Fragments Of Comprehension

(semi-internal) Our consciousness and humility must reflect, refine and redeem every scattered fragment of the material world

► The most common wrong ideas about the state [FoC.13.05.27]

Posted by Ben Seattle on May 27, 2013

What is the state? What are the most common misconceptions?

Hi Art,

This letter will focus on Frank P’s questions about the state.
I will reply to his question concerning principles in a second

Frank Patino:

> “how do you define the state. . How do you explain the origin
> of the capitalist system ? And which author or thinker helped
> you answering that….

First, Frank’s questions demonstrate that even time-wasting idiots
may have the ability to ask good questions. All that is required,
in order to put these idiots to good use, is for someone else (ie:
a “finder”, or “refiner”) who can take the time to read their posts
and identify (and forward) the useful questions (or anything else
that may be useful) while being careful to avoid forwarding the
non-useful, word-twisting and dysfunctional logic.

My efforts to describe the state

The state was created as a machine to fill the need of the
ruling, exploiting class to maintain the suppression of the
exploited class.

This remains the primary purpose of the state. The state
is a machine in which the parts work together for a common
purpose. That primary purpose is to maintain the class rule
of the ruling class and to maintain the suppression of the
suppressed class.

The state also has secondary functions, and this often creates
confusion concerning what the state is and how it works.

Lenin noted (I forget where) that few questions have proven to
be more likely to be misunderstood than the nature of the state.
It is good to keep this in mind when reading my efforts (below)
to discuss this, because my formulations may be somewhat
approximate or sloppy.

Here is what I wrote in 2004:

> The state was developed historically as a tool, a machine,
> to protect the class interests of the propertied class which
> emerged from the economic division of society.

I will also add, here, that the primary class interest that
the state protects is the class rule of the ruling class
itself. This stands above all else, because without class
rule, the ruling class will lose everything.

Continuing with my comments from 2004:

> The state also served an important secondary function: it
> provided a means for the ruling class to resolve their internal
> disputes and help organize the life of society.

> In particular, the evolution of the modern economy (and money,
> capital, etc) required the development of a complex state machine
> to make and enforce the common rules which regulate (ie: make
> possible and make safe) the flow of investment and capital.

— Point 11 in The Laws of Commodity Production for Dummies

The words above represent my effort to define the state, in my
own words, as part of the Anarcho-Leninist Debate on the State.

The most well-known works on the state are probably “The Origin
of the Family, Private Property and the State” (Engels, 1884)
and “State and Revolution” (Lenin, 1917). These are both
powerful and excellent books and are not in the least tarnished
by Frank P’s annoying and stupid advocacy.

Engels’ book was based on the work of anthropologist Lewis
Morgan and showed that early human society was matriarchal,
up until the development of agriculture and class society
(ie: roughly speaking, about 10 thousand years ago) [1].
This is a fundamental idea, as important to a materialist
understanding of human development as evolution is to
understanding biology or the periodic table is to
understanding chemistry, although this idea is still not
universally accepted today, mainly because of the need of
the ruling bourgeoisie to keep the population saturated
with ignorance.

The well known book, “Sex at Dawn” can be considered something
of a popular (and more recent) introduction to Engels book,
although, naturally, Engels goes into these topics in vastly
greater depth. Engels showed that, in early human society, the
tribe (ie: the kinship group) represented the prototype of both
the family and the state. “Family” and “state” were the same
thing at that time.

With agriculture and class society, everything changed. The
state grew and the family shrank as the character of these
institutions was transformed to reflect oppressive class

The state emerged as a system of institutions and traditions to
maintain the suppression of one class by another. The family
emerged as something of a tiny version of the state, integrated
with it in various ways. In the story of Esther (in the Jewish
religious tradition) the Persian king consults his advisors
concerning what to do when his wife disobeyed him in front of
prominent guests. He loved her and did not want to lose her
–but they told him that he needed to execute her in order to
maintain the stability of social system (ie: based on male
supremacy in the family) and he did. In other words, if the
King’s wife could defy him, then other wives in other families
would take this as encouragement to do the same. The story
itself may be fictional, but it probably accurately reflects
the integration of family and state.

