Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Israel, Palestine, and Democracy. By Eugene Kontorovich.

Israel, Palestine, and Democracy. By Eugene Kontorovich. Commentary, December 17, 2013.


Democracy and demography have become the main arguments for creating a Jew-free Arab state in Judea and Samaria. Israel’s presence in the territories deprives Palestinians of their democratic rights, the argument goes, and if Israel does not give the Palestinians whatever territory they demand, it will have to choose between its democracy and its Jewishness.
The “democracy” argument has become the central justification of the diplomatic process, incessantly invoked by Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli peace envoy Tzipi Livni. What makes the democracy argument effective is that it plays on deep-seated Jewish sentiments. Israelis are a fundamentally liberal, democratic people who desperately do not wish to be put in the role of overlords.
The problem with the democracy argument is that it is entirely disconnected from reality. Israel does not rule the Palestinians. The status quo in no way impeaches Israel’s democratic identity.
It is true that the Palestinians are not represented in the Knesset. But Israeli residents of Judea and Samaria are similarly not represented in the Palestinian Legislative Council. Simply put, both the Palestinians and Israelis vote for the legislature that regulates them. That is democracy (though obviously it does not play out as well in the Palestinian political system).
The Palestinians have developed an independent, self-regulating government that controls their lives as well as their foreign policy. Indeed, they have accumulated all the trappings of independence and have recently been recognized as an independent state by the United Nations. They have diplomatic relations with almost as many nations as Israel does. They have their own security forces, central bank, top-level Internet domain name, and a foreign policy entirely uncontrolled by Israel.
The Palestinians govern themselves. To anticipate the inevitable comparison, this is not an Israeli-puppet “Bantustan.” From their educational curriculum to their television content to their terrorist pensions, they implement their own policies by their own lights without any subservience to Israel. They pass their own legislation, such as the measure prohibiting real estate transactions with Jews on pain of death. If Israel truly “ruled over” the Palestinians, all these features of their lives would be quite different. Indeed, the Bantustans never won international recognition because they were puppets. “The State of Palestine” just got a nod from the General Assembly because it is not.
Whether the Palestinian self-government amounts to sovereignty is irrelevant and distinct from the question of whether Israel is denying them democracy. Indeed, Israel’s democratic credentials are far stronger than America’s, or Britain’s–the mother of Parliaments. Puerto Rico and other U.S. controlled “territories” do not participate in national elections (and this despite Puerto Rico’s vote last year to end its anomalous status). Nor do British possessions like Gibraltar and the Falklands. These areas have considerable self-rule, but all less than the Palestinians, in that their internal legislation can ultimately be cancelled by Washington or London. The Palestinians are the ultimate masters of their political future–it is they who choose Fatah or Hamas.
To be sure, Israeli security forces operate in the territories under Palestinian administration. But that has nothing to do with democracy; it is about security. Democracy does not give one political entity a right to harm others. And that is why American security forces conduct raids–assassinations, even–in countries around the world. While many object to America’s aggressive policies in these countries no one thinks it has anything to do with the democratic credentials of one side or another. Similarly, the Palestinian military operates throughout Israel–through rocket and missile strikes from Eilat to Ashdod. Yet no one suggests Palestinian military activities in Israel–which determine when there will be school in Beersheva and when not–mean that they have deprived Israel of democracy.
This is no longer a dispute about democracy; it is a dispute about territory. The Palestinians have their own government; now their demand is to increase the geographic scope of their legislative powers to “Area C,” where 100 percent of the Jewish settlers live, some 400,000 people, and only 50-75,000 Arabs. The Palestinians want their “no Jew” law to apply there as well.
Palestinian self-determination is one of the biggest developments that no one has noticed. It is important to recall where it came from. It was a result of the Oslo process, and the withdrawal from Gaza. This created space for truly independent Palestinian government to arise.
This has not been costless for Israel. It subjected Israel to an unprecedented campaign of terror–to its citizens incinerated in buses and cafes–coordinated by the Palestinian government during the Oslo war. It legitimized the Palestinians as full-fledged international leaders, vastly facilitating their diplomatic campaign against Israel. And it has made most of the territories a Jew-free zone.
Before Oslo it could truly have been said that Israel ruled the Palestinians. But that is over. However, that the “international community” still considers Israel as running the show for the Palestinians is an important warning that the reputational benefits for the Jewish state of peace agreements are fleeting and illusory.
Moreover, the Palestinians rejected full independence and statehood on three separate occasions in the past twenty years. If it is true that Israel still controls them, it is a control that they have chosen to perpetuate. As part of their strategy of winning by losing, they perpetuate their semi-independence to maximize their diplomatic leverage. But that is not Israeli domination; that is Palestinian tactics. Imagine if Israel in 1948 refused to declare independence until all its territorial claims were satisfied and all Arabs expelled, and was subsequently overrun by the Arab states. Imagine if Jewish leaders stuck to this position for decades. Would the Arabs be imposing their rule on the Jews, or would the Jews be imposing the Arab rule on themselves? That such a scenario is more than far-fetched only underlines the historic uniqueness of the Palestinian strategy.
Ironically, those who invoke the democracy argument are also those who say Israel must go along with the plans the U.S., Europe, and the “family of nations” have for it. But can Israel be a democracy if its borders, security, and the fate of its most holy places are determined by the opinions of foreign powers, against the inclinations of its elected government? Jeffrey Goldberg last week said Israel’s democratic status is threatened if it does not listen to the dictates of John Kerry, who was not even elected to lead America.
Ultimately, the democracy argument proves too much. If Israel truly must give the Palestinians an offer they will accept to “save its soul,” then the Palestinians can demand anything, and should get it, assuming even a micro-state or protectorate is better than an evil one. And this is why the democracy argument will impede a genuine negotiated resolution. If Israel needs Palestinian agreement to save itself, why should the Palestinians agree? If they can impose “non-democracy” on Israel, the longer they wait, the better deal they get.

