Remember ten years ago? You probably were at entering your peak pimple/masturbation years, thinking about trying out that “marijuana,” thing, and lying about how much sex you had. But in between managing your hormones, you were in high school. And if you were like me, you were taking European history, learning about white rich men the world over.
Anyways I want you to dig deep into your memory banks and see if you can’t recall one of history’s most dire times: The 30 Years War. Taking place between 1618 and 1648, it’s generally regarded as one of the deadliest periods in human history. (In “Germany,” 1/3 of the population died.) It eventually drew in nearly every major state, kingdom, dukedom and earldom, in the region. It grew out of tensions between the two major branches of the major regional religion, specifically the dominant branch (Catholicism) learning to deal with the increased power of the minority branch (Lutheran Protestants.) Surrounding nations were drawn into the conflict as a proxy war to fight over control of the resources of the weaker areas.
Why am I bringing this up? Because, as this blog says, you have to know your history, or you are doomed to repeat mistakes that have already been made. And I think that the lessons of the 30 Years War can teach us about what we are dealing with in the present day Middle East.
The violence taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan is due to two factors: anger about control over the Middle East by larger outside states (especially among previous groups who used to have power,) and underlying tensions between Shias and Sunnis that have been inadvertently brought to the forefront of geopolitical interactions by the U.S’ terrible foreign policy of the last six years. The U.S. and Europe’s support of Israel and more importantly, exploitation of natural resources and military presence (colonization and neo-colonization) fermented the seeds of dissent in people in the region. This led to the creation of radical groups, many of them strongly religious, who began committing acts of war against people they thought were invading their area: the U.S., Israel, and Europe.
The invasion of Afghanistan by NATO was a response to the most severe and deadly act of war by a radical group. The invasion of Iraq by the Coalition of the Willing, is starting to look like a resource grab gone horribly wrong. Yes the Bush Administration tried to tie it to the acts of war, but this connection by our leaders was either gross misjudgment or outright lying. While WMDs were not in Iraq, the oil always was, as well as the hope that Iraq would transform itself into a western-friendly proxy state that could supply energy while allowing the U.S. and others to use their territory as a military base and counter-balance to other Anti-West states.
What we know now is that idea was a pipe dream; instead the radical groups, realizing that an invaded Iraq was a prime area to conduct an insurgency, destabilized Iraq and Baghdad. Lack of security in this environment led groups of Shia’s and Sunnis to gang together for protection, increasing sectarian conflict.
On a larger scale, the destabilization of Iraq increased Iran’s regional power by getting rid of one of their largest threats. Iran is the heartland of Shia Islam, and has done its best to step into the void of leadership in the Middle East that has existed since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. This has threatened traditional Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan; the Saudis don’t want Iran flexing its muscles in the oil regime, the Jordanians and Egyptians are worried about getting caught up in an Israel-Iran conflict. As Sunni-majority states, they also are troubled by the rise of Shia’s in Iraq’s new government and Iraq’s movement towards Iran; thus the rise of academics and journalists throwing around the term “Shia Crescent.”
Destabilization within the region and fear of the rival risks escalation to a scenario similar to that in Europe in the 17th Century. A repeat of the 30 Years War would go something like this. First the U.S. shifts their focus from rebuilding Iraq and snuffing out the radical groups that actually attacked them to state on state conflicts, through threatening Iran on the basis of their nuclear program, causing problems in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon or funding terrorists with Syria. Iran fights back, the U.S. and allies invade Iran. Various radical groups and militas on various sides attack each other for various reasons, using anywhere from Saudi Arabia to the Afghanistan Pakistan border as their battlefield Syria and Israel get drawn into the conflict militarily while the Saudis and Egyptians get drawn in at the minimum as financial backers.
Ok so that would be terrible, but not too terrible right? Certainly not as bad as the 30 Years War.
The problem is that, the 30 Years War took 30 Years. And we are in year four of this conflict. Countries such as China or Russia, who do not have strong enough interests, or not enough military power to compete against the U.S., could be in a different position twenty years down the line. At the very least they could take a role similar to that in Vietnam where they helped fund and arm the U.S. main enemy.
Still, my point is that all wars don’t happen like World War II, where there was a defined threat we could see coming down the road and prepare for. Sometimes, they are more complicated and progressive; what was intended to be a quick mission or quick land grab turns into a mess involving more actors than you originally intended. It’s a different kind of war, the only similarity is the death.
I think that the Middle East is going through a similar period as Europe in the 17th century. There is a battle of religions, of control. There are discussions about new ideas and philosophies that have entered the region and disrupted the balance of power. Long-term cultural institutions such as the patrimonial tribal system and the role of women are being challenged. There is a great economic disparity between those who have oil and those who do not.
In Europe, after years of war, the blood eventually became to great a cost. Eventually, the wars stopped and when the region finally recovered years later, the went through the time of the Enlightenment, where many of the liberal values that are the foundation of Western culture today were born. The Middle East will have its own Enlightenment, and the results will be different than that of Europe, yet no less influential. Here is hoping that it doesn’t take 30 years of bloodshed and 50 years of recovery to drive them to it. And whatever the future holds, the U.S. must do all it can to encourage a peaceful transition to the next stage.