Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Middle East and the Return of History

BERLIN – Ever since Francis Fukuyama argued, more than two decades ago, that the world had reached the end of history, history has made the world hold its breath. China’s rise, the Balkan wars, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the global financial crisis of 2008, the “Arab Spring,” and the Syrian civil war all belie Fukuyama’s vision of the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy. In fact, history could be said to have come full circle in the space of a quarter-century, from the fall of communism in Europe in 1989 to renewed confrontation between Russia and the West.

But it is in the Middle East that history is at work on a daily basis and with the most dramatic consequences. The old Middle East, formed out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, is clearly falling apart, owing, in no small part, to America’s actions in this conflict-prone region.

The United States’ original sin was its military invasion of Iraq in 2003 under President George W. Bush. The “neoconservatives” in power at the time were oblivious to the need to fill the power vacuum both in Iraq and the region following the removal of Saddam Hussein. President Barack Obama’s hasty, premature military withdrawal constituted a second US failure.

America’s withdrawal, nearly coinciding with the outbreak of the Arab Spring and the eruption of the Syrian civil war, and its persistent passivity as the regional force for order, now threatens to lead to the disintegration of Iraq, owing to the rapid advance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, including its capture of the country’s second-largest city, Mosul. Indeed, with ISIS in control of most of the area northwest of Baghdad, the border between Iraq and Syria has essentially ceased to exist. Many of their neighbors’ borders may also be redrawn by force. An already massive humanitarian disaster seems certain to become worse.

Should ISIS succeed in establishing a permanent state-like entity in parts of Iraq and Syria, the disintegration of the region would accelerate, the US would lose its “global war on terror,” and world peace would be seriously threatened. But even without an ISIS terror state, the situation remains extremely unstable, because the Syrian civil war is proving to be highly contagious. In fact, “civil war” is a misnomer, because events there have long entailed a struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional predominance, powered by the age-old conflict between Islam’s Sunni majority and Shia minority.

The Kurds form another unstable component of the Ottoman legacy. Divided among several Middle Eastern countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey – the Kurds have been fighting for their own state for decades. Nonetheless, they have shown great restraint in northern Iraq since Saddam’s fall, contenting themselves with building up their autonomous province both economically and politically – to the point that it is independent in all but name, with a strong and experienced army in the Peshmerga militia.

The advance of ISIS and its capture of Mosul have now resolved, in one fell swoop, all territorial disputes between the central government and the Kurdish regional government in favor of the latter, particularly regarding the city of Kirkuk. Following the Iraqi army’s retreat, the Peshmerga promptly took over the city, giving the Kurdish north ample oil and gas reserves. Moreover, neighboring Iran and Turkey, as well as the US, will urgently need the Peshmerga’s support against ISIS. Thus, an unexpected window of opportunity has opened for the Kurds to achieve full independence, though their dependence on good relations with both Turkey and Iran for access to global markets will moderate their political ambitions.

Moreover, with its invasion of Iraq, the US opened the door to regional hegemony for Iran and initiated a dramatic shift in its own regional alliances, the long-term effects of which – including the current nuclear negotiations with the Iranian government – are now becoming apparent. Both sides are fighting the same jihadists, who are supported by America’s supposed allies, the Sunni-ruled Gulf states. Though the US and Iran remain opposed to official cooperation, the wheels have been set in motion, with direct bilateral talks becoming routine.

One key question for the future is whether Jordan, which plays a key function in the region’s equilibrium, will survive the geopolitical shifts unscathed. If it does not, the entire balance of power in the traditional Middle East conflict between Israel and the Palestinians could collapse. The consequences would most likely be far-reaching, if difficult to assess in advance.

For Europe, developments in the Middle East pose two major risks: returning jihadi fighters who threaten to bring the terror with them, and a spillover of their extremist ideas to parts of the Balkans. In the interest of their own security, the European Union and its member states will be compelled to pay much closer attention to southeastern Europe than they have until now.