The ASA: Where Foolishness and Ignorance Collide. By Walter Russell Mead.

The ASA: Where Foolishness and Ignorance Collide. By Walter Russell Mead. The American Interest, December 17, 2013.


Anti-Semitism is not absent from the BDS movement. But there’s a lot more going on here than mere bigotry.

The American Studies Association, a group of nearly 5,000 professors of the subject, has voted by a large margin to boycott all Israeli institutions of higher education, the New York Times reports. The path of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement (BDS) is not exactly paved with significant victories, but the ASA, which apparently prides itself on its deep understanding of academic freedom and the details of international law, is very confident of its resolution’s importance:
“The resolution is in solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom, and it aspires to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians,” the American Studies Association said in a statement released Monday.
The statement cited “Israel’s violations of international law and U.N. resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights,” and other factors.
Interestingly, in a more-Catholic-than-the-Pope development, the ASA’s position on Israel is well to the left of that of the Palestinian Authority. The guild of scholars so sensitive and attuned to the goings-on in Palestinian life apparently missed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s desperate entreaty to BDS groups to stop boycotting Israel. The Times of Israel reported Friday:
“No, we do not support the boycott of Israel,” the Palestinian leader told a group of South African reporters on Monday. “But we ask everyone to boycott the products of the settlements. Because the settlements are in our territories. It is illegal. […]
“But we do not ask anyone to boycott Israel itself,” he reiterated. “We have relations with Israel, we have mutual recognition of Israel.”
Perhaps we should next expect these brilliant scholar-activists to boycott the PA for its despicable collusion with the Zionist Entity.
The ASA is hardly an organization whose pronouncements shake the earth, and its boycott resolution probably won’t join the Balfour Declaration and PLO Charter in the Arab-Israeli conflict’s pantheon of defining documents. But because it typifies a certain type of empty intellectual posturing on a complicated issue and because both supporters and opponents of the BDS movement engage in some over-the-top rhetoric about resolutions of this type, it is worth thinking about the support base for the kind of anti-Israel resolution that so many academics longing to feel cutting-edge about something seem to be drawn toward.
Before doing that, I ought to make my own position on this clear. I have long believed in the right of the Jewish people to self-determination and see the State of Israel as the embodiment of that right. I believe that the Palestinians have an equal right to self-determination and that the Palestinian state needs to have sustainable frontiers and, on the West Bank, territorial contiguity. Further, I’ve argued in print and in electronic media that the key reason that so many negotiations over the two state solution have failed is that Americans in particular have not paid enough attention to what Palestinians need to gain to make such a solution viable. I have been on record for about thirty years in print saying that I don’t think that settlements are a good idea and have said so more than once to Israeli officials. I think that the cease fire boundaries that existed until 1967 do not constitute viable permanent boundaries for either people and that a final agreement on territory would include mutually agreed on swaps and adjustments. I participate in academic exchanges and activities with both Israeli and Palestinian institutions.
Speaking personally, I don’t boycott. I’ve met with representatives from both Hamas and Fatah over the years in Gaza, on the West Bank and in Beirut. I’ve also met with Israelis on all points of the political spectrum there, including radical settlers in and around Hebron. Globally, as a journalist and a scholar, I’ve met with all kinds of people whose viewpoints I find objectionable. I’ve had dinner with Fidel Castro, I’ve interviewed neo-Nazi skinhead thugs in the former GDR, I’ve visited North Korea and met with officials of that regime. (I’ve never broken US law on these trips, by the way.) I did stay out of South Africa until the first majority elections had been held, but would have met with officials or scholars representing the old regime had there been some reason to do so, as I have met with scholars from Iran and with officials of Hezbollah. I am on the board of the New America Foundation, an organization that has come under criticism when one of its senior fellows invited the controversial author of a book very critical of Israel to speak. I neither resigned from that board nor criticized the event. When Brandeis University recently canceled its cooperation agreement with Al-Quds, a Palestinian university where students held a demonstration in support of the terrorist organization Islamic Jihad, I supported the decision of Bard College, where I teach, to continue our relationship based on the facts as we understood them. I may not always succeed, but it is my intention and my goal as a scholar and a writer to provide a consistent defense of intellectual freedom and to promote the ideal of free exchange of ideas.
