There is much talk right now about America teaming up with Iran to push back the coalition of militias that has taken over Mosul and other towns in western Iraq and Syria. For now, I'd say stay out of this fight — not because it's the best option, but because it's the least bad.
After all, what is the context in which we'd be intervening? Iraq and Syria are twins: multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian societies that have been governed, like many others, from the top-down.
First, it was by soft-fisted Ottomans who ruled through local notables in a decentralised fashion, then by iron-fisted British and French colonial powers and later by iron-fisted nationalists and dictators. Today, the Ottomans are gone, the British and French are gone and now many of the kings and dictators are gone.
America removed Iraq's dictator; Nato and tribal rebels removed Libya's; the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen got rid of theirs; and some people in Syria have tried to topple theirs.
Each country is now faced with the challenge of trying to govern itself horizontally by having the different sects, parties and tribes agree on social contracts for how to live together as equal citizens who rotate power.
Tunisia and Kurdistan have done the best at this transition. Egyptians tried and found the insecurity so unbearable that they brought back the army's iron fist. Libya has collapsed into intertribal conflict.
Yemen struggles with a wobbly tribal balance. In Syria, the minority sect, plus the Christians and some others, seem to prefer the tyranny of Bashar Al Assad to the anarchy of the bigot-dominated rebels; the Syrian Kurds have carved out their own enclave, so the country is a now a checkerboard.
In Iraq, the prime minister, Nuri Kamal Al Maliki — who had the best chance, the most oil money and the most help from the US in writing a social contract for how to govern Iraq horizontally — chose instead, from the moment the Americans left, to empower a particular sect and disempower the other.
It's no surprise that in Iraq the aggrieved and left out sect decided to grab its own sectarian chunk of the country.
So today, it seems, a unified Iraq and a unified Syria can no longer be governed vertically or horizontally. The leaders no longer have the power to extend their iron fists to every border, and the people no longer have the trust to extend their hands to one another.
It would appear that the only way they can remain united is if an international force comes in, evicts the dictators, uproots the extremists and builds consensual politics from the ground up — a generational project for which there are no volunteers.
What to do? It was not wrong to believe post-9/11 that unless this region produced decent self-government it would continue to fail its own people and deny them the ability to realise their full potential, which is why the Arab Spring happened, and that its pathologies would also continue to spew out the occasional maniac, like Osama bin Laden, who could threaten us the Americans.
But the necessary turned out to be impossible: We the Americans didn't know what we were doing. The post-Saddam generation of Iraqi leaders turned out to be like abused children who went on to be abusive parents.
I could say that before President Obama drops even an empty Coke can from a US fighter jet on the militias in Iraq we need to insist that Maliki resign and a national unity cabinet be created that is made up of all sects.
I could say that that is the necessary condition for reunification of Iraq. And I could say that it is absolutely not in our interest or the world's to see Iraq break apart and one segment be ruled by murderous radicals.
But I have to say this: It feels both too late and too early to stop the disintegration — too late because whatever trust there was between communities is gone, and Maliki is not trying to rebuild it, and too early because it looks as if Iraqis are going to have to live apart, and see how crazy and impoverishing that is, before the different sects can coexist peacefully.
Pluralism came to Europe only after many centuries of one side or another in religious wars thinking it could have it all, and after much ethnic cleansing created more homogeneous nations. Europe also went through the Enlightenment and the Reformation. Arabs need to go on the same journey. It will happen when they want to or when they have exhausted all other options.
Meanwhile, let's strengthen the islands of decency — Tunisia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Kurdistan — and strengthen our own democracy to insulate ourselves as best we can. - The New York Times News service