During the 1990s neoconservatives became obsessed with the fantasy that democracy, which had apparently just scored such a dramatic victory in eastern Europe and the former USSR, might also transform the Middle East. George Bush, who in no way differed from the neoconservatives, picked up that ball and ran with it after 9/11, deposing Saddam, and handed it off to Barack Obama, who eagerly embraced the Arab Spring and even put together a coalition to topple Muammar Qadaffi in Libya, giving himself a scalp to match Bush's in Iraq without the accompanying 8 years of war. That policy has proven to be a disaster. Our hopes in Eastern Europe and the USSR have been disappointed: most the former USSR is ruled by corrupt or authoritarian states, and Vladimir Putin is exploiting the situation to expand. Several eastern European governments, including Hungary,. have also developed authoritarian tendencies, and are giving Putin a chance to establish a foothold inside the EU and NATO.
The Middle East, meanwhile, has descended into the nightmare of a regional religious war, quite similar to the Thirty Years War in Europe that divided Catholics and Protestants. Shi'ites led by Iran and Sunnis led by Saudi Arabia are clashing violently in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and could so so even in Saudi Arabia itself. For the past few years the Obama Administration has deluded itself with visions of a "third force" of "good guys" who will oppose both extremes and become reliable clients of the US, if not friends of Israel, but this fantasy has inevitably been disappointed, first in Iraq and then in Syria. Those interested in the "third force" might want to look sat Graham Greene's The Quiet American, published in the mid-fifties, which developed the concept at some length in the context of Vietnam. Last week the New York Times referred bluntly to this fallacy in a news analysis article, and the Administration seems to be abandoning it too. A new policy is slowly emerging.
That policy seems to consist in dividing up the region based upon religion, with different winners in different areas. Iran and the Shi'ites are the bigger winners. We have already created a client government for the Iranians in Baghdad, and we are now relying on the Iranians to deal with ISIS, a Sunni group whom we have suddenly defined as the biggest threat in the region. One may note that this really isn't so sudden. ISIS, although no one wants to talk about it very much, is really a reincarnation of Al Queda in Iraq. Because of ISIS we are even backing away from our determination to replace Hafez Assad with unidentified good guys in Syria. While the nuclear deal with Iran that has just been announced can stand on its own merits, it is undoubtedly a step towards a working relationship with Iran in other areas as well.
But while we have effectively thrown in with the Shi'ites in the Tigris and Euphrates valley and the territory immediately to its East, we favor the Sunnis, led by Saudi Arabia, in the region of the Persian Gulf. This policy emerged clearly a few years ago at the height of the Arab Spring, when we blessed Saudi military intervention to put down the majority Shi'ites in Bahrain. Now Yemen, recently touted by the Administration as a success story,. has also fallen into chaos and civil war, and the Saudis and the Egyptians are intervening against Shi'ite rebels there. (Ironically, half a century ago Egypt and Saudi Arabia were on opposite sides of a civil war in Yemen between a conservative monarchy and Arab nationalists backed by Nasser.) We don't seem to be unhappy about this at all.
I fear that the religious war in the Middle East is turning into yet another episode in the history of genocide and ethnic cleansing which, as I showed in Politics and War, played such a big role in European history in the first half of the twentieth century. There, too, it began in the Middle East, first with the Turkish genocide against the Ottoman Empire's Armenian minority during the First World War, and then with a massive transfer of Greeks from the new Turkish republic back into Greece. In the Second World War it involved the slaughter of millions of Jews and Poles,. followed by the expulsion of as many millions of Germans from a newly enlarged Poland, from Czechoslovakia, and from elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Genocide and population transfer broke out again in the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, and now the Middle East has been set aflame, divided along religious lines. Four million Iraqis, according to some estimates, were displaced during the last decade of fighting. Millions of Syrians are now refugees, and everyone expects a bloodbath among the Shi'ite Alawites if the Sunnis win the civil war there. The government of Israel, meanwhile, seems generally well satisfied with this state of affairs, which allows it to claim that all Arab political movements are violent terrorists with whom peace is impossible, and to escape the danger of a united Muslim front trying to force them to make peace. Indeed, regarding the Iranian nuclear program, Israel is essentially allied with the Saudis.
The nuclear issue will now pose a big challenge for both the great powers and the states of the Middle East. If the deal with Iran goes through, Saudi Arabia may well react by developing a "breakout capability" of its own. The alternative to a Middle East dominated by three states with nuclear weapons--Iran, the Saudis, and Israel--is a nuclear-free Middle East. A Democratic Administration that came into office in 2017 might try to make the agreement with Iran a first step in that direction, but to do so,. the question of Israel's own nuclear capability would have to be put on the table. (It has received astonishingly little mention in the controversy over Iran.) This would be my dream, but it seems, frankly, very unlikely to happen under a Democrat, and quite impossible under a Republican.
The world emerged from the two world wars with a dream of peace. That dream was never realized, but the two victors in that war, the United States and the Soviet Union, did a relatively good job of maintaining peace for the next half century. We are now definitely in a multipolar world of much weaker states and one whole region of it has been set aflame in the Middle East. Other dangers threaten elsewhere. Within fifty years, the serious study of the history of international politics will have begun again--inspired, as always, by great and terrible events around the globe.