The Grand Illusion
Disappointing? Two US F/A 18F jets launch as part of Operation Inherent Resolve (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Scott Fenaroli/Released)
The Middle East as maps still show it in atlases and globes, schoolbooks and Foreign Office corridors, no longer exists. It has vanished under our noses in less than five years. The consequences range from the serious to the disastrous. Yet Western policymakers still act as if they could put Humpty Dumpty together again. Here’s a guide to what is wrong and what should be fixed in Western foreign policy.
Error number one: the collapse of the regional order into sectarian mayhem is not something that can be contained or ignored. The flood of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean or overwhelming absorption centres on Greek and Italian islands is not going to stop until order is restored in the lands they are escaping from, and the Islamic State, or ISIS, will not lose its appeal to restive young European Muslims until it is defeated.
Error number two: borders are neither sacred nor eternal. Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen have ceased to exist since 2011. These countries have disintegrated under the weight of ethnic and religious divisions, sectarianism and civil war. To a varying degree, all four central governments have melted away — existing only on paper or as warlords of a small portion of what were once their now lost domains. Western policy should acknowledge this reality rather than insist that the territorial integrity of these states can somehow be reconstituted. It should identify those forces across these territories that are likeliest to side with Western interests — and support them.
Error number three: rather than propping up friends and likeminded allies, the West is relying on its enemies to do its bidding, under the grand illusion that the interests of countries like Iran and Turkey somehow align with Western ones. By doing so, it is empowering forces that are inimical to Western goals.
How does one fix these errors?
Europe can invest as much taxpayer money as it wants on chasing smugglers’ boats across the Mediterranean. But rather than blocking the refugees at the water’s edge in North Africa, it should realise that bringing an end to civil war in the region is a more salutary and cost-effective approach to the crisis. These refugees are escaping from war and will continue to come until the war is over.
This requires working out what can be fixed and what will stay broken. Iraq and Syria no longer exist and we should stop pretending they do. In their wake, four entities are emerging: ISIS, Iranian proxies, a hodgepodge of moderate pro-Western and Islamic forces, and the Kurds.