“America is losing its hegemony in the Middle East.” So wrote The Economist in its September 13th issue, page 55.
This raises a question. Why does America need to be in the Middle East? At one time, oil would have been the answer, but now that the US is glutted with oil, dependence on the Mideast has declined. Middle East oil still largely determines the world price of oil, but is it worth never-ending wars to keep the price down?
The same Economist article (“The Next War Against Global Jihadism”) explained: “the region itself has grown radically more fragmented and volatile.” Unresolved conflicts that have gone on for decades or even millennia still threaten the peace of the world. These conflicts have “been exacerbated by a shadowy proxy struggle between the two sects’ main state champions, Iran and Saudi Arabia.”
These two countries are the leaders of Shia Islam and Sunni Islam, respectively. Ironically, they are now “allies” of sorts, as both countries have a vested interest in defeating ISIS. Saudi Arabia joined in the US led bombing mission on ISIS Syrian targets, while Iran is giving support to Syria’s Assad regime which is threatened by ISIS.
No western allies want anything to do with Syria, but Syrian cooperation is needed to defeat ISIS.
It’s all very complicated.
America’s first president George Washington wrote in his farewell address to the American people: “Avoid foreign entanglements.” The mess in the Middle East is the kind of situation he was advising against, although most of the countries in the region did not exist in Washington’s time.
Americans and Europeans, who make up the western alliance, do not even begin to understand the complexities of the Middle East quagmire. How many people understand the rivalry between Sunni and Shia Islam, or even when and how it started? Not many. But it’s affecting us now more than any domestic challenge.
Prior to World War One, which was being fought exactly a century ago, the Middle East was of no importance to the western powers. After the war ended, the peace treaty divided up the Ottoman Empire, with the British emerging as the dominant power in the region. That remained the case until the 1950’s when America took over Britain’s former role. For decades, the British and the Americans supported questionable regimes. When those regimes were overthrown in the Arab Spring, the West was distrusted by ordinary people and by the new leaders who had seen their predecessors betrayed. Egypt, with the biggest Arab population, is a classic example of this.
Of course, Israel is different. Their values are more akin to ours. But, absent from the Middle East, we can still send arms and financial support. The Israelis have always taken care of themselves in times of conflict.
So, again, I ask the big question: why are we even in the Middle East?
Perhaps the answer can be found in history. In modern history, it was Napoleon who first realized that domination of the Middle East would enable a nation to control the world, to be the number one superpower. His campaigns in Egypt and Syria were not successful and the British ended up dominating the area. Their period of supremacy became even greater after World War One. When the British pulled out of the area, their superpower status was over.
If the US withdraws from the area, or is defeated in its battle with ISIS, America’s leadership role will also likely be over.
Even now, it’s difficult for the United States to tread through the minefield of Middle East politics. It was essential for the country to have Arab involvement in the bombings of Syria this week. If the US had acted without Arab support, it would have fed the delusion that the “Christian” West is fighting Islam, a widely held view. Labeling America as “the crusader state” adds to this impression.
We are frequently reassured that there will be “no boots on the ground.” Senior military men have said that the war cannot be won any other way. Americans are tired of wars, especially in the Middle East. If America at some future point turns its back on the region, its period of global dominance could well be over.