By Jonathan Power
March 04, 2015
Is disorder the measure of our times? Can anyone see an end to the upheavals in the Middle East and what can be done? My answer to the first question is no and my answer to the second is: wind the clock back to the days of the Ottoman Empire when vast stretches of the Middle East lived in relative peace under the benign rule of the sultans.
The Ottoman Empire disintegrated because of its foolish decision to join the wrong side in World War I. The French and British then carved up the Middle East to create the present day countries and to serve their interests (later, oil).
What could have been done as recently as 12 years ago? Not invade Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and bring the house tumbling down, ruining nearly everyone’s well being, breeding the conditions under which sectarian war between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam flourishes and which became fertile ground for al Qaeda and now their successor, the Islamic State (IS). IS covers great swathes of Iraq and Syria and could well undermine the governments of Lebanon, Jordan and even Saudi Arabia. The decision of President George W Bush and Prime Minister (PM) Tony Blair to act on wilfully distorted intelligence on Iraq’s supposed stock of weapons of mass destruction must be regarded as an unforgiveable crime against humanity.
The US and its Arab partners cannot bomb IS into submission any more than the US could the Vietcong. All outsiders can do is sanction it but avoid the mistakes of the sanctions on Iraq after which 30,000 children died as a result. It may take 10 years or more to win a favourable result.
The periphery of Europe will continue to be unstable until the big western powers make a loud public promise not to expand NATO and to allow Ukraine to make a trade agreement with both Russia’s Eurasian economic community and the EU. It was the latter’s pushing for exclusivity that triggered the crisis in Kiev and it was the expansion of NATO that showed that the west cared little for magnanimity in the aftermath of its victory in the Cold War, as it did with Germany and Japan after the Second World War. As the conservative president of the US’s Council on Foreign relations, Richard Haas, recently wrote, “Russia could have been asked to join NATO”.
Without a revision of western policies eastern Ukraine will continue to be supported by President Vladimir Putin. Where else do the rebels get their tanks from? The fighting can only work to reinforce Putin’s invincible position and push Russia to move from a seriously flawed democracy to quasi dictatorship, ringing the bells of ultra nationalism as it goes. It will happen quicker than it otherwise would if NATO nations send arms to the central government of Ukraine.
China might well decide to muscle in on contested airspace, seas and territory. It is a risk although perhaps a modest one. Deng Xiaoping, the founder of modern capitalist China and its still revered seer, predicted that, “things will be alright when Sino-US relations eventually improve”. China is beholden to its investments overseas, its vast savings held in US bonds and its dependence for the sophisticated parts of its economy on Western investment. Meanwhile, its growth rate is falling; it has a fast ageing population and is rebuffing the urge of many Chinese to have a more open society. India, whose statistics are more honest than China’s, has a gross national product (GNP) that is moving ahead of China’s quite rapidly, plus a better record on human rights, the application of law, a free press and regular elections with vast voter turnout capable of “throwing the rascals out”, as it has recently done.
We do not have to worry about India, nor do we have to worry too much about Pakistan despite its dangerous stockpile of nuclear weapons. The present leadership of the country and the army have belatedly realised they have no alternative but to destroy the extremists and no longer face both ways: to the militants and to the west.
A Chinese expansionist policy would be counterproductive when the US has 450 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and China has only 43. Moreover, its military force will never be able to get anywhere near the US’s or Russia’s capabilities. Nevertheless, it is likely to be a bumpy ride for China’s neighbours, one that keeps tensions high.
President Barack Obama has said “the world has always been messy” and that we in the west have to learn to find less provocative ways of dealing with it. Restraint, positive diplomacy, combined with carefully targeted non-violent sanctions is the way to go.
Without sensitive western policies a part of world order is in danger of unravelling, particularly in parts of the old Soviet Union and in a good part of the Middle East but not in China, Africa and Latin America.
Jonathan Power has been a foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune for 20 years and author of the much acclaimed new book, Conundrums of Humanity — the Big Foreign Policy Questions of Our Age. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org