Formal state vs. deep state

The most common wrong idea about the state concerns identifying
the state with the “formal state” (ie: in a country like the
U.S., the federal, state and municipal governments). A more
realistic idea is to include what is usually called the “deep
state” that includes the informal institutions that are
integrated with the state machine, such as the press and many
other institutions. As an example, many of the stories in
the New York Times originate with government agencies,
including a regular system of leaks or “official sources say”.

The distinction between the formal state and the deep state
comes up sometimes in brutal fashion, such as Chile in 1973,
when the deep state reacted to “correct a problem” in the
formal state and a military coup killed Allende and tens of
thousands of progressive activists. Similarly, in countries
such as Brazil and Argentina the deep state, in the 1960’s
70’s and 80’s, carried out a “decapitation” of the progressive
movement, killing many thousands of activists. In fact, in
Brazil, the woman who is currently the elected president (ie:
the nominal head of the formal state) was imprisoned and
tortured by the military in the 1960’s.

The formal state is often subject to at least the pretense of
elections, but the informal, deep state may be protected from
even the charade of democracy. This was an issue only a few
years ago in Turkey (where only recently has the formal state
asserted control of the military) and remains an issue today
in Nepal.

Here in the U.S., the military is firmly under the control of
the formal state. This is reinforced as necessary. In 1974,
as the “Watergate crisis” reached its conclusion, the U.S.
Secretary of Defense sent a memo to all commanders reminding
them that, per the constitution, they are allowed to take orders
only through the official chain of command. This was in the
newspapers at the time. This was a signal to Nixon, who was
being forced out of office, as well as to all officers, that the
deep state would not tolerate any kind of hanky-panky. This was
also the issue in the recent firing of General McChrystal by
Obama and, before that, the firing of MacArthur by Truman, in
1951, when MacArthur began to publicly campaign for an invasion
of China.

In the U.S., much of the press and a host of other institutions
can probably be considered to be part of the deep state, inasmuch
as these institutions are an integral part of the system of
bourgeois class rule–even if there are disagreements concerning
how integrated these institutions are with the state.

For example, many liberal and social-democratic institutions
are tied to the state with a thousand strings (such as 501c3 tax
status–which means that wealthy donors can claim a tax deduction
for charitable contributions). Locally, Seattle Indymedia, which
emerged as the voice of the militant anti-WTO movement in 1999
(ie: a forerunner of the Occupy movement) ended up financially
entangled with the City of Seattle as a result of accepting
city-administered grant money for teaching computer literacy
classes at their fancy downtown headquarters.

So the voice of the street militants who fought the police ended
up in debt to the same local government that controlled those
police. And this kind of thing is not unusual.

At the same time, it would be absurd to claim that Seattle
Indymedia is part of the deep state, or that Chris Hedges or
Dominic Holden are part of the state, even if they did their
best to bend the militant core of the Occupy movement to the
will of the trade union bureaucrats. And it would be even more
absurd to claim that the ISO or the SA are part of the state.

Rather, it would be safer to say that there are not necessarily
clear lines defining what institutions or organizations should
be considered part of the state. Rather, we may want to think
of there being a gray zone between the black and the white.

I tend to view the New York Times as being part of the deep
state, because it is so higly integrated into the system of
bourgeois class rule. This integration is so developed that,
for example, when I am attempting to figure out what U.S.
imperialism is planning to do in Syria, I look at the NYT and
study the direction in which it is attempting to move “public
opinion”. When the NYT works to prepare public opinion to
accept stepped up intervention in Syria, this is a pretty good
indication that U.S. imperialism is planning to step up
intervention in Syria. I am not alone in this habit and
probably most experienced activists read the NYT in this way.

And this issue (ie: the press in the U.S. acting as if it
were an arm of the state) came up earlier this year when
news services in the U.S. reported on the state censorship
of China’s “Southern Weekly” newspaper after a New Year’s
editorial calling for the “rule of law” (ie: rather than
rule by China’s communist party) was killed. Initially,
the press in the U.S. made a big deal of this, but quickly
downplayed the whole thing when the ruling Chinese party
publicly pointed out their hypocrisy. Even in the U.S.,
it noted, the major newspapers do not dare to oppose the
state. And this is true. The NYT presents itself as
independent of the state (ie: by such things as the
publication of the “Pentagon Papers” in 1971, or the more
recent publication of excerpts from wikileaks). But this
kind of independence is shallow and cosmetic in comparison
to the simple fact, observable on a daily basis, that
institutions like the NYT function as part of the machinery
of bourgeois rule.

