Déjà Vu All Over Again

February, 2016

This 18th year of the Second Cold War is, simultaneously, the 40th year of the Muslim equivalent of the Christian Thirty Years’ War in the 1600s.

The First Cold War lasted 45 years, from 1945 to 1990. It was over once the Soviet system of States collapsed, due in great part to the inability of that system to manage a competitive, modern economy. The Chinese, Indians and others began to realize that a global economy was forming under the leadership of the United States and have adjusted accordingly. The Russians and others, including the Arab States, have had a more difficult time making that adjustment. The United States itself is now also having to adjust to its success in creating an increasingly interconnected world, largely of its own making, where it constitutes only about 4-5% of the global population. But, that is another story.

In 1618, the Holy Roman Emperor of the time decided to begin forcing all the subjects in lands under his nominal control to behave like Catholics. Since a large number of them had been practicing Protestants for nearly a century, this did not go down well. The resulting conflicts and revolts among the multitude of German States and principalities drew in other, foreign players such as France, Holland and Sweden. The War ended some 30 years later and left Germany exhausted and destroyed. There was no equivalent to the Marshall Plan to revive Germany at this time and the area remained a disunited ‘geographical expression’ for most of the next 2 ½ centuries.

The Muslim version of the Thirty Years War began with some inter-Arab States meddling in each others’ business, followed by a civil war in Lebanon, mostly along religious-ethnic lines. As the war dragged on, it dragged in the Cold War adversaries along with the neighboring Israelis. It took 14 years, from 1975 to 1989 for the parties to exhaust themselves and to encourage a political relationship that more equitably allocated legislative seats to Christians, Sunnis, Druze and Shia Muslims. By then, Shias elsewhere had become more aggressive following the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and, in reaction, the Iraqi leadership, with a Sunni dictator controlling a country that was majority Shia, began the Iraq-Iran War that lasted from 1980-88. As that petered out, the Iraqis invaded their smaller neighbor, Kuwait, bringing an American-led coalition that threw the Iraqis out.

Sunni extremism flowered as part of the distribution of Wahabi doctrine from Saudi Arabia, along with subsidies for mosques and imams worldwide. It was also helped along by active American support for the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation of their country. Once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, these occupiers had withdrawn and some of the veterans on the Afghan side, especially from other Muslim States, began to consider the possibilities of carrying the fight to other Muslim countries in Africa and Asia. The bombings of American embassies in Africa in 1998 began the Second Cold War.

But what about the core Muslim areas and the Thirty Years War there? The probability is that before it ends in exhaustion, the Arab States in Asia will have all been devastated. So far, only Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have been spared, but serious pressures and conflicts that could lead to war also affect them. Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon have been torn apart by violence and overlapping ethnic and religious communities have been set against each other, not unlike Germany in the 1600s.

All kinds of outside States are involved, sometimes allied and sometimes at odds. Communities of believers outside the area of direct conflict have been drawn in, especially in terms of ‘foreign fighters’ joining a new player, the Sunni extremist ISIL, which has taken territory from both Syria, whose Shia-supported leadership is entangled in a civil war with the majority Sunni population and Iraq, with its Shia government, which has succeeded in alienating the Sunni Arabs in the south. Both countries have also lost control of the areas inhabited by Sunni Kurds in the north.

It is commonplace to note that 75-80% of Muslims globally are Sunni, not Shia, but in the immediate zone of conflict, that is not relevant, as most Sunni States, with the exception of Turkey, are far distant. The major Arab player, Egypt, is blocked from direct intervention by the location of Israel, though it could still come to the aid of Saudi Arabia. The major player on the Shia side, Iran, is not Arab, though somewhat bigger than Egypt and, even under international sanctions, is probably more formidable. The Turkish interest is focused on the Sunni Kurds who have carved out a State for themselves in Iraq and northern Syria and have muted ambitions in eastern Turkey. Finally, the largest community of Muslim believers is a minority within the vast numbers of Indians.

Most likely, the endpoint will come with the sad removal of large and small pockets of Sunnis and Shia from their ancient communities, along with the uprooting of Christians and others who will become another wave of refugees from ethnically cleansed pockets. I take as a model the traumatic and bloody ‘exchange of populations’ between Greece and Turkey in 1922-3.

The Middle East will become more uniform, with two hostile camps watching each other. This will come at a price. The United States has learned that one of its most vital sources of creativity has come from the waves of people pushed out of places like Ireland, Germany, Eastern Europe, Mexico and China. The diversity is valuable, but difficult to manage. The uniformity so popular elsewhere leads to, well, dullness.

As to that Second Cold War, Year 18 corresponds to about 1963 in the First Cold War. That was the year the United States began to ‘get serious’ about supporting South Vietnam. No boots on the ground yet, but a lot of advisors and air support. Of course, there had been no real American combat since the Korean War had ended a decade before, but then we are now a decade since the beginning of the Iraq campaign.

So, is the United States likely to re-engage in terms of Islamic State or the resurgent Taliban? I doubt whether the Second Cold War will end any sooner than the first, which argues that the conflict will drag on until the 2040s. By then, like Germany after the 30 Years War, the Arab East will be a real mess and like Vietnam, it will make its peace with American business and (possibly) will develop a new relationship with some former enemy in the face of a new one. By then, the emerging global culture will be too strong to resist.

The lessons I would draw from these historical events is not to bet against whatever side the United States is on in a long-run Cold War situation. It is the acknowledged ‘champion’ of Cold Wars and will not give up its place in the face of Wahhabi/ Salafi/ Al Queda/ Taliban/ Islamic State, etc. pressure any time soon. As well, unlike the threat from the Soviets, this new opponent does not have the backing of a nuclear-armed, large-economy State. The United States will not abandon its globalization project no matter how much some elements in countries dreaming of alternatives, religious or socialist, would like to see this happen.

— With acknowledgements to Yogi Berra

 Copyright Jim McNiven 2016

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Next, read Jim McNiven’s column The Cold War 2.0 from our 2014 archive:

For 40 years, one big contest played out in the world. It was a kind of arm-wrestling match between the Soviets and the Americans. I use the word ‘Soviets’ to distinguish one contestant from its successor of sorts: today’s Russians. Eventually, the Soviets could not keep their end of the game going and walked away from the table, into history. The last decade of the century was one where there was but one superpower — and it wanted to party. The attacks on America on September 11, 2001, brought that party to a halt. It signified a new game was beginning; not one of two superpowers engaged while the rest of the world largely stayed out of the way, but one where arm-wrestling was replaced by a kind of hide-and-seek. … continue reading The Cold War 2.0

Jim McNiven’s latest book is The Yankee Road: Tracing the Journey of the New England Tribe that Created Modern America. www.theyankeeroad.com

Jim McNiven

James McNiven has a PhD from the University of Michigan. He has written widely on public policy and economic development issues and is the co-author of three books. His most recent research has been about the relationship of demographic changes to Canadian regional economic development. He also has an interest in American business history and continues to teach at Dalhousie on a part-time basis.






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