All this is to say that I instinctively reject the idea of broad brush boycotts for scholars, policy organizations and journalists. I don’t like ‘appropriate speech’ codes in universities; I oppose laws punishing people for Holocaust denial; I am one of those people who believe that free speech and the free exchange of ideas are important even when people disagree with me profoundly.
Given all this, it can hardly be surprising that I think the pontificators and poseurs of the ASA should go soak their heads after such a foolish vote. But despite my visceral dislike for what I can’t help but see as a fundamental betrayal of the basic ideals of the intellectual life, I do think that some critics of the resolution are being too tough on the poor ASA.
The core of the criticism (other than the point that intellectual blockades and boycotts are inherently wrong) is that since the ASA has singled out Israel for special treatment even though there are many worse human rights violators in the world demonstrates that the ASA is a nest of ugly anti-Semites.
This criticism is partly true. Even by the strictest measures, Israel is by no means the worst human rights violator on this sad planet of ours and the Palestinians, despite their entirely legitimate complaints, are not the worst treated people alive. Muslims in Burma, many Tibetans, just about everyone in North Korea, and the hundreds of millions of enslaved bonded workers in the Indian subcontinent all endure greater injustices and deprivation in their daily lives than the mass of the Palestinian people. Yet Israel clearly gets a disproportionate weight of global disapproval for what it does. We’ve frequently noted on this blog that even when it comes to the suffering of the Palestinians, there’s a tendency to focus one-sidedly Israeli actions and to minimize the injustices Palestinians experience at the hands of Arabs from the Gulf to Egypt (which keeps its borders with Gaza firmly closed), not to mention the systemic and ugly discrimination against Palestinians in Lebanon.
So the ASA, like a lot of other hotheads around the world, comes down like a ton of bricks on Israeli wrongdoing while turning a blind eye to other, worse misdeeds. Anti-Semitism, pure and simple, say some.
It isn’t that simple and it isn’t that pure. There are, I have no doubt, anti-Semites both conscious and unconscious in the ASA, and their dark hearts rejoiced when this boycott was proclaimed. I have no way of estimating their numbers; anti-Semitism is a sickness of the soul and like racism, it is embedded in the cultural structures of our society in ways that can sometimes be hard for people to recognize or understand. There are all kinds of people who claim to be free of all prejudice but who are convinced that “the Jews” control the media, control the banks, control American politics or whatever. Just like people can be warped by racist cultural assumptions and stereotypes without being consciously aware of being prejudiced or even consciously wishing in any way to be associated with the evils of racism, people can be unconsciously shaped by the way our cultural surround has been warped through centuries and even millennia.
But anti-Semites, knowing or unknowing, are just part of the picture. Besides actual anti-Semitism—of which, again, there is still quite a bit—there are four other sources of support for these unbalanced resolutions.
The first group that gets madder at Israel than at other countries with worse human rights records is left-leaning American Jews. This is complicated. It’s natural and even commendable to hold friends and kinfolk to a higher than normal standard, and because Judaism historically has insisted on high ethical standards in human conduct, it’s easy to see how some Jews who disagree with Israeli policies would feel compelled to take a strong and public stand. For many of these Jews, criticizing Israeli policies and even voting for resolutions like the ASA loser isn’t being self-hating or anti-Jewish or even anti-Zionist. It is about standing up for what they see as the true and necessary idealism of the Jewish people and upholding the honor of Jewish values. These people also often believe that in taking these stands they aren’t supporting anti-Semitism—they think they are fighting it by showing the world that not all Jews support the crimes of Israel, and perhaps by showing their fellow scholars in left leaning academic enclaves that not all Jews should be tarred with the Likud brush.
A second group of supporters for these ASA style resolutions is made up of people (usually westerners) who don’t really understand the historical roots and cultural realities of Israel. This group (and American Jews are often among them) sees Israel essentially as a western country that should know better than to do the kinds of reprehensible things a country like the Netherlands would never do. Because Jews have played such a significant role in the development of freedom and the open society in the western world, many westerners see Israel as a western transplant in the Middle East. And because they see Israel’s existence as a consequence of (or reparation for) the Holocaust in Europe, they think the Jewish state is basically a nation of ethnic and cultural Europeans.