And what is our local “Stranger” weekly, but a small-scale
project with aspirations to be a local version of the NYT?
The NYT was a big cheerleader for the war in Iraq, but so
was (on a smaller scale) the “Stranger” (Dan Savage himself
wrote in favor of the invasion). The “Stranger” (a name
clearly choosen, when it was founded, to represent “outsider”
status) has become the total opposite, an “insider”, as
the “hip, cool” arm of the local Democratic Party machine.

And yet it would sound (and be) bizarre to call the “Stranger”
part of the deep state. So, as I noted, we need a concept of
a gray zone between black and white.

What we must keep in mind, however, is that what connects
these different parts of the state machine, whether formal or
informal parts, what provides the motor forces that makes
these parts work together smoothly, what works (often hidden
from view, behind the scenes) to adjust or replace parts that
are defective or causing problems–is the collective will and
class interest of the bourgeoisie as a whole.

However, there are also moments in history when certain parts
of the state machine get “out of control”. And this brings us
to the next topic.

The independence of the state

It happens, from time to time, that some part of the state
machine develops a certain amount of independence from the
ruling class as a whole. This is generally a relatively rare
and temporary event and is often associated with a period of
great crisis or war that forces the ruling class to grant
extraordinary power to some executive without the usual

Marx and Engels gave the example of Napoleon the Third in
France, who was allowed by the French bourgeoisie to appoint
himself dictator for life and whose drunken soldiers would
sometimes arbitrarily kill even members of the bourgeoisie.

A better and more modern example would be Hitler. The
German bourgeoisie put Hitler in power in a period of crisis.
The German bourgeoisie knew that Hitler presented them with
certain risks, and to reduce these risks, required that
Hitler eliminate what they considered a troublesome section
of his Nazi party before they could trust him with absolute
power. This led to the famous “night of the long knives”
(July 1934) in which Hitler eliminated the troublesome power
center in his party in order to prove himself to Hindenburg
and officials in the German army [2].

However, once Hitler was in power and had plunged Germany
into war–it was not easy for the German bourgeoisie to get
rid of him once it had become clear that the war was lost and
Hitler was leading Germany to ruin. They tried. This is the
significance of the plot to kill Hitler in July 1944. It
failed and the war dragged on for 9 additional months, during
which much of the industrial base of Germany was destroyed
and many of the German bourgeoisie lost their wealth.

Cargo-cult distortions of the role of the state

The cargo-cult Leninists (who can repeat verbatim Lenin’s
words but who do not have a clue what these words mean)
have two common misconceptions concerning the nature of
the workers’ state. Since the movement is saturated with
various kinds of cargo-cult Leninists (both the red kind,
like the CVO, and the blue kind, like the ISO and SA), we
need to be familiar with their wrong ideas.

1. The merger of party and state (ie: the theory of dopes)

The first wrong idea is that, under the “dictatorship of
the proletariat” (DoP) the workers’ state and the workers
party are merged, and that the party becomes the state,
or completely controls the state.

This idea is wrong from the point of view of theory and
practice. The state must be controlled, not by the party, but
by the working class. This, by the way, helps us understand
why the working class needs the fundamental democratic rights
of speech and organization–because without these rights,
there is no practical way for the working class to control
the state.

The party, on the other hand, is not controlled by the working
class. The party is controlled only by the most advanced
section of the working class (ie: a small section of the
working class) which are members of the party and have voting
rights within the party.

This distinction becomes important in the event that the party
becomes corrupted in one way or another by the tremendous
forces that put pressure on it when it administers society.

And the eventual corruption of any organization which
administers society in the absence of effective oversight
or competition is inevitable. It is something that will
happen with sufficient time. It is not a question of “if”
but rather is a question of “when”.

