In Tolstoy’s massive novel War and Peace at the Battle of Borodino with Napoleon’s Grande Armée some eighty miles from Moscow, Carl von Clausewitz, then and now the foremost strategist of the study of war, suddenly canters onto the scene in a cameo appearance and is overheard to pronounce on the fighting: Der krieg muss im Raum verlegt werden. Der Ansicht kann ich nicht genug Preis geben.
After seven decades of selling weapons to our allies in the Gulf reassured by the fact that we sold more planes than there were trained pilots, we are finally confronted with a foreseeable, yet jarring dilemma: what happens when the Gulf states finally decide to use the weapons in pursuit of their own interests?
In August 1920, in the Parisian suburb of Sèvres, envoys of the allied powers signed an eponymous treaty dividing into zones of influence the fallen Ottoman Empire and Islamic Caliphate. The regime of "mandates" it instituted was simultaneously the culmination of European imperialism in the Middle East, and its final undertaking. Mandates were not meant to last: it was a phase of foreign trusteeship, in anticipation of independence that, by the 1970s, would be the norm across the region.
“Foreign interference” is a phrase often heard in the Middle East. In the pre-modern era, Muslim dynasties continuously challenged each other. The idea of “foreign” intrusion was, however, religiously defined: there were Greek and Latin Christians in the west, Mongol Shamanists and Hindus to the east. The recurring and intense wars between the Ottomans and the Safavids, where sultans and shahs attempted in their diplomatic correspondence to strip each other of legitimacy, were an intramural match, despite the Sunni–Shiite clash, where victory on the battlefield determined who owned what.
Today, America finds itself in roughly the same waters that drowned British ambitions in the Middle East between 1946–1969. In less than two decades, Washington has vacillated from direct intervention to calls to “share the region,” which have now been supplanted by the “America First” diplomacy of bold declarations that favor smaller, “face-saving” compromises.
We are living in the era of the surveillance state. People are starting to understand the political implications that the connections between technology and state power may have on individual privacy and civil rights. As Artificial Intelligence (AI) and facial recognition technology become available to states around the world, they are faced with making a choice whether to use them to monitor their own populations. While San Francisco just became the first city in the United States to ban the use of AI for policing, authoritarian states, like the United Arab Emirates, regularly consult and buy software from Chinese tech firms to control and monitor their own populations.
With the end of the Cold War the United States lost a sound understanding of the strategic geography of the Middle East. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, US strategy focused, correctly, on historical power centers on the outer rim of the Levant and Mesopotamia. The land in between these power centers – Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan – was the arena for proxy war and competition between great powers.