The New Thirty Years' War Today's Middle East Looks a Lot like 17th- Century Europe, Writes Richard N. Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), January 11, 2015 | Go to article overview

The New Thirty Years' War Today's Middle East Looks a Lot like 17th- Century Europe, Writes Richard N. Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations


t is a region wracked by religious struggle between competing traditions of the faith. But the conflict is also between militants and moderates, fueled by neighboring rulers seeking to defend their interests and increase their influence. Conflicts take place within and between states; civil wars and proxy wars become impossible to distinguish. Governments often forfeit control to smaller groups - militias and the like - operating within and across borders. The loss of life is devastating, and millions are rendered homeless.

That could be a description of today's Middle East. In fact, it describes Europe in the first half of the 17th century.

In the Middle East in 2011, change came after a humiliated Tunisian fruit vendor set himself alight in protest; in a matter of weeks, the region was aflame. In 17-century Europe, a local religious uprising by Bohemian Protestants against the Catholic Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand II triggered that era's conflagration.

Protestants and Catholics alike turned for support to their co- religionists within the territories that would one day become Germany. Many of the era's major powers, including Spain, France, Sweden and Austria, were drawn in. The result was the Thirty Years' War, the most violent and destructive episode in European history until the two world wars of the 20th century.

There are obvious differences between the events of 1618-1648 in Europe and those of 2011-2014 in the Middle East. But the similarities are many - and sobering. Three and a half years after the dawn of the "Arab Spring," there is a real possibility that we are witnessing the early phase of a prolonged, costly and deadly struggle; as bad as things are, they could well become worse.

The region is ripe for unrest. Most of its people are politically impotent and poor in terms of both wealth and prospects. Islam never experienced something akin to the Reformation in Europe; the lines between the sacred and the secular are unclear and contested.

Moreover, national identities often compete with - and are increasingly overwhelmed by - those stemming from religion, sect and tribe. Civil society is weak. In some countries, the presence of oil and gas discourages the emergence of a diversified economy and, with it, a middle class. Education emphasizes rote learning over critical thinking. In many cases, authoritarian rulers lack legitimacy.

Outside actors, by what they did and failed to do, added fuel to the fire.

The 2003 Iraq war was highly consequential, for it exacerbated Sunni-Shiite tensions in one of the region's most important countries and, as a result, in many of the region's other divided societies. Regime change in Libya has created a failing state; lukewarm support for regime change in Syria has set the stage for prolonged civil war.

The region's trajectory is worrisome: weak states unable to police their territory, the few relatively strong states competing for primacy, militias and terrorist groups gaining greater influence and the erasure of borders. The local political culture confuses democracy with majoritarianism, with elections used as vehicles to consolidate power, not share it. …

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