In 1978, Fouad Ajami wrote a seminal article in Foreign Affairs titled "The End of Pan Arabism." Its conceit was that the particular interests and actions of key Arab states had long ago trumped the idealized rhetoric and aspirations of Arab unity.
Forty years on, it may be time to ponder another proposition: In the wake of the Arab Spring, we're witnessing the beginning of the end of another Arab illusion -- the functional and coherent Arab state.
Forget democracies. What's at stake here is basic coherence and governance.
Three powerful states once competed for power and influence in the Arab world, not to mention America's attention. Egypt held the key to peace or war with Israel, Iraq determined the power balance in the Gulf, and Syria shaped security and stability in the Levant.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, all three have essentially gone off line, their regional reach much diminished. Egypt, which comes closest to being a coherent polity, is bogged down in interminable political and economic problems; Syria is fighting a bloody civil war; and Iraq is preoccupied with internal security challenges and well on the way to permanent ethnic and sectarian feuding.
As is nature's way, non-Arab powers have risen to fill this vacuum.
By any standard, Israel, Iran, and Turkey are now the three most consequential powers in the Middle East. To be sure, each faces major constraints in throwing its weight around in the Arab world. But by comparison, they are pretty stable polities with human, technological, and economic resources -- not to mention military power -- that enable them to project influence outside their borders, in ways the traditional regional powerhouses cannot.
The Arab monarchies, which appear to have overcome the wave of instability that threatened them in 2011 and 2012, are also holding their own. In the lands of the Arab kings, oil revenue, Islam, and royal legitimacy -- combined with fear of violence and disorder -- have preempted much of the turbulence of the Arab Spring. Though as Jordan and Bahrain can attest, revolt lies under the surface in these places too, and is only kept under control through repression, cooptation and fear of an even worse future.
But what of the other Arabs? In much of the Middle East, the situation looks far worse today than a year ago. The question facing these troubled countries right now is not whether they can become democracies or resolve fundamental identity questions. It is much more basic: Can they produce a minimum of competent governance and order, so that they can begin to deal with the galactic political and economic challenges they face?