LONDON – In Bertolt Brecht’s great anti-war play, “Mother Courage and Her Children,” one of the characters says, “You know what the trouble with peace is? No organization.”
The play is set during Europe’s Thirty Years’ War, which devastated Europe in the first half of the seventeenth century, ending only with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The war began as a religious struggle between Protestants and Catholics, but rapidly morphed into a long-running fight between rival countries and dynasties, principally between the Habsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire on one side and Cardinal Richelieu’s France on the other.
Not surprisingly, some have compared today’s Sunni-Shia conflict, which is consuming swaths of Mesopotamia and Western Asia, to that war, which caused death on a massive scale, plagues, economic destruction, and social turmoil marked, for example, by a wave of witch hunting.
There had in fact been a peace settlement a half-century before the fighting broke out – an effort to organize peace. Emperor Charles V engineered the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, which was based on an agreement that sovereign states could choose for themselves which version of Christianity to adopt. When that treaty fell apart, the killing started.
What was the “organized peace” that preceded the current bloody turmoil in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere? The answer depends on how far back one goes.
As the Ottoman Empire crumbled, the Western powers launched a self-aggrandizing project to redraw the region’s map, installing regimes, creating dependencies, establishing spheres of influence, and securing access to increasingly important supplies of oil. Then came a persistent tendency to judge the behavior of states across the Maghreb and the Levant by whether or not they would make diplomatic (or other) trouble over Israel’s attitude toward Palestine and the latter’s claim to viable statehood. There have also been explicit interventions, from the covert removal of Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, to the more recent military intervention in Iraq, which led to a quarter-million Iraqi deaths.
But Western countries have been reluctant to face up to the region’s underlying realities, set out in a 2002 report by the United Nations Development Program. The Arab scholars and policymakers who drafted the report drew attention to the connections between authoritarian government, economic weakness, high unemployment, and excessively confessional politics. The more dictatorial politics in the region became, the more young men – denied both jobs and freedom of expression – turned to extremist and violent Islamism, the perversion of a great faith.
So here we are today, with the obvious but inadequate answer to the question, “Well, what would you do about it?” being the Irish farmer’s reply to a traveler’s request for directions: “I wouldn’t start from here.”
Alas, that is no answer at all, though it may be a useful riposte to those – like former US Vice President Dick Cheney – who advocate a replay of the recent past. Denying reality, American and British neoconservatives apparently believe that recent events justify their view that their war of choice in Iraq would have been a great success had there only been more of it.
But the neocons are not entirely misguided. The United States, former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rightly argued, for too long had pursued “stability at the expense of democracy”; as a result, it had “achieved neither.”
That is a powerful argument for not abandoning a long-term commitment to the sort of pluralist values embraced by – among others – the authors of the 2002 report. The West has been inconsistent in its application of these principles, has occasionally tried to impose them by force (with disastrous consequences), and has failed to use effectively the money and mechanisms devised to support them. Consider, for example, the miserable results of the European Union’s trade and cooperation agreements around the Mediterranean.
The West must use all of its diplomatic resources to broker an understanding between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the main sponsors of, respectively, Shia and Sunni armed struggle. It is not remotely in either country’s interest to see their own region go up in flames. These two countries need to start repairing their relations, a prospect (recently set back) which seemed a real possibility back in May.
With American and Turkish help, Iraq should be steered in the direction of a federal state, which recognizes the aspirations of Kurds, Sunni, and Shia. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad remains in office but hardly in power. His army is probably winning, but the fighting continues. At the moment, the best outlook appears to be that described by the Roman historian Tacitus – “they make a desert, they call it peace.”
The time is long since past when outsiders could have considered an effective military intervention. But with UN Security Council support, the world’s humanitarian efforts should be more extensive and focused, so that greater relief can be brought to the almost 11 million Syrian refugees who need it.
Finally, we should not ignore the continuing toxicity of the unresolved Israel-Palestine conflict, which continues to feed political extremism and raises serious questions about the West’s commitment to human rights.
Countries outside of the region face an additional task: the need to discourage young men from going to fight in Islam’s civil war. That is a problem for my own country, where it seems that we have not done a good job instilling in some communities an understanding and acceptance of the values that often brought these young men’s parents to the United Kingdom in the first place.
The agenda for real and lasting peace is long and complex. Plans need to be organized, and they will take years to implement. Unless we start now, the fires will spread – fanned by politics and religion – and it will not only be Nineveh that is consumed by them.
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