The quagmire of Iraq is merging into the larger morass of the Middle East, the morass growing deeper weekly with the military successes and sensationalized brutality of the Islamic State.
President Obama has taken to describing IS as a ‘cancer’, ordering airstrikes whose objectives are morphing from the humanitarian, i.e. facilitating the escape of persecuted minorities, to the ostensibly moral, i.e. defeating the ‘cancer’ itself.
Editorials, blogs, and bloviating ‘experts’ made up and mic’ed for TV are ominously warning of the threat to the West. Apparently, jihadists recruited from Europe may go home again and cause trouble there.
The President is wading in deeper, not because he has a plan to fix Iraq, or Syria, or Gaza, or anything else, but because he’s being driven by politics into doing something. Airstrikes are ‘something’; we know how to do it; so we’ll do that. Maybe we’ll be able to kill enough IS fighters that the thing will disintegrate, and we can resume our withdrawal from the region.
Maybe. But the Middle East will not change, because the cancer that eats at that part of the world is not the Islamic State, or even jihadism. It is a cancer that was first planted and cultivated nearly 100 years ago by France and Britain after the First World War, when they carved up the old Ottoman Empire to suit themselves and their thirst for oil.
The cancer is political weakness.
Like many parts of the world, the Middle East is a stew of ethnicities and religions. There is nothing wrong with that. Even disparate peoples who must live together usually learn to get along. They develop commercial and social relationships. They intermarry. But they are also tinder for ambitious political adventurers who are good at striking sparks and fanning flames. (See The Politics of Tinder.) Political power is what keeps the adventurers down and the flames dowsed. Sarajevo, for instance, was once a cosmopolitan European city where Serbs, Croats, and Muslims lived in peace and raised families together. It even hosted the Winter Olympics.
Then the Soviet Union disintegrated, the adventurers came out of the woodwork, and Sarajevo became synonymous with “ethnic cleansing”.
So it is in the Middle East. Autocracies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt understand this all too well, and do whatever it takes to keep the adventurers down, whether it means buying off radical religious leaders or jailing and killing political opponents.
But the fragmentation and weakness of the Middle East go hand in hand with the machinations of Western politicians and security services, who dispense with humanitarian and democratic niceties in pursuit of short term ‘realpolitik’. Like selling anti-air and anti-armor weapons to the revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran in the 1980s. Like cultivating Saddam Hussein as a covert client when the Islamic Republic used its weapons to invade Iraq as far as Basra. Like acquiescing to Saddam’s plan to cross the border into Kuwait, because he was such a good covert friend (see April Glaspie).
The only way to grow a civil society is for a government to become strong enough to defeat the anarchists, and to become reliant on tax revenue for its continued existence – not oil or Western aid. This is how the virtuous circle is started and maintained, where a government thrives because its people do, and its people thrive because their government ensures civil order. This was appreciated as long ago as William the Conqueror.
Apparently not so today. It is inconceivable that Western democracies are capable of either helping to bring this about in the Middle East, or even refraining from undermining it, were it to begin on its own. Ultimately the cancer of political weakness persists because we in the West want it to – for many reasons, open and covert, not the least of which is competition for oil.
The US military may well defeat the Islamic State, but the morass of humanitarian, political, and economic issues and conflicts will only deepen, principally because the web of Western interests is a Gordian Knot that no one is willing to cut.
We will instead moralize. Throw political darts. Attend conferences. Announce cooperation and reconstruction. Throw money at our ‘friends’. Kill a few people. Moralize some more.
As we have done for a hundred years.