It is generally assumed that wars are started over historic hatreds, competition for resources or territorial ambitions. This allows us to pretend that all wars are bad and the fault of bad or stupid men. Every war is described in terms of what should have been done to prevent it. The reason for this is the belief we not only know why wars were started, but we have the knowledge to prevent future wars.
Study up on the Great War or the Thirty Years War and you see how that is just ridiculous. Events have a way of getting away from even the most powerful. As I tried to explain in my Dungeons & Dragons view of history, history in real time is a version of John Conway’s Game of Life played out in four dimensions, but it looks like this to the people living it.
That said, sometimes war is just the least worst option. It solves a problem with the least amount of pain, or so it seems at the time. For instance, look at what’s happening with the Saudis. Not too long ago, the Saudis were selling oil for between $80 and $100 a barrel. The American Army was breaking up Iraq and guarding Saudi interest in the region. Things were working out pretty well for the Kingdom.
Today, the Americans are giving away the store to the Iranians in what some think is a strategic realignment. Yemen is a boiling cauldron of sectarian violence requiring Saudi military operations. There’s a real threat of millions of starving Yemenis pouring into the Kingdom. Oil is trading at thirty bucks a barrel and the Kingdom is running huge deficits. The Saudis have been quietly deporting their guest workers, mostly out of fear they could rise up in revolt.
The Middle East, of course, is a bad neighborhood and the Saudis know that better than anyone. They play the game harder that anyone so no one should feel sorry for them. Much of what is going on in the region is in some way their fault, but there are greater forces at work in the region over which they have little control.
The Saudis are in the middle of something analogous to the Thirty Years War with the area of Northern Iraq and Syria being the main theater of operations. Western media often describe the Arab Muslim world as divided between Sunni and Shia, but it is much more complicated than that. Unlike Western Progressives, Arab Muslims have a much stronger, more emotional connection to the past and the people who created it.For example, the divides within Islam have been there since the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD.
That’s where the comparison to the Thirty Years War breaks down. The Reformation and Counter Reformation were all about how the people of Christian Europe related to one another. Would the various tribes of Europe relate to one another within the dominion of the Catholic Church or would they relate to one another outside the Church. The end result was a Europe of nations, each with their own version of Christianity.
The war in Islam is entirely about how Islam relates to the outside world. As an organizing philosophy, Islam is being swamped by Western materialism. The only thing Islam has going for it right now is a surplus of young people, most of whom would prefer to be anywhere but places run by Muslims. As a smart guy recently wrote, Islam is dying and this war is about who gets to manage the decline.
That brings us back to the Saudis and their troubles. The Kingdom is competing with Iran for the right to direct the Islamic response to the West. Both sides think they are the natural leader of Islam and the natural hegemon in the Middle East. The difference, it appears, is that Iran wants the West out the region, while the Saudis want the West, particularly the US, heavily involved in the region.
The problem for the Saudis is the US has become an unreliable partner. The Obama administration’s hostility to Israel and their obsession with striking a deal with Iran has left the Saudis without a powerful ally. Waging economic war via oil prices is taking a major toll on the Kingdom’s finances, making it harder to conduct petrodollar diplomacy. What the Saudis could really use is a war in the region that drags in the US in a major way.
The financing of Syrian rebels may have been based, in part, on the belief that the US would eventually get back into Iraq. If so, it was a miscalculation as Obama is too weak and afraid to commit to another military adventure. Instead, the Russians used the conflict as an excuse to increase their role in the region. This is certainly bad for Russia in the long run, but it bolsters Iran in the short run.
That may explain why the Saudis executed that Shiite cleric the other day. It was intended to provoke the Iranians. While there is little hope for Obama doing anything in his final year, the Saudis may figure it is a good idea to ratchet up the heat in the region so that the Republican who enters office has a reason to reverse course and get the US back into the game.
Of course, war with Iran would be a disaster for the Saudis even with the US on their side, willing to commit forces to defense the Kingdom. They are no match fro the Iranians and hosting US forces brings all sorts of trouble. But, sometimes war is the least worst option. Given where the Saudis find themselves at the moment, provoking a confrontation with Iran may be the best option they have.