This is, of course, sheer ignorance. Israel’s population today is not an offshoot of the west. Demographically, Israel is a Middle Eastern country today; millions of Jewish refugees from Arab countries like Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and from all over the Maghreb now make up fifty percent of Israel’s population. These Israelis can often combine the political and cultural attitudes found in the Arab world with the special bitterness that comes not only from exile, but from having your sufferings ignored and even despised. (Palestinian refugees from Israel get infinitely more sympathy and support from the international community than Jewish refugees from Arab countries ever do.) Including the large number of Israeli immigrants who came originally from Russia and other countries in eastern Europe and the Balkans, a large majority of Israelis have no roots in the western world and the ancestors of most present day Israelis never spent a day of their lives in democratic countries until they got to the embattled Jewish enclave in the Middle East. Seventy percent of Israel’s population today comes from the old lands of the Ottoman Empire and Russia rather than from Western Europe.
Israel isn’t an underachieving Denmark; it would be more accurate to say that it is an overachieving Turkey or a miraculously liberal and tolerant Lebanon. However, lots of people in the west don’t know as much about Israel as they think they do and so they are sincerely surprised and offended by Israeli actions that they assume (perhaps condescendingly) are “normal” when developing countries do them. Israelis themselves aren’t completely guiltless in this confusion; it has sometimes suited the purposes of Israeli diplomacy to play up its western roots. However, ignorance about Israel mixed with arrogance and condescension about the perceived political immaturity of non-western societies around the world is a leading cause of resolutions like the ASA folly.
The third group is the Palestinians themselves. It’s not anti-Semitic for a Palestinian to be angrier at Israeli misbehavior than, say, at Pakistan for its appalling record of mistreating religious minorities, or China for its treatment of the Tibetans. It’s a natural human tendency to be angrier at the people whose actions affect you most directly than at people whose misdeeds only affect people you don’t know.
Finally, there’s a fourth group in the mix: people who are not Palestinians themselves but for various reasons make a strong and emotionally charged connection between the Palestinian cause and some issue that touches them personally. For many non-Palestinian Arabs, the sufferings of the Palestinians are both a sign and a cause of Arab oppression. A Tunisian or a Libyan may not have any personal experience of Israeli wrongdoing, and may have lived under an Arab government that actually oppressed all of its citizens in ways Israel could never emulate, but the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East can still feel like a deep personal and national affront.
Beyond the Arabs, many Muslims also see the rise of a Jewish state (again, often wrongly seen more as a west European implant than as the demographic mix that it is) as both the consequence and a sign of western arrogance and disdain for Muslims and their history and values.
And beyond the Muslim world, there are many people who see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one more episode in the western world’s conquest and domination of non-western peoples. Zionism is seen as a form of colonialism, and the Jewish settlers in the Middle East are seen as the latest incarnation of the French settlers in Algeria, the white settlers in Rhodesia and South Africa, and so on. Some of these are people who come out of countries with histories profoundly shaped by ugly colonial experiences, some are westerners trying to cope with the difficult legacy of colonial history. But to the degree that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has come to serve as a symbolic stand-in for colonialism and resistance to it, across the developing world and on trendy western campuses, there’s a sincerely felt if often poorly reasoned sense that to pass anti-Israel resolutions today is like passing anti-apartheid resolutions a generation ago.
It would be wrong to confound all these very different points of view with anti-Semitism, but it would also be wrong to say that anti-Semitism doesn’t sometimes mix in with these other points of view. The human heart is crooked above all things, and disentangling all the various strands that go into a particular person’s actions at any given time is a task best left to Almighty God.
What goes on in a leftist hothouse like the ASA is a kind of witches’ brew of these various forms of anger: often unconscious anti-Semitism expressing itself as disproportionate anger at Israel; feelings of anger and the need of American Jews to take what they see as an important moral stand against Israeli behavior; the efforts of pro-Palestinian activists, often operating as part of an organized campaign, to score points; and a healthy dose of arrogant ignorance mixed with anti-colonialism of various degrees of seriousness and sincerity.
Other than the anti-Semitism it’s all very understandable, but a professional body that lets itself be dominated by these kinds of concerns doesn’t do itself much good. Sometimes the critics of these sanctions efforts go too far themselves, and dismiss the whole complicated mess as a simple episode of anti-Semitism run amuck. What’s happening is much more complicated, but the more I look at the half-baked anti-Israel resolutions the trendy left keeps proposing, the more confident I am that academic country boycotts and campus speech restrictions are two excellent examples of things this world can do without.

