The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
The World Ignites Is the Middle East Fighting a New Thirty Years War?

With conflicts raging all over the Middle East, how much longer can this violence go on? Quite a bit longer, if history is any guide. Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, sees a parallel between current events in the Fertile Crescent and the Thirty Years War, the prolonged religious struggle that wiped out up to one-third of Central Europe’s population in the seventeenth century. He writes:

There are obvious differences between the events of 1618-1648 in Europe and those of 2011-2014 in the Middle East. But the similarities are many – and sobering. Three and a half years after the dawn of the “Arab Spring,” there is a real possibility that we are witnessing the early phase of a prolonged, costly, and deadly struggle; as bad as things are, they could well become worse.

The region is ripe for unrest. Most of its people are politically impotent and poor in terms of both wealth and prospects. Islam never experienced something akin to the Reformation in Europe; the lines between the sacred and the secular are unclear and contested.

Moreover, national identities often compete with – and are increasingly overwhelmed by – those stemming from religion, sect, and tribe. Civil society is weak. In some countries, the presence of oil and gas discourages the emergence of a diversified economy and, with it, a middle class. Education emphasizes rote learning over critical thinking. In many cases, authoritarian rulers lack legitimacy.

There were plenty of people who wanted to make peace during the Thirty Years War, and plenty of lulls and false dawns. But ultimately, enough religious and nationalist fanatics wanted to keep fighting to keep things going.

Haass’ analysis is sobering, particularly his emphasis that the spread of nuclear weapons in the region would be a global disaster of incalculable proportions. It is vital we stop this. Beyond that, though, the West may have to resign itself to the fact that the plight of the Middle East at present is a condition to be managed rather than a problem to be solved.

That’s a hard realization for Americans to come to. We long for lasting peace, and feel that its benefits—from global security to poverty-ending trade—should be obvious. But as long as others still want to fight over religious and national differences, our Middle East policy may have to be more about preventing things from getting still worse than about transforming the region for the better. 

Our recommendation: read the whole thing.

Published on July 27, 2014 10:00 am
  • Breif2

    The Thirty Years War comparison has been used by David Goldman (aka Spengler) for a while now.

    Europe has fought two Thirty Years’ Wars. The first destroyed nearly half the population of German-speaking Europe between 1618 and 1648, and the second claimed 10 million casualties in its first phase (World War I) and 55 million lives in its second (World War II). In both cases, a century of well-meaning efforts to preserve peace ensured that war, when it came, would last until two generations of soldiers and civilians had been slaughtered. Washington wants to avoid a small war in the Middle East today, and instead may set in motion yet another Thirty Years’ War in the region.

    The salient point being that if relatively evenly-balanced people are determined enough to fight, it will take the more-than-decimation of two successive generations for war to be bred out of them, literally or figuratively.

    • Curious Mayhem

      Depressing but true. It took that much to get to the legitimacy of the nation-state, and even then, Europe was still blighted with empires that didn’t collapse until the 20th century.

  • El Gringo

    It’s a caustic mixture of weak civil society, identity crisis, religious fanaticism, and cognitive dissonance and this is only the beginning. Africa and South Asia are next.

  • lukelea

    Is the Middle East Fighting a New Thirty Years War?

    No. It is an old Hundred Years War.

    And could eventually become another 400 year war, like the one in Northern Ireland.

  • http://cafe.themarker.com/user/235356/ Shahar Luft

    The Western so-called leftwing elites are not weary of struggle. They cherish it. They just use ‘stop the war’ rhetoric to enfeeble Western electorates. Their normative model is pre-Westphalian. Hence their endless disparaging of the national state and their siding with ‘global citizenship’, unfiltered immigration, the NGO culture and the EU in its convoluted, criss-crossing pattern of government. They want back the Holy Roman Empire, with themselves as its clergy.

    The Middle East is a place where history reverses itself. The 30 years war is fought backwards, starting with separate nationalities but regressing into enormous and amorphous non-state actors. And lo and behold, the Western ‘liberal’ (some liberalism theirs is) are cherishing exatly that, persistently siding with the non-states, the militias (‘guerrillahr fightahrs’ in fawning BBC speak). The more regressive, the more fanatically religious, the more ‘authentic’, the better.

  • Arkeygeezer

    The essay by Mr. Haass concludes as follows, “For now and for the foreseeable future – until a new local order emerges or exhaustion sets in – the Middle East will be less a problem to be solved than a condition to be managed.”