We need to be clear on this. The party may play the role
of an executive that runs a company for an owner. If the
executive (ie: the party) proves to be incompetent or steals
from the owner (ie: the class) then the owner (ie: the class)
will fire the executive (ie: the party) and find a different
executive (ie: another party) to manage society. But without
the fundamental democratic rights of speech and organization
the owner will not have the ability to do this–because it
will not be able to create another party if the corrupt
party can prevent it from doing so.

This is why the cargo-cult Leninists who preach that the
ruling party must have the ability to suppress the democratic
rights of free speech and organization are engaging in the
worst kind of public masturbation (I will substitute a less
offensive term for this if I move this letter to my upper
blog) because they refuse to think about how the fuck the
proletariat will be able to get rid of a party that becomes corrupt
if it does not have these fundamental democratic rights. And
the question that these masturbaters refuse to think about
is precisely the question that just so happens to be on the minds
of everyone else and is the primary reason that the idea of
the rule of the working class is almost universally regarded as
a dead, bankrupt idea.

This is the fruit of cargo-cult Leninism: it is a religion
that is aimed at dragging the idea of the rule of the
working class into the sewer.

We should understand part of the reason that the cargo-cultists
promote the idea that, under working class rule, the party and
the state will be merged: they were merged in Soviet Russia.

The reasoning here is that, if this merger took place in
Soviet Russia while Lenin was alive, and Lenin approved of
it, then this must (somehow) be an essential feature of the
dictatorship of the proletariat.

The truth is the opposite. This merger only took place with
Lenin’s approval because, during this period, the bolsheviks
had no fucking choice: conditions did not exist for the rule
of the working class itself. So, instead of the rule of the
working class, Lenin engineered the rule of an organization
that he hoped would be able to create the conditions that
would be necessary for the rule of the working class. And
the primary necessary condition, in this case, was a functioning
economy. More specifically, it was the ability for factories
in the cities to be able to produce goods that could then be
traded to the peasants for grain–so that it would not be
necessary to simply take grain from the peasants in exchange
for essentially nothing.

Until there was a functioning economy (as described above)
it would not be possible to restore the fundamental democratic
rights of speech and organization–because the unhappy and
ignorant peasants would have used these rights to get rid of
the bolsheviks and put in power the political trends that
would have made all kinds of false promises to get into power
and then would have surrendered power to the bourgeoisie.

The merger of party and state under Lenin was simply an
emergency measure taken to buy time for a revolution
that could only be considered to represent the dictatorship
of the proletariat in embryonic form. It was a desperate
measure taken because there was such a shortage of competent
and trustworthy people.

But an embryo is not a person. Not yet. And the “D of P”
in embryonic form is not the goal of the working class.
And the cargo-cultists who promote that idea that it is–
are actually promoting the idea of a “dictatorship of the
proletariat for the extremely stupid” (ie: “dopes”). And
their theory is only fit for dopes.

2. Will the state suppress the bourgeoisie or the proletariat?

The second wrong idea held by cargo-cult Leninists is that
what they call the “state” (ie: the ruling party) will need
to be able to suppress the right to free speech and
organization of their critics and opponents in order to
prevent the former bourgeoisie (or any newly rising
bourgeoisie) from subverting the rule of the working class.

Again, the truth is the opposite.

Only when the population has the fundamental democratic rights
of speech and organization–will the working class be able to
defend its class rule against the inevitable attempts by the
old or any new bourgeoisie from grabbing power.

On the other hand, when the working class is denied these
fundamental democratic rights, it will be rendered passive
and unable to oppose the efforts of old or new bourgeoisie
from corrupting and taking over the party-state.

The cargo-cultists sometimes quote Lenin, in “State and
Revolution” in an attempt to support their views. I looked
into this and concluded that this book, which I believe
Lenin wrote by latern-light while hiding in a barn in Finland
on the eve of the 1917 revolution (he never finished the book
because the October revolution was successful and he huried
back to Russia) includes several formulations which have not
passed the test of time, and need to be corrected. I wrote,
in July 2009, that Lenin’s “State and Revolution” is inadequate
and misleading and badly needs to be updated. This is posted

More (hopefully) soon.

