’ War to offer a primitive Europe some measure of security has today become a critically dangerous impediment to security by facilitating a level of repression that threatens to overwhelm public authorities across the globe. The convenient bivariate choice of state sovereignty or chaos is vastly too simplistic in an age of massive individual and group empowerment, endangering more than protecting security.
The result of allowing legal principles to lag behind “facts on the ground” is that all sides typically disagree, with the conversation degenerating into chaos, but even when major actors agree, for them to find a path down which to stride hand-in-hand to resolve the type of sectarian conflict raging across the Mideast seems beyond the capacity of any set of politicians. The U.N. should provide such a path, such a set of bureaucratic procedures so that when, for example, an Obama and a Putin agree that a group such as the Syrian Kurds deserves its chance, a procedure will be available with a bureaucracy in place to follow that procedure.
When a state leader orders the military to attack, a vast bureaucracy springs into action, doing what it is hired and trained to do: a single word is all that is required from the politician at the top. When well-intentioned leaders want to solve complex sectarian discord, they are required virtually to reason from first principles and simultaneously launch a domestic legislative battle to obtain the necessary funds to do anything, and then look for expertise to conduct a novel and untested approach. Elephantine and grossly over-funded organizations, euphemistically known as “defense” departments, are structured to destroy things and naturally so on a regular basis, greatly harming everyone’s security; no remotely equivalent state structure for repairing what has broken exists. If names were more accurate, then it would be easier for voters to understand that when a state decides to buy itself a trillion dollar “destruction department,” it logically should also buy itself a trillion dollar “repair department.” The global political system is bureaucratically and financially structured to encourage war and discourage peaceful compromise across socio-cultural divides.
The U.N. cannot compel, but it could accomplish much by offering a few thoughtful opportunities to entice violence-prone politicians gently toward the rule of international law and the logical conduct of foreign policy.