    In other words, let the Jews, Sh’ites and Sunni Muslims fight it out among themselves until they reach their own local order. Do not try to impose a solution upon them.

    • Suzyqpie

      “until a new local order emerges or exhaustion sets in,” that comports with what Pres 0bama said in a speech in Seattle last week. “Part of peoples concern is just the sense that around the world the old order isn’t holding and we’re not quote yet to where we need to be in terms of a new order that’s based on a different set of principles, that’s based on a sense of common humanity, that’s based on economies that work for all people,” quote Pres 0bama. As the islamic debris field expands in the ME, I would hope that they would look for “a different set of principles.” Perhaps not, since the tribes of islam have been warring since the 7th century.

  • JamesDrouin

    Islam has been fighting EVERYONE, including it’s own ‘adherents’, since it’s birth in ~625 AD.

    There never has been “peace” within the Islamic religion, and there never will be. Fact.

  • Curious Mayhem

    Ya think?!

  • akbar_montaser

    As usual, Ambassador Haass fails to see the light. What are my reasons?

    Dr. Haass and neocon allies created the current mess in Middle East, particularly during the Bush Administration. Fortunately for our nation we have a President that strives to avoid wars. Yet, President Obama is receiving unjust allegations, judgments, and sentences.

    This nation was on the verge of collapse when the former President fortunately for the world left for the gangster ranch.

    President Obama has acted wisely on major domestic policy. Take Obamacare, for example. Obamacare reduced the health insurance cost for my daughter from $890/month to $450/m. Since her 12th birthday, a tiny tick made her ill. She is 42 years old, having chronic Lyme disease unable to work.. Our family has supported her thus far.

    In foreign policy, the President committed grave mistakes, such as attacking Libya. This policy is attributed to one of the most hawkish politician, Mrs. Clinton, as the Secretary of State. History will show she is one of the Secretary of State in the account of this nation. Under the mask of a Democrat, she articulated the assault on Syria, eliminating again a foe of intolerant Israel. Other hawks, such as Ambassador Haass, the so-called “American diplomat”, indeed a stanched ally of Israel, preventing for example negotiation with Iran.

    The neocons have a short memory. Mrs. Clinton stated in 2008, if elected, she would flatten Iran. This signifies killing 76.4 million Iranians! She intended to be Hitler sister over 10 times.

    In the second term, the President mostly kicked out a number of politicians whose devotion to Israel is ahead of their royalty to the US. I consider them traitors to this nation, with Mrs. Clinton first. Mrs. Clinton is the lawyer for Israel, even when Israel commits the most wicked crimes.

    Individual such as Ambassador Haass must never serve in sensitive positions dictating foreign policy contrary to our national interest. Dr. Haass is a member of pro-Israeli AIPAC and must not serve this nation offering advice to Presidents. AIPAC was formed by an employee of Israeli Embassy in Washington.

    The President has acted rightly in the case of Syria. In fact, the nation rose against the war with Syria. Of course, the “Ambassador” does not even admit his portion of the crimes. He is just professing the region is ripe for unrest, just like 1618-1648! Good finding! He never address one key question. Who created the current muddle in the first place?

    The
    only reason our nation and people in Middle East are suffering is due to Israel
    not coming to peace with Palestinians. Those who support Israel neglect, for
    example, Nelson Mandela and President Carter called Israel racist. Compared to
    any nation, friends and foes, no nation has created so many million diehard
    foes for our decent people.

    Those
    who do not know history must attend History 101. Israel has been racist since
    its inception. Why?

    David
    Ben-Gurrion, The Father of Israel, said, “We must use terror, assassination,
    intimidation, land confiscation, and the cutting of all social services to rid
    the Galilee of its Arab population.”

    During
    this war, Israeli Deputy Defense Minister, Matan Vilnai, described the fate of
    Gazans. He used the word Shoah to remind the Holocaust of his people’s most
    dreadful carnage. The Israeli official applied the word “genocide” with
    lightness! Yet, few American outlets reported it.

    World-renowned
    Israeli historians such as, Professor Ilan Pappe, has affirmed that genocide
    “is the only appropriate way to describe what the Israeli army is doing in the
    Gaza Strip.”

    Vitally,
    the genocide in Gaza cannot or will not be judged only thru total losses. It is
    a gauged and premeditated genocide, death through long-term means. Gazans are
    one way or another less human; we should ignore them, lest there is a mass
    murder or famine.