100 years ago, the First World War burst forth with tremendous violence. European nations rapidly mobilized armies of millions and they collided in the late summer and fall of 1914 with devastating effect (over half a million men died in the first month and a half during the Battle of the Frontiers alone). The Germans struck westward in the much vaunted (though historically disputed) Schlieffen Plan, intending to speedily outflank the French Army, turn its flank and envelop it, capture Paris, and bring the French to terms before, on their eastern border, the Russian armies could overrun East Prussia by sheer mass. The need to evade the French in Champagne and Artois necessitated the invasion of neutral Belgium, which brought the spoil of the British Expeditionary Force to slow the advance of the German armies. Repulsed at the Battle of the Marne in September 1914, both armies then raced to the English Channel, establishing the trenches of the Western Front. The German armies held the Russians at bay through two brilliant victories, but were condemned to send armies to bolster this frontier (and assist their Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian allies in fighting off Russia, Italy, and Romania). Unable to commit the weight of their forces to the West, the materialschlact (material battle or industrial war) of 1914-18 involved the slow and grinding destruction of the respective armies. Ultimately, German forces finally buckled under the weight of attritional warfare before being roundly beaten by the allies in the summer and fall of 1918.
This is a familiar story from Barbara Tuchman and AJP Taylor, and some recent historians have done much to rewrite and amend an understanding of the details. The basic fact remains, however, that Germany and Austria-Hungary were ground down by forces amassed to their west, east, and south. Their strength on the defence was great, and the Great War killed well over 10 million people (worldwide), but the defeat and the increasing desperation of the surrounded German-speakers is something that perhaps policy-makers in DC, London, Paris, Melbourne, and other countries need to consider before we return to the Middle East, because the countries there are experiencing it.
One trend experts and pundits are increasingly speaking of is the question of the end of the Pax Americana which has supposedly existed since the end of the Cold War and the return of Great Power competition, while also talking of the chaotic violence and instability of the places in-between. This is a symptom of what Robert Kaplan termed the “coming anarchy” of a third world increasingly unstable due to the effects of the global economy, climate change, and the absence of a great American-Soviet struggle funding ideological insurgent movements against each other. The replacement is decidedly non-ideological and the concepts look familiar: anarchy, tribal, resource exploitation, fanaticism and superstition. Is that not Balkan ethnic cleansing, ISIS struggling for the Bajii Oil Refinery, or the incessant internal conflicts in Central Africa and Angola?
Meanwhile, America and the entire Pacific anticipates the continued economic and military rise of China, who is either going to rise peacefully, destroy America’s Pacific position (and end America’s prosperity), or be a paper tiger, depending on who your choice of author is. Likewise, the Russians haven’t gone anywhere, even if they’ve dropped the Hammer and Sickle. India under Modi is also bumping along the road into military and economic competitiveness. Historical symmetricalists, if that is the term, can see a lot of comparisons in the position of these great military and economic powers relative to each other and that of the more micro-cosmic world of Imperial Europe circa 1914, and many are currently doing good stock and trade in making the point in writing.
Well, there is some right and wrong in this: right in the sense that the centenary of the War to End All Wars has pertinent lessons, but wrong in seeing these is such black and white “Great Power” terms alone. In fact, the key point of the works of Tuchman and Taylor was exactly that the Guns of August roared because of a failure of large defensive alliances to prevent warfare from breaking out on the frontiers. Likewise, Taylor’s point was that the tuning of the military alliances between the Triple Entente (UK, France, and Russia) and the Central Powers (Austria-Hungary and Germany, with Italy abandoning the alliance) was such that each was timetabled for war. That timetable existed because the Entente walled in the Central Powers, France in the West, Russia in the East, Britain to the North and, with the Royal Navy, potentially any place where the water met the shore. The only way to knock out their opponents, so German militarists believed, was to further strengthen the military end of Clausewitz’s dictum about war and politics and to strike fast and without limitation to prevent the exact encirclement that eventually reduced the Central Powers. Germany did not lose the war in 1914, but political and military thinking which followed from the demands of the military leadership ultimately bound her, as one recent author put it, in a Ring of Steel.
The lesson has not been forgotten by soldiers and statesmen across the world, and right now we are witnessing it in the Middle East, South Asia, and the Pacific Rim. Geography is often the safety and the curse of nations. It is what has kept Afghanistan perennially hard to subdue by military action and harder still to govern and expand, it has what has kept Poland and Ukraine open to incursions from all sides, and what has kept the United States secure in the Western Hemisphere, but also detached from global issues for much of the nation’s history until confronted with the life or death issue of nuclear annihilation. Geography is also expressed beyond topography: populations, ethnicities, nations exist in disparate ways shaped by both natural conditions and human agency. Commerce, war, environmental alterations, and political interactions send communities and ideas across the globe, creating minorities, border problems, and uneven human terrain.
What we are witnessing in Iraq now is a continuation of this problem, but interspersed with the issue of the rise of revolutionary Iran, which threatened the Arab Sunni axis that came to dominate politics during the first three decades following 1945. As Vali Nasr writes in his 2007 work, The Shi’a Revival, the spread of Iranian revolutionary assistance to the oft-oppressed Shia minorities in Lebanon sparked the growth of Hizbollah out of the nightmarish civil war and Israeli intervention. Iran’s forces now assist nearly every Shi’a rebel group or government in peril. Their presence in Syria in the guise of Assad’s Shabiha and the presence of Iranian supervisors to Muqtada al Sadr’s forces in southern Iraq has caused grave concern amongst the Sunni states, notably the Saudis. Fear of pro-Iranian regimes sparked mass support for the Sunni opposition in Iraq and Syria, and though the Salafists of ISIS threaten Saudi and Gulf elites and their power structures, the Sunni regimes of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar remain trapped between the strategic choice of being threatened by Islamist networks they helped create or being surrounded by resilient Iranian allies (and violent insurgent cells) in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere.