Comment by Shahar Luft:

“But to the degree that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has come to serve as a symbolic stand-in for colonialism and resistance to it, across the developing world and on trendy western campuses, there’s a sincerely felt if often poorly reasoned sense that to pass anti-Israel resolutions today is like passing anti-apartheid resolutions a generation ago.”
That’s probably the core, if there is any. But is that not antisemitism? When Israelis are compared to European settlers in Africa, the subtext is really “you don't belong here,” which is exactly what Arabs tell us in private conversation when they’re sincere. After all, some African dictatorships were a lot worse in objective terms than the old SA, but still it attracted more odium because it was perceived in some way as not belonging,
However, Jews heard this “you don’t belong” not only from Palestinian Arabs. They heard it throughout their history from more or less everyone. Our history is not one of imperial expansion. It’s one of subservience and persecution, and the constant allegation that we are strangers; that we do not relate organically and authentically to the environment, do not work on the land, are not attuned to the natural rhythm of the host countries, that our tongues do not easily roll their languages, that we follow alien gods that rule a different heaven than the one visible from the meadows of the Ukraine or the casba of Baghdad.
So where the political narcissists see a guerilla fighter, we see a Cossack. Where they see Nelson Mandela, we see Adolph Hitler. They think they’re liberators, we think that they are – essentially – bigots who repeat every slander and lie that was hauled at us.

The Arab Crisis. By Martin Kramer.

The Arab Crisis. By Martin Kramer. Sandbox, December 17, 2013.


