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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Lights Out in the Middle East

On the eve of the First World War, Lord Edward Grey observed that “[t]he lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” To Lord Grey, World War I was the result of decades of indirect competition between rival nations. The tensions and feuds resulting from the natural clashing of the European powers from the mid 19th century on eventually culminated in the most apocalyptic war the world had ever seen. As British Foreign Secretary, Lord Grey was savvy enough to do all that was in his power to protect his nation’s interests in the coming holocaust—but even he realized that all that was left was to make the best out of a catastrophic situation.

Lord Grey realized, unlike so many of his generation, that the new war would not be a quick and pleasant affair. Grey saw that the conflict could not be concluded until the underlying disputes between the great nations of Europe were resolved—even if it meant four years of literal apocalypse across the fields and forests of Europe. The fundamental conflict between blocs of nations had reached such a point that one side would necessarily destroy the other before it was all over.

Today in the Middle East, if we are not quite facing an analogous situation, we are fast approaching a similar point of no return. The fundamental conflict pervading the Middle East is the clash between liberalism and Islamic Fascism, just as there was a fundamental conflict between Western liberalism and Prussian militarism during the First World War. However, wars are seldom fought over purely ideological matters. The imminent threat in the Middle East is not the long term clash of values but the immediate clash of religions and the nations which finance them.

Traditionally in the Middle East, power has always lain with Sunni Islam. The Sunnis won favorable terms from the British and the French after the colonial period and the Sunnis now control the ostensible U.S. “allies” in the region: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt. These traditional Sunni powers are threatened by the growing power of a newly strengthened Iran. In many ways, the story of the past decade in the Middle East has been the spread of Iranian influence throughout the region, just as the specter of German unity created many of the geo-political fault lines in the decades proceeding World War I.

With Iraq’s large Shiite population freed from an oppressive Sunni minority, Iraq is now up for grabs ethnically and religiously. This power vacuum has created a battleground for the competing strands of Islam to fight it out for supremacy. Because of Iraq’s central location, a victory for either Iranian-backed Shiite death squads or Saudi-financed jihadists might permanently tip the balance of power in the region. A widespread regional war between Sunnis and Shiites—amounting to a proxy war between the conservative Gulf States and Iran—would not only have catastrophic effects on the global economy and regional stability (the gas lines of the 1970’s would for example, would look trivial in comparison) but would exponentially increase the threat of terrorism. Both branches of Islam would be trying to show that they are chosen heirs of Mohammed and would consequently wish to destroy as many American and Israeli targets as possible in order to gain bragging rights within the Middle Eastern community. It would amount to a very deadly PR war in which Al Qaeda (a Sunni organization) has already won the first round with its famous attacks on 9/11.

The only way possible to avoid such a bleak future is to regain stability in Iraq. In order to do that, we need more troops on the ground to get the job done. If the administration has the courage to request roughly 45,000 more troops and Congress is able to put partisan politics aside in order to avert the single greatest foreign policy calamity in American history, we may yet avoid wholesale slaughter in the region. However, the point is fast approaching where we will no longer have any control over events in the most strategic region on earth. Europe paid the price of global war on an unintelligible level twice during the 20th century. If we do not get our act together very quickly, future generations to come will be paying the price for our abdication of responsibility, principle, and ultimately humanity in the Middle East.