I can’t remember a time when the entire world seemed to be falling apart like it is today. You read the newspaper or dial up the morning news on your iPad and at least half a dozen countries are simultaneously fighting each other, threatening to fight each other or splitting apart in an endless stream of sectarian violence. Something big is happening.
For one thing, major Western powers — meaning the U.S. — and other European powers are seeing an ebb in influence. Consider that we sent more than 100,000 of our troops to Iraq, spent close to $1 trillion training and equipping their army, knocked off Saddam Hussein, and what we got back was an army that collapsed at the first sound of a shot from some startup outfit called ISIS. We also got back total instability, the Shias and Sunnis at each other’s throats, a government that doesn’t function, and everyone mad at us, first for coming in and later for leaving.
In case you think that was an isolated incident, just look at Afghanistan and about all you can say is ditto. Same problems, same outrageous costs, same unsuccessful result.
What lessons can we draw from Iraq and Afghanistan? In today’s world you can’t go into a Muslim country, even if you’re invited in, without going from liberators to occupiers in a nanosecond. So, the answer is to stay the heck out, unless you’ve got a lot of allies going in with you. Then, you’d better have a very quick exit strategy.
As for the rest of the Arab world, it looks to me very much like Europe in the 1500s when Martin Luther came along, and for the first time in 1,000 years the power of the Catholic Church was challenged. It took Europe almost 200 years to work out that revolution or evolution, and there were lots of wars, purges and genocides before it finally resolved itself into a sort of peaceful co-existence. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the Arab world of Egypt, Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Iraq, Iran and a number of others aren’t going to go through their own century or two of failed governments, overthrown democracies, crazed theocracies, Caliphates, dictatorships and leaders that are just plain evil.
Why the Arab Spring is happening now isn’t at all clear, but what is clear is that something very large is happening, it’s not something we can fix, or delay, or even pick the winners, despite what Fox News may want us to believe. I suspect the next dozen American presidents are going to have to deal with a changing Arab world and what our response to it should be.
Now, let’s deal with the present and what we can do about it. As I see it, there are three major problems:
First, Putin wants his empire back. He’s not going to get it. For him, the Crimea was easy. But the rest of the Ukraine is proving to be a lot tougher. He’s sponsoring a civil war in the East, but like any war, it could quickly get really expensive in rubles and manpower. The Ukraine could be his Iraq. He already knows what Afghanistan cost Russia before we were stupid enough to take it off their hands. I doubt that he wants a replay of that. We also need to help Europe find energy so that they’re not beholden to Russia, which now holds many of the energy cards, but that could change with smarter American policy.
The second major problem is Gaza. The best we can expect is a prolonged truce, no more rockets or tunnels, with some supervised rebuilding of Gaza and some significant international aid, again supervised and controlled. In time, Hamas will either change its objectives, get pushed out or evolve into a real government. In the meantime, many people will be injured or killed. What’s going on in Gaza right now is a war, and what’s most striking is unlike most wars, no one is taking any prisoners. This is apparently a war to the death because both sides see it as a war for survival.
Lastly, the largest problem of our future is the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Twenty years from now there will be 20 more countries with nuclear bombs. We need a mechanism for controlling them because the survival of our planet depends on it.