The New Thirty Years’ War

There are limits to what outsiders can do in the Middle East. Sometimes, policymakers need to focus on preventing things from getting worse, rather than on ambitious agendas for improvement; this is one of those times.

NEW YORK – It is a region wracked by religious struggle between competing traditions of the faith. But the conflict is also between militants and moderates, fueled by neighboring rulers seeking to defend their interests and increase their influence. Conflicts take place within and between states; civil wars and proxy wars become impossible to distinguish. Governments often forfeit control to smaller groups – militias and the like – operating within and across borders. The loss of life is devastating, and millions are rendered homeless.

That could be a description of today’s Middle East. In fact, it describes Europe in the first half of the seventeenth century.

In the Middle East in 2011, change came after a humiliated Tunisian fruit vendor set himself alight in protest; in a matter of weeks, the region was aflame. In seventeenth-century Europe, a local religious uprising by Bohemian Protestants against the Catholic Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand II triggered that era’s conflagration.

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