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.