When I lived in Damascus, from 1952 to 1956, the country was governed by an unstable dictatorship and sustained economic development hadn’t yet taken off, but to the extent there were perceived shortcomings, everyone blamed somebody else. The Syrians blamed Israel as the direct cause of their woes, and foreign interference in general. The rest of us considered the country was going through a kind of post-colonial adolescence and assumed that given its considerable resources it would find its way sooner or later to a solider governance and more effective development into a fully functioning nation state. Nobody foresaw the actual disintegration of the Syrian state that has taken place over the past several years. Certainly nobody predicted that a hodgepodge of armies would be fighting pitched battles all over its land, or that floods of Syrian refugees would precipitate a major crisis in Europe, or that that it would become the base for a militant Islamic challenge to the essence of Western civilization. What, Syria?
I’ve been reflecting on my experiences sixty years back, when I was a junior officer at our Embassy there, and seeking clues from that period as to what was already wrong, that led to present disaster. Certain events and conditions stand out now, in retrospect, that point to an answer that wasn’t evident to any of us then. The problem with Syria all through its modern history has been the failure of nationalism, the inability of a sense of patriotism to grow to where it could compete with loyalties to clan and region and particularly to religious particularism.
The gap between Islam and Christianity was the most obvious obstacle to development of national loyalty. That should have been clear from what was going on next door in Lebanon, but we saw that battleground as relatively equally divided between the two religions, while in Syria, then eighty percent Muslim, we expected the Christians would continue to enjoy a fairly stable minority status, with each side comfortable and interested in preserving the status quo. Yes, there were Druzes in the south and Alawites in the northwest, and there were doctrinal differences with Shia inside the Islamic family, but nobody expected those minorities to question the status quo either.
We were blinded by our own success in assimilating religious and other minorities. We ignored the fact that our minorities came from across the seas, a drop at a time as it were, while theirs had been in the country forever, living for the most part in urban ghettos or regional communities. We usually misinterpreted in-group loyalty as corruption and applied the wrong medicine. We failed to understand that maintaining the existing mosaic pattern of society required strong authority at the center, and that if applied too soon, democracy as we understood it, and individual liberty as we preached it, could be a path not to progress but to chaos. We positioned ourselves as the region’s doctor but never got around to understanding the nature of the ailment we were treating.
Critically, we failed to appreciate the usefulness of a dictatorial regime at the center capable of holding the whole polity together while the benefits of unity grew and watered the fragile growth of loyalty to the whole nation as opposed to strongly entrenched loyalties to the smaller groups. Syria in 1956 was not ready for democracy. The only thing it had going for it was that the dictatorial regime that had won the right to govern was nationalistic and secular. The Baath movement that spawned it was born out of Arab nationalism not resurgent Islam. That was a precious distinction that we utterly failed to appreciate at the time.
I suspect that almost exactly the same critique could be applied to Iraq. The Baath regime in Baghdad was rival to the one in Damascus, not fraternal, but never mind, they were both secular and nationalistic, which was what each country needed most at the time—and, arguably, still does.
We have an important message to convey to Arabs in those countries, and to many other parts of the world as well, but it’s not necessarily the virtues of freedom and liberty. It is the principle of the separation of church and state, enshrined in our Constitution and held dearly by the Founding Fathers. Preaching that to the Arabs of the Levant makes a lot more sense than espousing a democracy for which the soil is not yet ready. Our banner should be e pluribus unum, not in God (or Allah, of Jehovah) we trust. Maybe later we can take up the cudgels for liberty and democracy. Some places it’s just too early.