Israel’s situation, surrounded by potential enemies and with a resident and restless Palestinian population it actively marginalizes, demonstrates the difficulties of fighting these wars. Preemptive strikes in 1967 bore remarkable similarities to the German plan for 1914, though the invasion and costly occupation of Southern Lebanon now has placed Israel in a position, though not as threatened by large-scale invasion as it was prior to 1982, of having to maintain significant population under arms and dedicate its energies to defense and internal security. Bolstered by American support it has done this, though it has risked a stake in a peaceful future by the continued use of self-defense rhetoric to justify horrifying demonstrations of force on Palestinian areas while seeking to destroy insurgent infrastructure. It too contends with fighting the presence of Hizbollah, which now is supporting Hamas and providing fighting forces that threaten Israel’s northern border. The 2006 Lebanon War demonstrated the flexibility and competency of these forces as they engaged Israeli units, and it is unwelcome to think of similar developments for ISIS. Meanwhile Hizbollah itself now organizes violence in Syria and Iraq to defend Shi’a holy sites and prevent the ascension of Sunni governments eager to revenge the suppression of their role in governance by Shi’a.
The attempt to prevent encirclement exports a lot of violence; Pakistanis fear a Indian-friendly Afghanistan and, historically, Pakistan has often ignored or abetted networks like the Haqqani as they destabilize Afghanistan’s weak coalition government alongside Pakistani-based Taliban shuras. Pakistan’s military, an army with a state as Anatole Lieven describes it (borrowing from Frederick the Great), is notorious for sponsoring militant groups in Jammu and Kashmir, as well as fundamentalist Sunni groups to suppress internal dissent from minority Baloch (themselves allegedly supported by Iran) as well, to keep their enemies off balance without risking all-out war. A plausible deniability allows Pakistan to fight the potential of strategic encirclement from Afghanistan, receiving Indian investment and aid, and from India itself. The country struggles enough to simply suppress the fruits of this policy, the Pakistani offshoot of the Taliban which it currently is attempting to drive out of the FATA with fire and sword in a campaign that is reminiscent of Kipling and Churchill. Yet, the threat of an unfriendly government in Kabul (however slim the possibility of it succeeding) threatens the Pakistani Army, itself facing sheer numerical odds in a contest against India and secured only with nuclear weapons as a final hindrance to conventional warfare.
Strategic encirclement of China from the Islands of the South Sea, Austral-Asia, Japan, and India, positions which were used historically by Europeans (including the Russians) to carve up China in the nineteenth century for European commercial interests, has dictated the military position of China since the Chinese Civil War concluded in 1949, with strong forces facing the route of European/American power projection from the coastline. China’s ability to place air and sea denial systems on contested offshore islands would guarantee its seaward security from concerted efforts of its regional rivals to threaten it militarily and provide a shelter for power projection into the Pacific lanes of international seaborne commerce. Hence it has been more aggressive with naval goals in order to bolster its own security at the expense of its ASEAN and north Asian neighbors. Such prevarications are perhaps more nakedly conventional than those of Iranian or Gulf states, eager to support pre-existing insurgent groups, but the Chinese under Mao were perfectly capable of exporting violence to its ethnic offshoots in the Malayan insurgency, and sending forces to bolster North Korea and North Vietnam in order to keep its borders free of counter-revolutionary threats.
The lessons of all these are that any intervention across the world must be weighed against the likely reactions of regional powers. It is fundamentally no different then the continued Imperial hounding of Northern German Protestants that invited a Swedish invasion of Germany in 1630 or French intervention 4 years later to prevent Spanish forces from using the Rhine valley to destroy the Dutch and surround the French. Mutual fear, as Hobbes explained in his Leviathan, drives the essential security dilemma: no man can truly be sure his nearby rivals are not able or in cahoots to destroy him. Striking first to deny that possibility of treachery becomes attractive, but breeds continual violence and necessitates a constant vigilance (one it is getting very expensive to afford). Preemption, a word Americans associate with an inconclusive and terrible war, seems necessary to prevent destruction by elements surrounding nations, but in doing so, exporting violence in regions of poor central control threatens regional rivals who prove resourceful in preventing the loss of territory to potentially unfriendly rivals.
While there is no clear way to govern contested space or alleviate man’s security dilemma without some systemic method of security more effective than the UN or international law, it is good for Americans calling for intervention in Iraq and Syria (and allies like the Turks doing the same) to recall that the imposition of American military might removed a check on the Saudi-Iranian border clash and has bred a generational conflict between agents of Sunni and Shi’a forces. We will likely face the guns of Sadrists in the rear if we attack ISIS in Anbar and the VBIEDs of Jabhat al-Nusra if we attack Assad in Damascus. Our intervention will be in one of the messiest wars of the past century, and Israel’s experience in Lebanon’s frightful civil war should be a lesson to us of the dangers this poses. Unless America as a nation is willing to accept that risk to the lives of our young men and women and our economy, the rush to interventionism needs to be tempered by considerations that we are tussling with more than one group that deserves to be driven to the gates of hell; we are dealing with regional power politics that we ignored to our peril in the past.