This is an extraordinary time in the Middle East, but just what we have witnessed has eluded consensus. That is reflected in the terminology. Some called it the “Arab Spring,” by analogy to the democratic transformations in Europe. When it became clear that the path wasn’t going to be as smooth as in Europe, others backtracked and called it the “Arab Awakening,” which sounds like a longer-term proposition. Still others, who saw Islamists initially triumph in elections, took to calling it the “Islamist Winter.” The terminological confusion is a reflection of analytical disagreement.
Another source of confusion has been the widespread resort to historical analogies. When it didn’t look like the transition would be that smooth, or might even be aborted, commentary began to appear comparing the events to Europe in 1848. When optimists wanted to make the point that sometimes successful revolutions take a long time, they pointed to the American revolution of 1776. When pessimists wanted to emphasize that revolutions conceived in idealism could go astray, they pointed to the Russian Revolution of 1917. Finally, some circled back to 1989, but this time not with an emphasis on the “Spring” analogy to Poland, but on the “Balkan Ghosts” analogy to Bosnia. Analogies are a crutch, to which we return when our analysis is thin.
As a historian by training, I have no difficulty predicting that the debate over terminology and the application of analogies will go on for many years to come. If historians still debate the causes of the French Revolution, there is no reason to think the events of the past couple of years won’t be debated far into the future. That’s how we historians make our living.
But you don’t make your living that way. You do analysis of the moment, and you have to make a judgment call based on what evidence there is now, in order to predict the future trajectory on which to base policy and strategy. So while it would suit me just fine to say that it’s too early to tell, let me go out on a limb and make some generalizations.
Let us agree that what we are witnessing is a very profound crisis. Regimes have fallen, tens of thousands have died, millions are refugees. There is even a nominal price tag. The banking giant HSBC has just released a report estimating that this crisis will have cost Middle Eastern countries $800 billion in lost output by the end of next year. It also estimates that the combined GDP of the seven most-impacted countries—Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Bahrain—will be 35% lower by the end of 2014 than it would have been if the 2011 uprisings hadn’t happened.
This is wealth destruction on a massive scale. And it is not as if these economies had a big buffer to absorb this hit: the already-poor have become desperately poor. As against these mounting costs, the gains have been debatable. Has there been progress toward good governance and the rule of law? Or descent into rule by militias and pervasive insecurity? The situation differs from country to country, but overall, it is hard to be optimistic about any of the impacted countries, which are mired in various degrees of turmoil.
But before we can say what sort of crisis this is, let’s say what sort of crisis it isn’t. It isn’t just a repudiation of authoritarian rule. It is true that the kind of rule based on personality cult and pervasive fear has lost its grip. The United States contributed to that by removing Saddam Hussein from power in 2003. Saddam was the avatar for a certain kind of regime, and his fall exposed others who ruled in the same way. His removal dissipated the aura of fear that surrounded such regimes, because the praetorian guards entrusted with their defense could be put to flight. The enablers of these regimes were prepared to torture to defend them. What they weren’t prepared to do was to fight and die. That proved to be the case from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya.
But if it was a revulsion against authoritarian rule, and a yearning for the dignity conferred by democracy, how does one explain the support of Egyptians for a Muslim Brotherhood regime which was itself authoritarian? Or the counter-revolution in Egypt, which returned a military junta to power by coup? Perhaps this isn’t a political crisis of authoritarianism versus democracy, between bad (authoritarian) guys and good (democratic) guys. In the case of Egypt, there isn’t even an agreement over who the bad guys and good guys are. And there isn’t a consensus over Syria either, where only a handful of the players are committed to democracy in a form we would recognize.
If it wasn’t about freedom and democracy, was it a “return to Islam”? It briefly did look just like that. For a moment, it seemed like another analogy, Iran 1979, might be apt. Certainly the status quo has been eroded by the spread of an Islamist social movement among the masses. But Islamists didn’t lead the uprisings, and they haven’t been able to consolidate their early victories in elections and secure positions of dominance. Islamists have struggled without success to translate their social base into coherent and effective politics. Perhaps this is because people aren’t persuaded they have the answer to the crisis, or even understand it.
Was it an economic crisis? Many of you are no doubt familiar with what I might call, for lack of a better term, deep explanations for the revolutions. One of them, backed up by many statistics, is the demographic youth bulge which has surged through the Arab world. This part of the world is in a transition to lower rates of fertility, but it is now paying the price of extraordinarily high fertility rates registered twenty to thirty years ago. Millions of young people have flooded the labor markets, and no economy in the world could keep up. The turmoil is sometimes interpreted as the outburst of frustrated young men venting their rage at their own indolence and impotence.