All the best,


[1] Engels’ “Origin of the Family”

> Engels made an argument using anthropological evidence of the time
> to show that family structures changed over history, and that the
> concept of monogamous marriage came from the necessity within class
> society for men to control women to ensure their own children would
> inherit their property. He argued a future communist society would
> allow people to make decisions about their relationships free of
> economic constraints.

— source:,_Private_Property_and_the_State



3 Responses to “► The most common wrong ideas about the state [FoC.13.05.27]”

  1. Here is a remarkably frank description of the role of “public intellectuals”
    in paving the road to war:

    Liberal hawks were vocal on involvement in Iraq but have been quiet on Syria

    By Jason Horowitz, Published: May 28

    For interests on both sides of Syria’s civil war, this has been the week to increase the pressure. Hezbollah sent reinforcements to the troops of President Bashar al-Assad, and Russia reiterated its intention to furnish the regime with weapons. At the same time, Republican Sen. John McCain secretly visited rebels and promised to push the Obama administration to arm the retreating forces. The European Union allowed its weapons embargo to lapse as nations such as Britain and France appear increasingly eager to aid the opposition fighters.

    But amid the burst in outside engagement, one influential group seems noticeably silent. The liberal hawks, a cast of prominent left-leaning intellectuals, played high-profile roles in advocating for American military intervention on foreign soil — whether for regime change or to prevent humanitarian disasters. They pressured President Bill Clinton to intervene in Bosnia, provided intellectual cover on the left for President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq and urged President Obama to engage in Libya. But even as the body count edges toward 100,000 in Syria and reports of apparent chemical-weapons use by Assad, liberal advocates for interceding have been rare, spooked perhaps by the traumatic experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan and the clear reluctance of a Democratic president to get mired in the Middle East. Call them Syria’s mourning doves.

    “Everybody has their own ghosts to deal with,” said Vali Nasr, a former Obama administration official and leading proponent of intervention in Syrian. “But those people understand that what is going on in Syria cannot go on indefinitely.”

    In their absence, the military-intervention-will-only-make-things-worse school of foreign policy subscribed to by key national security figures in the West Wing continues to hold sway.

    “The reason that the president is being very discerning about how we react to the situation in Syria has very little to do with me,” said Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff and longtime foreign policy adviser. “And very much to do with the president’s humility in recognizing the challenges of intervention in this region of the world, which is shown, I think in stark relief, with the situation in its neighbor — namely, Iraq.”

    The administration has maintained its advocacy for a political solution to remove Assad and is hoping to make progress at a peace conference next month.

    In the face of administration reluctance to act, Nasr, the dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins and author of “The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat,” is spearheading the effort to mobilize the liberal hawks. Every day “I have more company,” he insisted, adding that he frequently receives encouragement in “private conversations.”

    The advocates for intervention argue that there are strong moral, geopolitical and national security reasons to intervene and that although there is no good option in Syria, doing nothing is the worst option of all. They’d like to see the destruction of Assad’s aircraft, heavy weapons and assets on the ground and have called for the creation of no-fly zones and the arming of rebels, as well as a naval blockade to prevent Syria from exporting oil. They also believe American firepower could create havens in rebel-controlled territory, giving a moderate opposition the chance to govern and to weaken extremists while easing the burden of refugees, and preventing further sectarian spillover into neighboring states.

    They worry that Obama is sending the message to dictators that brutality will go unchecked and that he is ceding the battlefield to the United States’ more strategic enemies, including Iran. The advocates worry that Obama’s blurring of red lines over the use of chemical weapons weakened American credibility and moral authority and reduced any chance for a diplomatic solution.

    Those who oppose armed intervention fear that U.S. involvement in Syria would only worsen the situation and fuel the kind of sectarian fury that was unleashed in Iraq.

    They also believe that the administration has been wise to avoid ownership of the problem if it is not willing to make a long-term nation-building commitment.

    The few prominent liberal hawks have taken their case to high-profile platforms. Bill Keller, a former editor of the New York Times, recently acknowledged his wariness but added that “in Syria, I fear prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged tragedy.” He was immediately attacked with echoes of the “Bush’s Useful Idiots” critique. Leon Wieseltier has incessantly demanded action from his perch at the New Republic. And Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former top State Department official who is president of the New America Foundation, has been consistently outspoken in favor of intervention.

