A War to Start All Wars

The Middle East looks like Europe circa World War I.

Sixty years ago, Central and Eastern Europe was entering the final phase of a succession of wars and civil wars that originated with the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Before 1914, the Habsburg lands had been characterized by high levels of ethnic heterogeneity. Consequently, the transition from empire to the nation-states of the post-World War I era proved painful in the extreme.

Two minorities were especially ill-placed in the new order of the 1920s: the Germans and the Jews. The former fought back against their minority status in places like Czechoslovakia and Poland and, under the leadership of a messianic Austrian, temporarily created a Greater German Empire. The latter were among that bloodthirsty empire’s principal victims. Only with the expulsion of the Germans from Central and Eastern Europe and the creation of truly homogeneous but Soviet-controlled nation-states was peace restored. It is no coincidence that the one country that remained both heterogeneous and independent— Yugosla­via—was, in the 1990s, the scene of Europe’s last great ethnic conflict.

The aftermath of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire (also dealt its death blow during World War I) has taken a different, more protracted course. The Turks did not submit to the breakup of empire as readily as the Austrians. Having already murdered the Armenian Christians under the Young Turk regime, they expelled the Orthodox Greeks from Asia Minor and consolidated their Turkish nation-state (albeit retaining a substantial Kurdish minority, whose strivings for autonomy they ruthlessly crushed).

But the rest of what had been the Ottoman Empire did not immediately adopt the model of the nation-state, as Europe had done. Instead, the victors of the First World War established “mandates” (de facto colonies) in the losers’ former possessions—Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria. Independence did not come to most of the Middle East until after 1945, and it was seldom accompanied by democracy (Israel being the exception). Instead the multiethnic states of the region were ruled by either feudal monarchs or fascist strongmen. And a new empire—which preferred to be known as a superpower—generally helped keep these rulers in place, and the region static, if only to hold another superpower at bay.

Only in our time, then, has the Middle East reached the political stage that Central and Eastern Europe reached after the First World War. Only now are countries like Iraq and Lebanon experimenting with democracy. The lesson of European history is that this experiment is a highly dangerous one, particularly at times of economic volatility and chronic insecurity, and particularly where tribes and peoples are mixed up geographically, both within and across borders. The minorities fear—with good reason—the tyranny of the majorities. People vote their ethnicity, not their pocketbook or ideology. And even before the votes are counted, the shooting begins.

What will the United States do if Iraq’s neighbors fail to contain the ethnic conflict that is now consuming Iraq? The simple answer would be to leave the people to kill and displace one another until ethnic homogeneity has been established in the various states. That has effectively been American policy in central Africa. The trouble, of course, is that Iraq matters more than Rwanda, economically and strategically. Does anyone seriously believe that a regional conflagration would leave Israel and Saudi Arabia—America’s most important allies in the Middle East—unscathed?

Ask a different question. Did anyone seriously believe that a war in Central and Eastern Europe in 1939 would leave Britain and France unaffected? The really sobering lesson of the twentieth century is that some civil wars can grow into more than just regional wars. If the stakes are high enough, they have the potential to become world wars too.

Niall Ferguson is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution. His latest book, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, is published by Penguin Press.
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