Kerry’s Task: Closing the Arab ‘Pandora’s Box’

Michael Hirsh
National Journal

In her dramatic testimony on Wednesday, outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to concede, at long last, what Mitt Romney and many Republicans tried to argue during the 2012 presidential campaign: Al-Qaida is not close to being defeated; quite the contrary, it has been reborn.

“The Arab Spring has ushered in a time when al-Qaida is on the rise,” Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in hearings on the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. “The world in many ways is even more dangerous, because we lack a central command [in al-Qaida] and have instead these nodes that are scattered throughout North Africa and other places.”

Clinton said “one of our biggest threats” was now the “Pandora’s box” of weapons flowing through these countries in the Middle East and North Africa. But that Pandora’s box may yield worse ills, and they will land at the door Clinton’s replacement, John Kerry, whose confirmation hearings were held Thursday. The post-Qaddafi chaos in Libya, the possible dissolution of civil-war-torn Syria, the terrorist no-man’s-land that Mali has become — further roiling Northwest Africa — could ultimately threaten the integrity of the entire Arab and North African state system that the West created in the late 19th century and after World War I.

Some U.S. officials fear these countries could break up or turn into permanently strife-ridden lands that resemble Lebanon or the post-colonial countries of Africa, like Somalia or Congo, where tribes and ethnic groups never stop warring although the borders remain superficially intact, according to a Pentagon analyst steeped in U.S. involvement in the region since the Iraq invasion. “The countries just become arenas,” he said. “The various groups still draw on the resources of the state, but peace never comes.”

Such a domino-style effect could also reignite sectarian bloodshed in Iraq and elsewhere, in a counterpoint to the positive domino effect of democracy movements at the start of the Arab Spring. Syria, for example, could  become an ugly amalgam of Alawite rump state and other areas, in which Syrian Kurds join up with Iraqi Kurds across the border to create an autonomous zone and the fracturing continues.

The chief beneficiaries might well be violent jihadists who end up with something even better than Afghanistan circa 2001: a vast swath of the Mideast and North Africa that has become, in effect, a new training ground. Clinton herself alluded to the danger of ignoring this new jihadi haven.  “If you look at the topography of northern Mali, it’s not a desert, it’s caves … sounds reminiscent,” she warned in her testimony.

Even so, Clinton’s State Department seems to have been somewhat slow in catching up to this new reality. “We’ve got to have a better strategy,” the secretary admitted. Nothing suggests this more than the cavalier way the Obama administration approached Libya, supplying too little security for its ambassador, Chris Stevens, who bravely traveled to Benghazi when he probably should not have, given the rise of jihadist groups in the area, according to some diplomatic experts.

Clinton, in introducing her successor, Kerry, at his confirmation hearing , noted that he “has built strong relationships with governments here and around the world.” But in the absence of government, little of that groundwork may matter, as Kerry himself must now realize seeing that all his previous efforts to negotiate with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were for naught.

Kerry, in his opening statement, approvingly quoted Henry Kissinger’s 1994 book, Diplomacy, in referring to a new world order built on a “multistate” system. But again, states may not be the main issue when trouble erupts in a place where there is no government to negotiate with. In most nations, U.S. diplomats are protected by the host country’s official security forces; in Libya there were none, and yet the State Department failed to adjust in time to save the lives of Stevens and three other Americans.

Kerry’s State Department will have to do a lot more adjusting than that. Amal Ghandour, a Lebanese-born commentator, noted these dire trends in her blog, Thinking Fits, this week, saying that Arabs “have never really stopped conjecturing” about the longevity of the nations they were made part of, thanks to “the utter crudeness and fundamental illegitimacy of the original British-French scheme.”

Indeed, the European colonialists did slice the Arab world up rather sloppily under the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement and other wink-wink deals. Little of it had to do with the coherence of tribes and ethnic peoples; more of it was about resources like oil. As historian William R. Polk writes in his 2005 primer Understanding Iraq, “What would ultimately decide the fate of Kurdistan had little to do with Kurds; it would be decided by the fact that a huge deposit of oil was known to exist in what might have become a separate Kurdish state.” As a result, the British at the last minute simply lumped Kurdistan into British-controlled Iraq, Polk wrote.   

Many Arabs remain patriotic citizens of these contrived countries despite their dubious origins. But if this starts to seriously come apart under pressure from warlords, terrorists and other opportunists, then the Obama administration will face a vast new strategic challenge in a region it had hoped to de-emphasize in favor of Asia. Kerry said America had to “assert a new role in a world of increasing failed and failing states.” Yet as his outgoing predecessor admitted, there is as yet no strategy for that.