A Question of Nation

In March of 2006, both David Brooks and Thomas Friedman published columns in The New York Times critiquing the quality of debate within American political fora and the American media about the infamous corporate sale that would have transferred operational responsibility for certain American ports from a British company to a company linked to the Government of Dubai. Although their columns had somewhat different foci, they shared a common thread: that our policies toward Islam, the Middle East, and the “War on Terror” have so far been ad hoc, inconsistent, and driven as much by emotional reaction as by rational strategy.

Reading their columns gave me an insight into why such chaos might prevail. I sent variants of the following reaction to each of them by e-mail, not necessarily for publication but to stimulate a future discussion; the version shown here went to Thomas Friedman. Neither responded directly and I’ve seen no mention of these points in follow-on columns (although I may simply have missed them).

15 March 2006

After reading both your and David Brooks’ critiques of our own “debate” on the Dubai ports deal (along with the last six years’ worth of reporting on the Middle East and on Islam and on terrorism) I think I’ve gained an insight.

It occurs to me that the reason we have such difficulty finding a consistent and satisfying perspective on international affairs when it comes to the Middle East is that our conception of and framework for such things is based on the idea of a “nation”. In the Middle East — and to some extent throughout the larger modern world — that is precisely what is increasingly ambiguous.

Conceiving of international affairs in terms of “nations” is not merely a result of historical accident, it is also convenient: to the extent that a “nation” is unified and is represented by uniformly-recognized spokesmen (or leaders), it makes the conduct of negotiations (and applications of force) easy to focus.

But when we view the Arab and broader Islamic worlds, our concept of nationality seems to be projected through a kaleidoscope. To what “nation” does a citizen of Iraq or the UAE give his allegiance? To Iraq or the UAE? To a greater “Arabia”? To Islam? Does someone from Saudi Arabia more share his “nationality” with someone from Saudi Arabia (his “countryman”) or from Syria (a fellow Arab) or from Iran (not an Arab, but a fellow Muslim) or from Venezuela (a compatriot in OPEC)?

The point is that, in debating the Dubai deal specifically and the Middle East/Islam/terrorism generally, where you stand on a particular subject depends on your basic assumption about which of those “nations” is the dominant force at work — on your basic assumption about which of those “nationalities” will determine how people behave.

The chaos we are seeing — on the ground and in our own thinking — reflects the dissolution of the “nation” into more fluid and less tractable identities and spheres of interest. Al Quaeda is not a country and yet, in many circumstances, it seems to define and control a “nation” of people who pledge it their loyalty. Iraq was not Al Quaeda but were they really distinct — two “nations” apart — or were they both part of the larger Arab — or was it Islamic? — “nation” to which both claim allegiance and from which the “clash of civilizations” is arising? Is the UAE a country allied with the United States or is it a culture allied with Arabia or with Islam? Our problem is that there seems to be no one answer — it varies with context and over time. One might hypothesize it is the same condundrum that wracked Europe with chaos centuries ago when the question was, “French or Catholic? — State or Church? — King or Pope?”.

Until we can sort out how to deal with this new state of affairs — with this ambiguity in both allegiance and sovereignty — our views on foreign affairs will continue to be equally ambiguous and our policies equally inconsistent and ineffective.

(C) Copyright 2006, Augustus P. Lowell

Leave a Reply