The Long View 2002-04-15: 2002 < 1914

I loved Star Trek: TNG growing up. Looking back, I can see John's point though. The series really was relentlessly PC, but in a sunnier, happier time when PC hadn't metastasized yet.

John was also correct in noting that despite popular millennial theology to the contrary [for both Christians and Muslims], war in the Middle East is currently unlikely to cause World War III. Peace is in fact possible, since the general unrest in the Middle East is a contemporary invention. Ukraine may be another story.

2002 < 1914


The Star Trek series spun off several television sagas in later decades, my least favorite of which was Star Trek: The Next Generation. Nonetheless, even that lifeless exercise in political correctness produced a few interesting story ideas, such as the episode about the alien society whose language seemed to consist almost entirely of proper nouns. Eventually, the crew of the Enterprise realize that the aliens' references to persons and places were really concise references to historical incidents. The key to communicating with them was building up some common history to refer to.

The use of historical events as symbols is not novel. That's how the I Ching works, for instance. Often, though, we use dates rather than proper nouns. There was an example of this in the Sunday New York Times of April 14. In an essay entitled "When Savage Passions Set a Trap for the World," R.W. Apple considered the significance of "August 1914" for the current state of things in the Middle East.

There are obvious differences, of course, and Apple does not fail to mention them. The biggest is that there is no Mutual Assured Destruction treaty system connecting Arabs, Israelis, and Iranians to the world's great powers. It was almost the case in Europe in 1914 that a war anywhere on the continent would oblige every major power to fight on one side or the other. The mechanism was not as automatic in practice as it was on paper. Some historians have exaggerated the amount of freedom that the British had about intervening in Belgium, but certainly the British obligations were more diplomatic than legal. The Italians actually reneged on their understanding with Austria and Germany when the time came; they even joined the other side later. Still, a general war was the path of least resistance. One of the powers would have had to adopt a steadfast new policy to prevent it. In the Middle east today, the path of least resistance has the opposite slope. If outside powers really want to pick a fight with each other, they might do it in the Middle East, but only if they abandon their policies of many years' running.

The parallel that Apple does see is that war in the region might be not so much inevitable as irreversible. Particularly if civilian populations become more and more targeted, it will become impossible for the immediate parties to negotiate, even if they have a mind to. The same emotional investment would trap their patrons and make them unable to talk to each other. The result could be not so different from that of the First Battle of the Marne in 1914. Before that point, even after the invasion of Belgium, it might have been possible for the Western powers to negotiate a settlement. A viable settlement might even have been possible had one side won a decisive victory. As things turned out, however, the result was a bloody stalemate for which all parties wanted revenge.

For my part, I hold that the significant analogy between the events of 1914 and those of recent history is the 911 attack, and that the only strong parallel is with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Serbian terrorists of the dreaded Black Hand hoped that a general war would make the Great Powers withdraw from the Balkans, much as Al Qeda hopes with regard to the Middle East today. The Serbian strategy worked, and Yugoslavia was their reward. Al Qaeda is less likely to succeed, but of that more below.

The biggest difference from 1914 is that it is anachronistic to talk about "Great Powers" in the plural. No matter how interested China and the European Union and Russia may be in the Middle East, none of them has the ability to project significant force into the area. The US does not have unlimited military options, either, but it is unique in having some options. (This is the real meaning of hegemony in a demilitarized world: the hegemon is the smart kid in the dumb room.) The notion that the Middle East is the point from which a world war of the Great Powers could start is a fixed feature of the popular imagination. For many quite astute people it is a point of theology. Nonetheless, it is very hard to spin even an improbable scenario that would result in such a conflict. The world has lost the structural prerequisites for a world war.

Readers will note that, in this piece, I have not distinguished the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the Al Qaeda War, or either of them from the threat of weapons of mass destruction produced by Iran and Iraq. The omission is deliberate, since the distinctions are largely chimerical. Iran subsidizes the terrorist campaign against Israel, Iraq had quite a lot to do with 911, and the Palestinian campaign legitimizes both regimes domestically. The real issue is the fate of Saudi Arabia; the Palestinian question is a carefully maintained diversion.

The long-term solution is obvious enough: regional demilitarization and the limitation of sovereignty. Some foreign policing will be necessary, as will some segregation of populations. As the Ottomans demonstrated for 500 years, peace in the region is possible.

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