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    1. CommentedÖmer Aytaç

      The unnatural meddling of Europe/US with the ME is the main problem.
      Israel is an artificial creation and Hamas, Hezbollah are the reactions. US occupation was and Assad's reign is artificial, and ISIS is the reaction.
      Suppose you create a vaccine to eradicate a virus. The virus will become resistant to the vaccine and changes form, and a new vaccine needs to be created. How about getting rid of the cause of that virus - which were artificially implemented in the first place?

    2. CommentedÖmer Aytaç

      the "nation state" is a european discovery, which does not work in much of the rest of the world. Baghdad, Damascus, Riyadh, Cairo can do under a single state since they all share a common language, religion and history.

    3. CommentedÖmer Aytaç

      could you please elaborate on "...spillover of jihadi fighters' extremist ideas to parts of the Balkans". How/where do those 2 meet? Is this one of the lame explanations to why germany has been spying on the communications of Turkish statesmen for the past 5 years?

    4. CommentedEnis Kapuano

      Where was Germany and his foreign affair minister, mr Hans Dietrich Genscher, when in the 90's someone suggested to Croats that if they declared indipendence from Serbs, Germany would recognize promptly their state. How many deaths in Balkan civil war? who to blame?

    5. Commentedhari naidu

      "A failure to engage effectively with global economic issues is a failure to mount a strong forward defense of U.S. interests. That we cannot do everything must not become a reason not to do anything. While elections may turn on domestic preoccupations, history’s judgment will turn on what the United States does internationally. Passivity’s moment has past."

      Dr. Lawrence Summers (WP Opinion - 7 July 2014)

    6. CommentedPaul A. Myers

      The largest threat to Europe is that instability across North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia will create millions, potentially tens of millions, of refugees trying to emigrate to Europe. These pressures will intensify.

    7. Commentedhari naidu

      Joschka is misreading history. He should rather consider the 30 years war in Europe between the Vatican Church and followers of Martin Luther...ending up with Westphalia recognition of division of Christianity - ie. Catholics vs. Protestants. Middle East is and will inevitably go through its own renaissance before there is any legitimacy of one power or another to rule the Arab/Islamic world.
      Meanwhile don't be surprised to find Israel as an insurgent doing America's dirty work in ME.

    8. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      Mr. Joschka Fischer questions Mr. Francis Fukuyama's political thesis that the Cold War had led to an "end of history" and that liberalism had prevailed.
      Two decades ago Fukuyama, the US neo-conservative thinker believed all ideological battles were over. The world had settled on liberal democracy as the best model for countries to adopt, as citizens' urge for freedom arose. Yet the man who prematurely declared an end to history after the collapse of communism, was too optimistic. It was absurd to think that the end of the Cold War would mark the end of human conflict. The new era, which was supposed to be different from any before had not arrived. The main threat in future wasn't boredom but uncertainty.
      The demise of the Soviet Union was followed by conflicts and upheavals - war in the Caucasus and economic collapse in Russia. On the other hand the democratisation process spread quite rapidly into the former satellite states in Eastern Europe, advanced by the EU enlargement, while empowering the people and creating prosperity. With Putin in office, Mr. Fischer sees how a reactionary, cynical nationalist advances Russia's interests like Metternich and Bismarck did for Germany.
      History had never ended in the Middle East. Since the Arab Spring it saw the return of centuries old conflicts. Mr. Fischer doesn't exaggerate if he claims that this region, "formed out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, is clearly falling apart". Ten years ago, as the Iraq war was raging, a much heated debate took place in the US about the future of US foreign policy. Fukuyama said that hypocrisy were necessary for the conduct of foreign policy. He criticised the Bush adminstration for failing to anticipate the outcome of the Iraq invasion and doing too little to set up a peace plan.
      Mr. Fischer also blamed Obama for a "hasty, premature military withdrawal", which he saw as "a second US failure". Unfortunately the withdrawal coincided "with the outbreak of the Arab Spring and the eruption of the Syrian civil war". Nevertheless we can't be sure whether Iraq would be more stable today, had a residual force been kept there. It shows that peace can not be forged by military power alone, if the Shia-led government under Nouri Al-Maliki and the ethnic minorities do not reach out to each other. Despite the blast of criticism from the right, Obama is reluctant to embark on a new foray.
      Mr. Fischer does realise that there is no silver bullet to solve the armed conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Yet he fears the spillover effect they may have on Europe - especially the Balkans - and the threat that "returning jihadi fighters" can pose, once they come home. He urges the European Union "to pay much closer attention to southeastern Europe than they have until now".