But if this were primarily an economic crisis, why did it erupt at a time of economic expansion and growth? And why wasn’t it anticipated that the resulting instability would actually worsen the economic plight of these countries?
Having now exhausted various explanations, and found them wanting, I proceed to my sweeping generalization. This is a crisis of culture. That is to say, it is more than a political or social or economic crisis. Of course it has elements of all of these things, but at its most fundamental, it is a crisis of culture—to be precise, the implosion of the hybrid civilization that dominated the twentieth century in the Arab world.
That hybrid was the defensive, selective adaptation of Islamic traditions to the ways of the West. The idea was that the tradition could be preserved, that its essence could be defended, while making adjustments to modernity as needed. The timeless character of the political, religious, and social traditions of the region could be upheld, even as upgrades were made to accommodate modernity. In Turkey, Atatürk’s cultural revolution had thrown all of tradition overboard and embraced the ways of Europe without reservation. The Arabs resisted the notion, and their leaders promised them a different path, a hybrid of the Arab-Islamic tradition with Western-style modernity.
This hybrid civilization pretended to be revolutionary, but it permitted the survival of those pre-modern traditions that block progress, from authoritarianism and patriarchy to sectarianism and tribalism. This hybrid civilization has now failed, and what we have seen is a collapse, not of a political system, but of a moral universe left behind by time.
That failure was long concealed by a mixture of regime maneuvering and the prop of oil. It has been cushioned in those places in the Arab Gulf where rulers have given up on the better part of Arab-Islamic civilization, inviting the Louvre and the Guggenheim and American universities to build branches, and allowing expatriates to outnumber the Arabs. These are the places that have become refuges from chaos elsewhere, and that have even profited from it. But in the great centers of Arab-Islamic civilization, from Cairo to Damascus to Baghdad, the crisis of the political order is primarily a symptom of the collapse of their own hybrid of tradition and modernity.
The failure of the hybrid is most dramatically evidenced by the rise of sectarianism. The Sunni-Shiite divide has lots of layers, including a disparity of power, often the legacy of colonialism. But the mindset of sectarianism is thoroughly pre-modern. Modern nationalism was devised at least in part to blunt sectarianism among Muslims.
But because the tradition had to be respected, the hybrid civilization of the region tolerated the exclusion of Jews and the marginalization of Christians. It was only one step from there to the defamation by Shiite of Sunni, by Sunni of Alawi, and on and on. The jihad of Muslim against Muslim, whether waged by Lebanon’s Hezbollah in Syria, or by extreme Islamists in parts of Iraq and northern Syria, is a huge reversal. It is like a page taken straight out of eighth- or ninth-century Islamic history. Here we are in a Middle East where the major divide isn’t over the form of government, or the nature of the economic system, or the extent of individual liberty. It is over a dispute dating from the seventh century of Islam—the sort of thing Europe left behind when it secularized during the Enlightenment.
There are some who would actually reify this by inscribing it on the map. There is a certain line of reasoning, that what the Middle East really needs is a new map, drawn along sectarian lines. This is how the argument goes: The 1916 Sykes-Picot map is worn out, it is coming apart at the seams. The lines on the political map are losing their meaning, the lines that aren’t yet on the map are becoming realities. An alternative map is needed, and most of the alternatives have a standard feature: divvying up the Fertile Crescent along sectarian and ethnic lines.
There is no doubt that the present crisis is weakening some states, and that they are losing their ability to project central power up to their borders. Sectarian and ethnic separatism does have purchase. But even if new lines could be drawn, how would this solve the crisis? How would it make the region better suited to embrace modernity? The fact is that sectarian statelets, predicated on pre-modern identities, could well go the other way. Think about the Sunni Islamist quasi-states centered around Raqqa in northern Syria and Gaza on the Mediterranean. These aren’t going to become the next Dubai or Qatar, and not just because they don’t have oil. If the map does come undone, and new statelets or quasi-states or mini-states are born, that is just as likely to bring about more sectarian and ethnic conflict than ease it.
In summation, there are millions of people who now must reconfigure the way they see themselves and the world, not just through a political revolution, but through a cultural one. There is no way any outside power outside can deliberately accelerate or channel this transformation. And since we are much closer to the beginning of that process than the end, the region will remain a cauldron for years if not decades to come.

60 Mintues: The Coptic Christians of Egypt. By Bob Simon.

The Coptic Christians of Egypt. By Bob Simon. Video. 60 Minutes. CBS News, December 16, 2013. YouTube.