As the U.S. escalates its involvement in Syria, the region looks ominously similar to Europe just before the first World War.
Next year, the world will celebrate, if that is the right word, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. Also called the ‘Great War’ prior to World War II so as to separate it out from the lesser European conflicts that came before, World War I was nothing less than a catastrophe for European civilization that fundamentally altered the path of global history.
Given its impact, our leaders would be wise to study the ins and outs of how that great tragedy began – especially since the Middle East today is starting to look a bit like pre-World War I Europe. There, as in Europe of 1913, nationalism and ethnic strife, a local struggle for dominance, and the external machinations rivalries between Great Powers are combining to turn the greater Middle East into a powder keg.
To understand why, one should first consider the famous utterance of Otto von Bismarck – Chancellor first of Prussia and then Germany between 1862 and 1890 – that the next general war in Europe would be caused by “some damn thing in the Balkans.” His prediction proved eerily prescient when, in July of 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist with ties to an organization known as The Black Hand – a Serbian military secret society with members salted throughout the higher echelons of the Serbian state that had as its aim the establishment of a “Greater Serbia” through revolutionary violence, terrorism, and guerilla war.
Descent into war
Austria, the ostensible victim even though Vienna had just finished occupying and annexing Serbia’s neighbor Bosnia, immediately issued a series of demands which required Serbia, among other things, to allow for a full, independent investigation into the assassination that would involve Austrian police operating unhindered inside Serbia. Having the hated Austrians post their police inside Serbia, however, was a bridge too far. When that point was rejected by the Serbs, Austria declared war on July 28, 1914.
This dispute between Austria and Serbia might have remained localized except for the fact that by the summer of 1914, rivalries between the Great Powers of Europe had reached a fever pitch. Austria, as mentioned, had advanced deep into the Balkans – taking advantage of Russian and Ottoman weakness to spread its influence and gain territory. Meanwhile, Russia, smarting from having its pretensions to being the protector of the Balkan Slavs questioned by Austria and now threatened by a rising Germany, set up an alliance with France, which itself had been defeated by Prussia in 1870. Germany, naturally enough, looked to Austria to solidify its position and counteract the alliance formed by France and Russia that was aimed against it. Britain, intimidated by Germany’s naval ambitions, joined with France and Russia so that by the time of the Archduke’s assassination, Europe had been divided into rival blocs of opposing countries.
It was this link between festering ethnic conflicts in the Balkans with the capitals of Europe which turned the Iron Chancellor’s prophetic words into reality. That, it should be said, along with stupidity – for Bismarck also foresaw that such a conflict over the Balkans would “not be worth the bones of a Pomeranian grenadier.” Germany, in other words, would have been wise to avoid entangling itself in the internecine conflicts of a region of so little economic or strategic worth to Berlin.
Indeed, Germany only did so when Bismarck passed from the scene, after which German militarism and aggressiveness formed a ring of enemies around the nation’s borders. Thus encircled, Germany saw its alliance with Austria – one of the weakest of Europe’s Great Powers – as crucial to its own security. Furthermore, by 1914 Germany believed it was facing a closing window of opportunity to strike its enemies before they became too strong to overcome through military action. When Russia, and thus France, came to the aid of Serbia out of a sense of wounded pride, ethnic affinity, and imperial ambition, Germany was only too willing to come to Austria’s defense.
All this could have been prevented if cooler heads and wiser people had been in positions of leadership during the early days of what was to become the First World War. The German Kaiser, for instance, even made a feeble attempt to stop the disaster by inquiring of his generals whether German mobilization could be delayed so as to allow diplomatic negotiations to proceed. Unfortunately, Germany’s generals informed their emperor that mobilization schedules were too fixed to allow for such a possibility and that doing anything to interfere with ongoing military deployments would gravely weaken Germany at the moment of greatest danger. Thus cowed, and ultimately trapped by his bombastic rhetoric, the Kaiser’s attempt failed – and what might have turned into a last-ditch attempt to stave off war became a footnote to history.
The Great Game in 2013
Today, we see many of the same regional and international trends that led to the First World War emerging in the greater Middle East. There, as in Europe of 1914, ethnic and sectarian conflict in countries like Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are creating the impetus needed to divide the Middle East into two antagonistic blocs – a rising, pugnacious Shi’ite Iran and a coalition of Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia. This struggle for power between the two branches of Islam that both call the Middle East home was for a long time covered up by the Cold War and the Arab world’s never-ending conflict with Israel, but that is no longer the case.
