«Αcross the Middle East, the political kaleidoscope is spinning at a vertiginous speed. The Islamic State has been both a cause and an effect. Wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen wrack the region, and virulent forms of extremism threaten all the other states. Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey are confronted with unprecedented humanitarian crises. From the Mediterranean to the Gulf, countries are fragile, regardless of the size of their security forces and arsenals. In the century since modern borders were delineated, the premises of power and politics—various forms of Arabism, oil wealth, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—have been upended. The big secular ideologies, from Nasserism to Baathism, are defunct. The Palestinians, whose factions offered a variety of ideologies, have been sidelined. Intellectual energy has been sapped on campuses, in parliaments, and in what little is left of public discourse. A demographic surge has produced a generation with limited job opportunities; up to a third of the young people across more than twenty Arab states are unemployed. Instability over the past six years has left a region in severe economic distress—costing Arab economies more than six hundred billion dollars, the United Nations reported in November. After past wars, societies eventually absorbed the shocks and got back to business. Now the long-term sustainability of some Arab states is in question.

Traditional warlords are at a loss as well. “The Arab world is desolate,” Walid Jumblatt, a Druze chieftain (and a member of Lebanon’s parliament), told me when I visited his family estate, a historic limestone manor in Moukhtara, an hour from Beirut. Jumblatt had been a pragmatic kingmaker, capable of brokering deals with Christian politicians, Sunni parties, Shiite Hezbollah, and even Syria’s Assad dynasty. Now he rarely leaves Moukhtara. The Islamic State has threatened to kill him; so have others. Security around him is intense. Rifles, vintage and new, were lined up along a wall of his study. Jumblatt’s main companion these days is an arthritic Shar-Pei named Oscar. In an anteroom, old maps reflect the region’s shifting frontiers and masters. Even if borders remain the same, Jumblatt said, they may define different entities. “We will live in this mess for a very long time.”

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