    9. CommentedCynthia Beatt

      Love the way Joschka Fisher sidesteps the reality of the Middle East since it was "formed out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire". "Formed" is a mild and evasive term for what actually took place.
      He lays a large part of the blame on America and he is right, but makes no mention of Germany's role and Israel, which he unconditionally supports, the founding of which created much of the turmoil in the Middle East and has, indeed, affected the rest of the world.
      Fischer and Merkel back an increasingly immoral state in Israel. Theirs is a perversion of Holocaust trauma and the Palestinians are their victims, not to mention what their bad judgement is doing to the people of Israel.
      Joschka Fischer has become self-indulgent and reactionary. Is he really urging us to believe that it is wise for America to be playing the same old tired war games in the Middle East , ones which have caused so much destruction and suffering and fundamentalism in the first place?

    10. CommentedMartin Edwin Andersen

      As ISIS makes the West Bank its western front, in addition to recognizing the Kurds as a new nation state, another urgent need is to resurrect the stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. ... The way forward is to focus on both peoples' incontrovertible indigeneity. Please see “Common Lands, Common Ground” @ .

    11. CommentedWilliam Wallace

      Surprising lack of nuance from one who ought to know more as an ex foreign affairs minister. Glosses over the US attempt to remain in Iraq that was rejected by Iraq, not the Obama administration.
      Nothing here I have not seen better expressed in forums populated by the general public, and arguable a lot less insightful. Not Project Syndicate material, except for the author's name.

        CommentedTim Chambers

        Not to mention that King George II could not get a status of forces agreement out of his own puppet state. either. Why would they have wanted us there after all the havoc we created?

    12. CommentedVelko Simeonov

      If me memory serves me well Fisher is no innocent bystander when all those evens were set in motion by the not very smart US conservatives and their government.

    13. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      I think the situation is actually more acute than the article suggests.

      On one hand pan-European National Socialism is alive and is growing day to day as a result of the deepening economical crisis and its effect on the public.
      At this stage it is mainly against immigrants, with a distinct anti-islamic flavor, but as we know from history it can quickly include other minorities very quickly "as needed".

      At the same time a pan-Arabic jihadist caliphate is already born and is likely to get stronger, insurgents are roaming back and forth and recruiting with very high efficiency.

      And we do not necessarily need religious hatred to start bloodshed, as the Ukraine shows even close, "Slavic brothers" can find enough reason to start killing each other, and in many European countries we can find growing separatism.

      And we could even mention other parts of the globe where tension is rising, countries are preparing for war, upping the warmongering propaganda...

      It looks as if everybody lost their mind and the worst prophecies of the Bible are coming alive.
      But there is nothing mysterious about what is happening.

      On one hand we have all became totally interdependent on each other, regardless of historical, cultural, religious background, ideology, or even location, and at the same time our inherently self-calculating, egocentric human nature has never been this strong, trying to succeed at the expense of others, exploit anything and everything for its own sake, regardless of any consequences.

      This paradox is highly explosive and promises a completely unpredictable and volatile ext phase that can be ignited basically any moment, anywhere in the globe.

      The system, our interdependence, this global, integral world we evolved into will not change.
      Only we can change, we have to adapt and try to survive, mutually together above our differences, above our hatred.

      This self-change, adaptation will be a long and gradual process, but even just starting it could derail humanity from a very dangerous, catastrophic path.