    Slaughter said she wants to hear more from the intellectuals who joined her in urging intervention in Kosovo, Rwanda and, most recently, Libya. “The place to look, I think, is not 10 years ago [in Iraq], it’s Libya,” she said. “Where’s the Libya coalition?” She blamed the Obama administration inaction in Syria for creating a climate of “despairing futility” that rendered her former allies moot.

    Other advocates of intervention have found some absentees particularly noteworthy.

    “I am not the first or the only person who has wanted to know the views of the American writer who has done more than anyone else in recent years to emphasize the humanitarian responsibility of democratic countries in the face of giant massacres — namely, Samantha Power,” Paul Berman, an essayist and author who has been a consistent voice for intervention, wrote in an e-mail.

    Power, who declined to comment, is being vetted for the position of undersecretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights at the State Department, according to several sources. She is said to be acting behind the scenes to build support for intervention in Syria. But given Obama’s apparent lack of interest — he told the New Republic that a humanitarian crisis in Syria alone does not justify U.S. military involvement — it is not clear whether having Power in the administration is as useful as having her as a clear voice outside it.

    Other left-leaning supporters of previous interventions haven’t exactly been taking up the slack.

    In the New York Times, Thomas Friedman, who supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, wrote, “President Obama is right to be cautious about getting burned in Damascus” and warned that only a lengthy, expensive and total commitment of troops could end the civil war.

    George Packer, one of the most compelling voices for humanitarian intervention in Iraq and elsewhere, argued in the New Yorker that as much as Obama may want to pivot toward the Asia-Pacific region, the Middle East requires his prolonged engagement. Since then, Packer has remained mostly silent, saying that Syria is not his area of expertise.

    In an e-mail, Michael Ignatieff, a Harvard professor and author whose writing is said to be influential in the administration, wrote that he and others “have been saying something must be done and something can be done.” But fellow advocates of intervention said they wished Ignatieff would say such things in more prominent arenas so that the president might hear.

    Even the former liberal hawks who have changed their minds have noticed that many of their one-time compatriots seem mum.

    “However one feels about these issues, as a public intellectual you owe the public your best thoughts on it,” said Fareed Zakaria, who said the historical lessons of Iraq led him to oppose intervention in Syria. “I’ve tried to be as honest and open about my reservations about it.” He suggested that perhaps his fellow liberal hawks have been “somewhat chastened by the Iraq experience and relatedly how Afghanistan has turned out.”

    The development has pleased traditional foreign policy realists, who applaud Obama’s reluctance to be drawn into the conflict.

    “If you have a constant drumbeat in the op-ed columns and on the talk shows and inside the journals of opinion,” said Stephen Walt, a Harvard professor and leading realist thinker, “there are going to be some people within the administration who get influenced by it.”

    Top administration officials agreed. “There is a very vibrant debate going on inside the administration,” McDonough said. “What is said on the outside is influential and obviously heard in that debate.” He added, though, that “the pressure about the situation in Syria comes from the threat to our interests and the unbelievable humanitarian disaster that’s unfolding.”

    The one thing that both sides seem to agree on is that Obama, who in no small part owes his presidency to resisting the arguments of the liberal interventionists for war in Iraq, seems intent not to act or provide much space for the thinkers to aggregate.

    Perhaps in the hopes of speaking the realist foreign policy language prevailing in the Oval Office, Nasr has framed the intervention as a national security, rather than humanitarian, imperative. But the intervention advocates who were so articulate in the past, he acknowledged, seem lost.

    “The intellectuals are groping,” Nasr said. “They know where they were before is not probably right, but you don’t have a clarity of what we are going to do as a country.”

  2. And here is the house columnist for the NYT, explaining why
    it would be foolish for U.S. imperialism to jump into Syria:

    This Ain’t Yogurt
    Published: May 4, 2013

    AN Arab friend remarked to me that watching the United States debate how much to get involved in Syria reminded him of an Arab proverb: “If you burn your tongue once eating soup, for the rest of your life you’ll blow on your yogurt.”

