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.