Second, this regional contest for power — like that between Austria, Russia and Ottoman Turkey for control of the Balkans — has been internationalized and linked to rival countries outside the region. The Sunni bloc led by Saudi Arabia is fully backed by the United States, which has been the oil-rich kingdom’s military protector since the Second World War.
Opposing this tight alliance between Riyadh and Washington is a local alliance consisting of Iran, the Assad regime in Syria, and Hezbollah, which are now also loosely backed by Russia and, to a much lesser extent, China.
This new interest in the Middle East by Moscow and Beijing is of great importance, for both had once been content to let the United States run the Middle East after the Cold War — Russia out of weakness and China out of disinterest.
All this has changed. Russia, for instance, is much stronger – politically, economically and militarily – than it has been in years, and Moscow has been deeply alienated by the high-handed treatment it believes it receives from the United States on issues ranging from missile defense to the Balkans. China, on the other hand, has been forced by its massive economic growth to search out new sources of petroleum, and China is now a major consumer of, and perhaps even dependent on, Iranian oil.
Third, both blocs are facing what might be described as windows of opportunity that make striking now look advantageous. For Washington, which sees Iran as the principal obstacle to peace in the region, Tehran’s nuclear program is a ticking clock which serves to remind the United States that in the future, perhaps soon, Iranian possession of nuclear weapons will make Tehran impervious to regime-change and give Iran the strategic cover it needs to more aggressively push its influence abroad. This, combined with the developing world’s voracious appetite for oil, means Iran is only likely to get stronger in the future unless its ambitions are curbed, militarily if need be, today.
Iran, in turn, may see the United States as a declining power that was pushed out of Iraq and Afghanistan relatively easily and at little cost to itself, perhaps suggesting that Washington is more of a paper tiger than is widely acknowledged. Indeed, given the unpopularity and costliness of U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, Tehran might be right that America does not have the appetite for another major conflict in Middle East. Public opinion, at any rate, does not seem inclined to support another such venture.
More importantly, however, is the domestic pressure Tehran finds itself under. The Green movement protests after Iran’s last presidential election indicated that Iranian society, far from being solidly united under the leadership of the clerical establishment, is in fact deeply divided and groaning under the regime’s corrupt, tyrannical rule. Its most dynamic elements, surely, would like to see an end to, if not the revolutionary regime itself, the broiling tensions with the West that have placed a chokehold on Iran’s economic development. This domestic tension therefore provides incentive to Iranian hardliners to use conflict with the United States and its Sunni neighbors to justify, and indeed expand, their grip on power.
In the United States, too, pressure is rising from its regional allies – the Sunni bloc and Israel – and the domestic right wing for something to “be done.” While President Obama has been relatively reluctant to embroil the U.S. in military action abroad, his administration’s widespread use of drone warfare, 2011 intervention into Libya, and now the promotion of an outspoken “humanitarian hawk” to the post of UN Ambassador suggests military conflict is not off the table – especially since displays of dovishness will only open President Obama to accusations of being weak by his political enemies.
More concerning still, now that the President’s self-proclaimed “red lines” have reportedly been crossed in Syria, the President must now either back up his words with force or risk being viewed as weak by Republicans and hawkish Democrats — and Tehran — alike.
The powder keg of the Middle East
So, in the Middle East the board is set and the pieces are in motion. While one should never be too eager to declare that a large war is likely, the forces at work in the Middle East are certainly not conducive to peace and international comity. At the very least we here in the United States should understand that our actions and those of our adversaries are increasing the likelihood that a larger Middle East war, one quite a bit bigger than Iraq or Afghanistan, could be right around the corner.
Which is unfortunate, to say the least. While our dependence on foreign oil and the Israel lobby may argue otherwise, Bismarck’s remark that the Balkans were not worth an expensive war easily applies to the Middle East today. The United States has fought two major wars in that region – or three if you count the War on Terror – to little effect beyond miring us deeper into the region’s byzantine conflicts at great expense of American blood, treasure and reputation. Further involvement, even if the region descends even deeper into the abyss, does not seem likely to improve that outcome.
The public, which largely opposes further such adventurism, understands this intuitively. It is not on Washington’s elites, after all, on whom the burdens of deep recession and perpetual war has fallen. This does not mean though that the same people who dragged us into invading Iraq in 2003 and fumbled the occupation of Afghanistan for years will not also be able to push us into another such “damn thing” in the Middle East. Let’s hope for all our sakes that the public can see through their tricks and resist the temptation to intervene, once again, into that endlessly tragic part of the world.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.