    After burning our tongues in Iraq and Afghanistan, and watching with increasing distress the aftermath of the revolutions in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, President Obama is right to be cautious about getting burned in Damascus. We’ve now seen enough of these Arab transitions from autocracy to draw some crucial lessons about what it takes to sustain positive change in these countries. We ignore the lessons at our peril — especially the lesson of Iraq, which everyone just wants to forget but is hugely relevant.

    Syria is Iraq’s twin: an artificial state that was also born after World War I inside lines drawn by imperial powers. Like Iraq, Syria’s constituent communities — Sunnis, Alawite/Shiites, Kurds, Druze, Christians — never volunteered to live together under agreed rules. So, like Iraq, Syria has been ruled for much of its modern history by either a colonial power or an iron-fisted autocrat. In Iraq, the hope was that once the iron-fisted dictator was removed by us it would steadily transition to a multisectarian, multiparty democracy. Ditto for Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen.

    But we now see the huge difference between Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Arab world in 2013. In most of Eastern Europe, the heavy lid of communist authoritarian rule was suppressing broad and deeply rooted aspirations for democracy. So when that lid was removed, most of these countries relatively quickly moved to freely elected governments — helped and inspired by the European Union.

    In the Arab world, in contrast, the heavy lid of authoritarianism was suppressing sectarian, tribal, Islamist and democratic aspirations. So, when the lids were removed, all four surfaced at once. But the Islamist trend has been the most energetic — helped and inspired not by the European Union but by Islamist mosques and charities in the Persian Gulf — and the democratic one has proved to be the least organized, least funded and most frail. In short, most of Eastern Europe turned out to be like Poland after communism ended and most of the Arab countries turned out to be like Yugoslavia after communism ended.

    As I said, our hope and the hope of the courageous Arab democrats who started all these revolutions, was that these Arab countries would make the transition from Saddam to Jefferson without getting stuck in Khomeini or Hobbes — to go from autocracy to democracy without getting stuck in Islamism or anarchism.

    But, to do that, they need either an external midwife to act as a referee between all their constituent communities (who never developed trust in one another) as they try to replace sectarianism, Islamism and tribalism with a spirit of democratic citizenship or they need their own Nelson Mandela. That is, a homegrown figure who can lead, inspire and navigate a democratic transition that is inclusive of all communities.

    America, we all know, played that external referee role in Iraq — hugely ineptly at first. But, eventually, the U.S. and moderate Iraqis found a way back from the brink, beat back both Sunni and Shiite violent extremists, wrote a constitution and held multiple free elections, hoping to give birth to that Iraqi Mandela. Alas, they got Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite who, instead of building trust with other communities, is re-sowing sectarian division. Decades of zero-sum politics — “I’m-weak-how-can-I-compromise/I’m-strong-why-should-I-compromise” — are hard to extinguish.

    I believe if you want to end the Syrian civil war and tilt Syria onto a democratic path, you need an international force to occupy the entire country, secure the borders, disarm all the militias and midwife a transition to democracy. It would be staggeringly costly and take a long time, with the outcome still not guaranteed. But without a homegrown Syrian leader who can be a healer, not a divider, for all its communities, my view is that anything short of an external force that rebuilds Syria from the bottom up will fail. Since there are no countries volunteering for that role (and I am certainly not nominating the U.S.), my guess is that the fighting in Syria will continue until the parties get exhausted.

    Meanwhile, wherever we can identify truly “good” rebels, we should strengthen them, but we should also be redoubling our diplomatic efforts to foster a more credible opposition leadership of reconciliation-minded Syrians who can reassure all of Syria’s communities that they will have an equitable place at a new cabinet table. (Never underestimate how many Syrians are clinging to the tyrannical Bashar al-Assad out of fear that after him comes only Hobbes or Khomeini.) That way, when the combatants get exhausted and realize that there can be no victor and no vanquished — a realization that took 14 years in Lebanon’s civil war next door — a fair power-sharing plan will be in place. Even then, Syrians will almost certainly need outside help to reassure everyone during the transition, but we can cross that bridge when we come to it.

    Here’s the one alternative that won’t happen: one side will decisively defeat the other and usher in peace that way. That is a fantasy.

  3. […] The most common wrong ideas about the state […]

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