Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters playing music on the front line. (Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of “The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.”

Yes, Nouri al-Maliki stubbornly refused to govern inclusively in Iraq. Yes, the rule of Syria’s Assad family has been brutal. And yes, Moammar Gaddafi left Libyans with little in the way of national institutions when he fell. But the pathologies of these leaders go only so far to explain the stunning failure of three major Arab states.

The Arab world is caught up in a broader struggle. It is being whipsawed between competing and not entirely satisfying notions of what it should mean to be Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi, Libyan, Yemeni or Lebanese — to name just a few places where conflicts over nationalism, identity and citizenship are most pronounced. Until Arabs figure out who they are and what kind of countries they want to live in, there is little Washington can do to help.

In many ways this is an evolution of a debate that has been going on since the 19th century, when Islamic reformers, nationalists, liberals and everyone in between bristled under European domination. By the mid-20th century, Britain and France had left or were driven out of the region, and new elites — Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Algeria’s Houari Boumediene, Tunisia’s Habib Bourguiba and, later, Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein — rose to lead the modernization of their respective countries. Questions of identity were seemingly resolved through the anti-colonial struggle and a semblance of progress. Although there was some rhetoric about Pan-Arabism, the prevailing sentiments of the age were captured in the revolutionary triplet, “Algeria is my country, Islam is my religion, and Arabic is my language.” Variations could have been coined in any number of Middle East countries.

The Arab elites of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s eventually became a conservative old guard, and their revolutionary ardor was replaced with tired platitudes. They defined the national identities of the countries they led with a mixture of old-school anti-colonialism, economic nationalism and historical mythologies sprinkled with paeans to the importance of Islam. While they held themselves out as nationalists par excellence, they applied neo-liberal economic reforms hatched in Washington at the headquarters of the International Monetary Fund, survived in part on assistance from the West, purchased copious amounts of weapons from the same countries and consorted with world leaders at places like Davos.

Few people in the Middle East today remember the triumphs of independence, nationalization and reforms that briefly produced educational opportunities and social mobility. In a region where the median age is well below 30 in all but a few countries, the vast majority of Arabs have instead experienced failing social contracts, police brutality and official indifference. When Arabs chased Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, Gaddafi and Ali Abdullah Saleh from power and threatened the Assads, they gave themselves an opportunity to redefine who they are.

But the new crop of Arab leaders has failed, at least thus far, to offer a national vision that is deeply appealing to a majority of their people. So different groups have sought to impose their will. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood tried an exclusive kind of politics; the military responded with guns. Unwilling to countenance alternative visions for Egypt’s future, the officers in turn are rebuilding an authoritarian political system. That Libya has descended into violence speaks to the collective failure of those who overthrew Gaddafi to redefine what it means to be Libyan. Even in Tunisia — the much-ballyhooed “Arab spring” success story — a political formula is working only because of what is essentially a stalemate in which the contenders do not have the means to dislodge their opponents. There remain fundamental disagreements between the Islamists of Ennahda and the secularist left about what it means to be Tunisian.

Then there is Iraq. There may never be a very good answer about what it means to be an Iraqi. While traveling recently from Irbil — the capital of the Kurdish region — to Sulaymaniyah and back, I asked Kurds, “What national idea or myth do you share with the people in other parts of Iraq?” They unhesitatingly declared, “None.” This should not be surprising, given that under British pressure the League of Nations unceremoniously appended the Kurdish areas to Iraq six years after the country was founded. The Kurds have been trying in vain to undo this ever since. There are, of course, 30 million or so other people in Iraq who have suffered since the fall of Hussein, in part because a sense of Iraqi-ness has been shattered.

The Islamic State has stepped into this vacuum to carve out from Iraq and Syria a chunk of territory the size of Maryland . While most reporting on the group has focused on its nihilistic brutality, the Islamic State does offer Sunnis in its midst a sense of belonging and purpose, as well as a positive myth, as Thanassis Cambanis recently argued in the Boston Globe. The establishment of a caliphate may seem perverse to those on the outside — including Muslim clerics and scholars — but it is providing people with succor at a desperate moment and something for which they can strive. This is probably why, in addition to fear and an intense dislike for Maliki, there has been no new “awakening” among Iraq’s Sunni tribes to oppose the Islamic State.

With the exception of perhaps Iraq, the breakup of Middle Eastern states is not foretold. Just because European diplomats created some Arab countries in the post-World War I settlements does not mean those countries are necessarily susceptible to disintegration. If ever there was a colonial creation, it is Jordan. Yet Jordan’s allegedly artificial borders have become meaningful, and, within them, people have a sense of what it means to be Jordanian. In Syria, where war has taken a toll on the territorial integrity of the country and hardened sectarian and ethnic differences, it is important to remember that the descent into conflict began when Syrians asserted a different concept of citizenship and the relationship between rulers and the ruled.

Even the most artificial of states can survive if its leaders discover a powerful vision of what it means to be part of that society and, importantly, if the principles they preach generally conform to the everyday reality people experience. Without that, the breach will probably continue to be filled with guns and violence.

Against this reality, all the criticism of President Obama concerning his minimalist approach toward the region seems misplaced. Of course, the White House could have heeded Kurdish requests for weapons to fight the Islamic State two months ago, perhaps forestalling the crisis that has brought the United States back to Iraq. Yet the president’s instincts on the politics of the region are largely correct. When people are engaged in high-stakes struggles over basic questions of identity, citizenship and nationalism, it is up to them and their leaders to discover a formula that will make their societies successful. This may cut against the grain of what foreign policy elites in the United States have come to believe about the use of American power in the world, but the conflicts within countries of the Middle East cannot be solved in Washington.

Outlook’s editors recommend: “Egypt’s identity crisis” and “In trying to help Syria, an intervention would destroy it.” You can also follow our updates on Facebook and Twitter.