The Arab world is a pluralistic region that lacks pluralism — the ability to manage and embrace differences peacefully. As such, the Middle East’s pluralistic character — Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Christians, Druze, Alawites, Jews, Copts, Yazidis, Turkmen and an array of tribes — has long been managed by iron fists from above. But after we removed the fists in Iraq and Libya, without putting a new bottom-up order in place, and the people themselves tried to remove the fists in Syria and Yemen, without putting a new live-and-let-live order in place, a horrifying war of all against all has exploded.
The fighting has laid bare just how much the last 60 years of predatory leadership in that region failed at human development and citizenship building. The whole Arab world package, with its artificially straight-line borders, was held together by oil and brute force. In the wreckage, people are falling back on the only identities they think might keep them safe: tribe and sect. It is a measure of how far things have unraveled that many Iraqi Sunnis prefer the lunatic Islamic State, or ISIS, than to fight and die for a pro-Iranian Shiite-led government in Baghdad. I have never seen it this bad. The Middle East analyst Simon Henderson captured the disintegration well in an essay in The Wall Street Journal in March, writing, “The violent chaos in Yemen isn’t orderly enough to merit being called a civil war.”