THE BLOG

Onward to the 7th Century

The history of the Middle East is a tapestry of zealots and empires worthy of novels. We are seeing the next chapter of what global stability analysts call "hill and valley" power begin to emerge. The "Coalition of the Willing" crusaders are receding once more. Our meddlesome experiments imposing plural political solutions upon the Mesopotamia landscape seem to be crumbling. There should be little surprise. The force behind this artificial plurality is the United States of America, a nation unable to manage plural harmony even within its own borders. We really are those "ugly" people who demand others do as we say not as we do and then gawk open mouthed when the world laughs at our hypocrisy. We Americans are still such a young and clumsy culture at times. It's a good thing we're lucky. But we do need to think more clearly sometimes. This is one of them and we should review the bidding of the choices we made and need to make next.

Every empire has a weakness buried deep in its value system. We need to know where our Achilles Heels are. Probably most dangerous to us at the moment, we have not broken our happy-go-lucky colonial mindset complacency. We Americans still see the world through the eyes of Manifest Destiny and the Arsenal of Democracy with a tinge of isolationism. It's been over a century since the Great White Fleet sailed and over half a century since VJ Day, plenty of time for the pitfalls of such episodes to fade. We hang on to mental models of a Cold War that looks like a football game. We completely miss that Americans and Russians share gregarious traits. Have you ever asked why we were able to cooperate in such a dangerous partnership on the edge of destroying the planet? We both have a lot more to be worried about. The truth is the world of the 21st Century does not resent one or the other of us. Those camps are fading fast. The world resents both of us for the combined order we imposed upon humanity. They know full well the polarity was a stage, a grand play to enable the sorting out of residual instabilities piecemeal.

We have done remarkably well -- or have been incredibly lucky -- sorting out many of the world's instabilities. Most were colonial matters of the post-Renaissance era. Yes, I am talking in long timelines. As these matters sort themselves out, we Americans enter into uniquely blind territory. The layers of the world's onion peel below those things our industrial revolution myopia can understand. We now meddle in things that cannot be framed by mangled quotations from Das Kapital or even the Federalist Papers. The global stability we seek to "fix" dates well before such trivialities like Marxism. Many among us can't see beyond it and yes that is an exploitable national weakness we carry with us. The minuet of genteel warfare, the rules of good conduct embraced by western civilization since the Hundred Years War do not apply. We are returning to the brutality of conquest. We see the emergence of practices for seizing power from the age of muscle when salting the earth, wholesale massacre, enslaving populations, and imposing poverty and terror were common tools of statecraft. It's a world more familiar to Philip of Macedonia or Alexander the Great. Modern civilization has fought a common struggle for hundreds of years against it. We've invented leagues, conventions and UN resolutions. All the while, ancient forces have been learning to use asymmetric warfare. They hope to change the world.

And so we arrive at the middle of 2014. We have some truly tough choices to make. Since the oil embargoes of the 1970s we have maintained an unbalanced alliance of our interests with the Sunni sect of the Muslim religion. We became unbalanced when our Cold War strongman, the Shah of Iran, was deposed and we became enemies with the Shiites as we backed the Saudis and Iraqis against the Iranians. This one sided position became even worse when the brutally secular Sunni Saddam Hussein turned his attentions in the direction of the deeply religious Wahhabi movement to his south. There a particularly troublesome Osama Bin Laden along with other disgruntled fanatics were emerging with the blessing of "old school statecraft" religious leaders within an insular sect that rejected the very existence of pretty much all other cultures. Bin Laden and his cohorts at least wanted to raise the stature of their faction. The ones that have followed him seem more bent on bringing the world down to their level.

The Saudis have been seemingly unable to moderate these dangerous trends. Traditionally the least political of the Gulf Arabs from the 1970's, they turned out to be the Sunni core of Wahhabism whose purity of dogma somehow took a bizarre turn. A splinter of it morphed violently first into terror bandits like Al Qaeda and now into proto-armies like ISIS. Unfortunately for the Saudis, their long standing aloofness may be their undoing as waves of Shia once held in check by a cadre of secular dictators are unleashed possibly with the world's blessing. Their fanatical mission will be to quell the excesses of the Wahhabi fanatics. Yes, that is a mess and a half.

It is into this mess that President Barack Obama must choose a very careful path to further the national interest of the United States of America. The consequences of being wrong are dire. Do we really want to make a Faustian bargain to rekindle a world where "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" in Iraq with the Iranians? Such marriages of convenience tend to be fleeting and have many consequences. Even combined, let's be real, the Iranians and the Americans have little control over where this will go. It's a cascading failure mode in the fragility of the human condition. Once the rogue Wahhabi bands are brutally decimated will these enraged Shiite armies go home or insist on running their remains to ground in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States? Will we stop them? Can we stop them? How do we even try to stop them? Do we ask the Saudis to move against these fanatics to catch them in the middle of a nation-states versus tribal power trap? And if they do, will the Shia care or are poisons emerging from the mud of history already too caustic for modern oil economy sensibilities to reign this in? You will notice that where nations end and religions begin in these paragraphs is very fuzzy. That's not an accidental observation of the can of worms we are sitting in.

There are other explosive considerations in that volatile region. Would the US -- or the rest of the world -- be comfortable bringing Iran and Israel so much closer to being military neighbors? It will happen. That's a consequence of chasing a group like ISIS back to Syria; you wipe out the old Sunni buffer zones. What happens when the armies of Persia and Mesopotamia link up with Pharaoh's with their own agenda and us as their -- gulp -- arsenal of jihad? What will the world think of America then for having helped bring such a force to power on the surface of this planet? What will the world think of us if we abandon the plural values of our American experiment for this muddling journey? Will our ideals even have any meaning in such a future?

That's a lot to ponder. I respectfully suggest that President Obama reach out to the entire US brain trust on this one. We are all about to live or die by what happens next.