Tag Archives: WWI


Greater Middle East

“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.




There’s been a lot of talk following the murder of James Foley, the release of another journalist, and an appeal from the mother of a third. The talk assumes that the US government has a responsibility to protect Americans wherever they go in the world.

Whereas France and Germany will pay ransoms to rescue their nationals held by terrorists, the US and UK will not deal with them. The demand for James Foley’s life was 80 million pounds ($132 million). Small change for Washington but should our leaders deal with these people?

When Diane and I lived in Africa, we often found ourselves in very difficult situations. Sometimes these were life threatening. But never once did I expect either of our governments to come to our rescue. On one occasion, I remember a car coming into our driveway with all three of our children in it, when they should have been in school.

It turned out that soldiers had landed by helicopter in the school playground, shooting as they landed. The British High Commission decided to send the children home. This happened after a coup when everybody was rather nervous. We were never billed for this rescue. I am truly thankful that they took the action they did. But I really never thought they had a responsibility to come to our aid whenever we were in trouble.


Talking of Great Britain, the country seems to have overlooked a very important anniversary this month. Earlier in August, there were commemorations for the centenary of the start of the First World War on August 4th. This tragic event, which changed our world beyond all recognition, should be remembered.

But August 2014 is also the tercentenary of the establishment of the dynasty that continues to reign over the UK and other countries in the Commonwealth.

When Queen Anne died in 1714, she left no heirs, though she was pregnant seventeen times. Her nearest living Protestant relative was the Elector of Hanover, Prince George, who was asked to come to England and be king. There were actually 56 closer relatives but they were all Catholics and, therefore, denied the throne under the terms of the 1701 Act of Settlement. Realize if any of the other 56 had changed religion and assumed the throne, there would never have been a Queen Victoria or Elizabeth II.

Things did not get off to an auspicious start for the new King George – he divorced his wife before leaving Germany and had his mistress with him when he arrived in England.  In addition, there was rioting in at least twenty British cities and towns when he became king. But the British wanted a king – memories of the republic 60 years earlier were not good and they did not want to go down that route again. That king also had to be a Protestant.

George remained as king until his death in 1727. He continued to speak German and never really felt at home in his new country. In fact, he died while visiting his native Hanover.

At the time, nobody would have thought that they were establishing a system of government that would endure for three centuries and be exported to other countries around the world. George’s prime minister was Robert Walpole, who is now looked upon as the first prime minister. By the end of George’s reign, it was clear that the PM ran the country and the king was merely a figurehead, though an effective head of state in checking executive power. It’s a system that has given Britain and other countries a secure and stable political arrangement that continues to this day.

George was succeeded by three other Georges, none of whom could be considered a great monarch. In 1830, William IV became king but died seven years later.

His niece Victoria then assumed the throne and reigned for 64 years. Her marriage to her cousin Prince Albert earned her a great deal of respect and the monarchy became a lot more popular. That popularity continues to this day.

Under Victoria and Albert, the family’s name changed to Saxe-Coburg. In 1917, during a time of great anti-German feeling, the family wisely changed their name to Windsor, after the town west of London where they live.

Perhaps it was wise not to celebrate the tercentenary – it would not be a good idea to encourage people to look too closely into the lives of some of the monarchs who reigned during that 300 years. Not all have been like Queens Victoria and Elizabeth II.


If you’ve always suspected the media of bias, here’s the latest proof.

Last week, an unarmed 20-year-old white male was shot dead by a black police officer in Utah. This incident was not reported on national news broadcasts.

You will remember that when a black male, aged 18, was shot dead by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri, we had nightly coverage on the news for almost two weeks.

The deaths of young people are always a tragedy. It’s awful that their families have suffered such a loss. But the media is the issue here – they clearly need to be more even-handed and not take sides, jumping on the liberal bandwagon whenever the opportunity presents itself.



1913 franc

As 2013 draws to a close, I keep thinking about the world of 1913, exactly one hundred years ago. 

Exactly a century ago, globalization was all the rage.  The West was dominant, though it was western Europe, not the US, that dominated everything.  The great European empires had been a stabilizing factor in Europe for centuries.  It had been almost a hundred years since there was a major threat to world peace, Napoleon.

Yes, other wars had happened (no century in history has been without its wars).  The United States was engulfed in civil war for four years in the 1860’s.  The Germans and the French had fought a particularly bad war in 1870, the British and Russians a few years earlier.  There had been minor wars in the Balkans.  At the turn of the century, the British Empire was at war with the Boers in South Africa.  But essentially the world had enjoyed a century of peace under the Pax Britannica.

So, in 1913, the future looked rosy.

That year, the Romanovs celebrated the tercentenary of their dynasty.  Their tour across Russia brought out millions of loyal subjects, joyously celebrating peace and growing prosperity.  Lenin wrote to his wife in Geneva that the revolution would not happen in his lifetime, such was the popularity of the Romanovs.  Four years later, the empire and the dynasty collapsed; within a few months, Lenin was the new Bolshevik leader.  After seventy years of communism, the country still has not recovered from the fall of the czars.

In Germany, wealthy shoppers on the Under den Linden in Berlin, were enjoying the great prosperity that had come with Germany’s rapid growth rate since the unification of the country forty years earlier under the Prussian Hohenzollerns.  Nobody would have predicted the collapse of both empire and dynasty within five years.

Next door, the Habsburg dynasty continued to bask in the peaceful reign of the Emperor Franz Joseph, Europe’s longest serving monarch.  If anything happened to him, there were plenty of other Habsburg princes and grand dukes to take his place.  Vienna, too, was enjoying the greatest prosperity, even though the Austro-Hungarian Empire did not have overseas colonies.  Again, nobody would have guessed they only had five more years.

On the Avenue Champs Elysees in Paris, the city’s wealthy citizens enjoyed spending their increasing wealth.  France’s overseas empire was second only to Britain’s and, finally, after more than a century of political upheavals, the country had achieved stability under the Third Republic.  The republic was to last until 1940, but the events that led to its eventual demise were about to be set in motion.

London was the financial capital of the world, at the head of the greatest empire in history.  The British Empire was impregnable and money deposited in the country was “as safe as the Bank of England.”  The royal family had been on the throne for two centuries.  The country seemed as secure and stable as any country could be.

Six months after 1913 ended, an assassination in Sarajevo was to lead to the greatest conflict in history, World War One.  The world would never be the same again.  Wars and rumors of wars have replaced the old world order.  The ripples can still be seen, the never-ending consequences of “the war to end all wars.”  Afghanistan and Iraq are two recent examples.

On Monday, November 11th, it will be exactly 95 years since the guns of World War One fell silent.  A time to remember.  Time to pause and reflect.  In my childhood, wherever we were, we paused for two minutes at 11am, the exact time the fighting stopped – a token of respect for those who had paid the ultimate price.  In the United States November 11th is Veterans Day, in the United Kingdom, Remembrance Day.  On Sunday, the Queen will lay a wreath at the Cenotaph in London, to honor troops from all the Commonwealth countries that fought in the war from beginning to end.

But we should also pause and reflect to remember how quickly the world changed, how suddenly the peace and prosperity came to an end, how radically different the world of 1914 was from the world of 1913.

Could it happen again?  Of course it could.

Until then, the world will continue as it is.

It brings to mind the words of Jesus Christ in Matthew 24:37-39:   “But as the days of Noah were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.”

Something to reflect on over this Remembrance Day /Veterans Day weekend.