Monday, September 18, 2006

Future Wars In the Middle East

I think when we contemplate what’s ahead for all of us in this coming century it is worthwhile looking at what happened in the past century. I found these statistics in an article by Niall Ferguson in the current issue of Foreign Affairs very helpful. Summarizing his already concise discussion, the First World War killed 10 million people plus 9 million that died of influenza as a consequence of the war. World War II came in at 59 million dead. There were sixteen wars throughout the last century where more than a million people died and a further six wars that claimed between half a million to a million. There were fourteen wars that killed between a quarter of a million to half a million. When you add this all up somewhere between 167 and 188 million people died in the twentieth century because of war.

President Bush and many others have argued that there is a causal link between democracy and peace. In fact, this was one of his main rationales for going into Iraq. The reader will remember how he praised Nathan Sharansky’s book The Case For Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, where the thesis is developed that democracies tend not to go to war with one another.

There was a rise of democracy throughout the last century but it didn’t seem to stop the number of wars, except between two democratic states. If you exclude the world wars, most of the violence occurred because of civil wars or because of genocidal campaigns against civilian populations. Rwanda and Russia are examples of the first, while Mao in China and Pol Pot in Cambodia are examples of the second. In Iraq we have a little of each. We haven’t heard much lately from Sharansky.

Looking back at the historical record, when imperial empires decline and heterogeneous ethnic groups live next to each other, the probability of war increases. The end of Communism in Yugoslavia led to 200,000 deaths and a million refugees. Sectarian violence after the breakup of the Soviet Union caused 150,000 deaths and 1.5 million refugees in Georgia, Abkhazia and Nagorno –Karabakh. In Tajikistan 50,000 people died violently after the fall of the Soviet empire. (Robert Kaplan ,WSJ, 9/0606).

The United States, in its own clumsy way, has played the role of an imperial power in the Middle East ever since the end of World War II, when the British and French colonial empires collapsed. Our main concerns have always been secure oil supplies and the stability of the Saudi regime on the one hand, and the security of the state of Israel on the other. As of right now, the American empire is in decline in the Middle East. If we knew an honorable way out, we would leave Iraq and allow the Iraqis to fight their civil war and sort things out by themselves. We have no easy solution to the problem of the ascendancy of Iran and its new imperial aspirations. Looking just at the historical record, one would have to conclude the chances of wars in the Middle East into the foreseeable future are high.

The numbers dead on both sides in the various Arab –Israeli wars is much smaller than the casualties of other ethnic strifes. There are two ways of reading this statistic. The first is that the attention the world and Hashem pays to Israel prevents the wars from getting out of hand. The second is that sectarian violence generally produces many deaths. If Israel and the Arabs keep at it, eventually there will be a regression to the mean


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