An Honest Talk About War and Empire

Welcome back, fellas. Current events demand we pause for a talk about history, and the seemingly endless wars the US and its allies (among others) have been fighting in that place we call the Middle East.

The Booby has promised to be honest with you as best he can. When it comes to matters of war and peace that isn’t alway easy. No one truly knows what goes on in the backrooms of power, or hears what is uttered within the shadowy channels of diplomacy.

History, however, provides insights that are consistent and undeniable. The particulars of war are not complex by the way of human motives and drives.

Recently, a US President has done something quite unprecedented: President Trump announced that he is withdrawing all 2000 US ground troops from Syria (until now, how many Americans even knew there were 2000 US troops in Syria?). Right or wrong, this deescalation move seems to fly in the face of  normal US protocol since at least the 1940s.

This isn’t to applaud or criticize the decision. The Booby only wishes we inject some honesty into the discussion of war and peace, especially about the Middle East. Our “elites” have never really done this.

The first point of honesty, fellas: great nations and world powers do not go to war for “democracy,” “human rights,” or to “fight aggression.” Never. We are told we do, of course, by our leaders and by the media. We all know deep down this is bullshit.

Great tribes, kingdoms, and nations almost always go to war for a few very specific reasons. These usually include control over major trade routes, accessing vital resources, or denying either to rivals or potential rivals.

While religion or nationalism may motivate citizens to battle, these are rarely – contrary to what we are told – the main reasons wars are fought.

For those who struggle to understand why the Middle East has been a hotbed of war for millennia, the reasons are precisely those the Booby just listed. For thousands of years the Middle East, and the seas flanking it, offer key trade routes vital to powerful civilizations. From the Silk Road to the camel caravans to the trading ships of Phoenicia, the movement of goods among world powers has usually been through the Middle East or its near vicinity.

The ancient city of Petra in modern-day Jordan. It was made rich for its location at the hub of many trade routes. For that reason it was also a frequent target for attack.

Today, as an obvious example, the Suez Canal is critical to the West, even though the Germans and British no longer battle for control (see here). It is through the Straights of Hormuz that 35% of all seaborne oil is shipped (see here). It is the Bosporus Straight that still provides Russia with access to the Mediterranean (see here).

As for resources, even the most illiterate Westerner is fully aware of the vast amount of oil originating from the Middle East. The more literate also understand how impossible the West’s military dominance (and high living standards) would be without it. The rising importance of natural gas only adds gravity to this region’s importance.

The second point of honesty, fellas, these factors still motivate Western (our) engagement, either directly as with President Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 (see here), or indirectly as with the Egyptian coup of 2013 (see here).

The struggles within the Middle East did not end with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire; they did not end at the Battle of El Alamein; they did not end once Soviet patronage evaporated after 1990, and they will not end now, regardless of what military options Western powers choose to maintain empire.

Speaking of options, if you favour empire:  there are few, and none are appealing:

Conquest is a tactic powerful countries have employed with varied results. It can be bloody, and strain the resources of the conquerors if things don’t go exactly to plan. The 2003 Iraq invasion is but the latest instance.

Proxies are another option. Regimes like the Western-friendly Saudis, for example, or the Soviet-friendly Baathists during the Cold War provided indirect, but fairly reliable, means of influence for their patron states. This tactic is not foolproof, however. As we saw in Iran in 1979 or Egypt in 2012, people have a habit of resisting autocratic rule by the proxies of foreign or imperial interests.

The regime-change by mercenary in Syria has still not produced regime-change.

Mercenaries are another option. These can be unpredictable at best. The anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan succeeded in driving out NATO’s Cold War rival, but it eventually morphed into the Taliban. More recently, a great many of the  anti-Assad “freedom fighters” in Syria, supplied and funded under President Obama, subsequently turned into ISIS.

So is it worth it? That is for democratic citizens of the West to decide, assuming democracy still holds sway. Let pundits, politicians, and idealists fill the airwaves with talk of spreading democracy, or human rights, or advancing peace in the region. A self-educated voter knows better.

At the very least the Booby encourages an adult conversation. The Gulf Wars had nothing to do with “Iraqi Freedom” and nor does NATO’s presence in Syria have anything to do with curtailing the atrocities of ISIS (the Western powers helped create ISIS, after all, to overthrow Assad, see here).

Let the Booby be blunt: citizens should debate whether continued access to cheap Middle Eastern oil justifies the growing costs. These include the financial costs of military operations, the financial costs of propping up proxy governments, and the financial costs of arming and funding mercenary fighters. It also includes the staggering costs in human lives and destruction. We Westerners have been largely shielded from these human costs, but others have not been so lucky. And, there is no guarantee that our relative dissociation from the violence of Middle East geopolitics can be indefinetely guaranteed.

El Alamein
The 1942 Battle of El Alamein pitted the British Commonwealth against the Axis powers to ultimately determine the fate of Egypt and the Suez Canal.

The maintenance of empire carries with it burdens. In the early 20th Century that burden was largely borne by the competing British, French, German, and Italian powers. When the Imperial Japanese were denied access to Middle Eastern oil, they seized alternative sources in Indonesia. During the Cold War, the burden was largely borne by proxy nations in the Middle East for the strategic benefit of the US and USSR, nations like Egypt, Syria, and Israel. The post-Cold War era has seen two Gulf Wars directly involving various Western powers, as well as localized wars by proxy or by mercenary as we currently see in Yemen, Libya, and Syria.

There would inevitably be, of course, costs resulting from withdrawing US influence, or Western influence more broadly:

Currently, Saudi forces are in Yemen facing off against Iranian-supported Houthi factions. Iranian and Russian forces are actively engaged against anti-Assad forces within Syria. Egypt recently carried out air strikes against factions within civil war-torn Libya.

A withdrawal or drawing-down of Western influence in the region will not spontaneously spawn an era of peace and love. Where once Western powers exerted greatest influence new players will scramble to gain it. New regional powers, world powers, and patron states will vie. Volatile new power dynamics will unfold. This is typically a violent process.

So, if you ultimately decide that Middle Eastern trade routes and oil justify the heavy costs of engagement then you are free to form that conclusion. However, enough talk about “national defence” when discussing war against countries that pose absolutely no realistic threat to one’s own. No more words about “spreading democracy” or protecting “human rights”, either.

If you decide that Western control of Middle Eastern trade routes and oil do not justify the costs then you, too, are free to form that conclusion. However, enough talk of “peace” or even “world peace”, for no peace will come of it. As has been the case for thousands of years, others will fill the vacuum retreating powers leave behind. These may be regional powers, like Iran or Saudi Arabia, whose devotion to peace, democracy, and human rights are frequently no better than the imperial powers or their proxies. Sometimes they’re even worse. Obviously rival world powers, like China or Russia, will attempt gain influence and reap some of the economic and strategic benefits of empire, potentially at the expense of the West.

That’s the Booby’s take to the best of his knowledge. He hopes he reminded you what is – and is not – at stake for our respective nations. Now it is for voters – we hope – to decide upon and commit to whichever action is best. Easy, right?