Some damn foolish thing in the Middle East
by N S Rajaram on 19 Jul 2019 13 Comments

Following the defeat of Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo (1815), Europe enjoyed relative peace until the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. The war changed the map Europe. It led to German unification under Bismarck, and the German Empire replaced France and Austria as the major power in Europe. So, it seemed like Europe had reached a period of stable peace following the conflicts of the Napoleonic wars. But the German Chancellor Bismarck was not too optimistic. When asked what could bring about another major war, Bismarck said: “Some damn foolish thing in the Balkans”.


People of the Balkan states like Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria and others that were then part of the two empires - Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey - were in a restless condition. And the damn foolish thing did happen when Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian Empire was assassinated in June 1914. This was followed by a string of events that culminated in the Great War, that we now call World War I.


With rising tensions now in the Middle East around something called the Strait of Hormuz which most people cannot locate on the map, we seem to be heading into a situation that was described by Bismarck as “a  war whose issue no man can foresee. At the end of the conflict we should scarcely know why we had fought”.


The strait itself is a relatively narrow, with a shipping lane of just two miles. It is bordered on the east by Iran and on the west by the United Arab Emirates. It’s also the main oil highway for Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia; in fact, it’s the most critical point for oil distribution in the world. In May of this year, it was reported that mines in the strait had damaged four oil tankers. US National Security Advisor John Bolton quickly announced that “naval mines almost certainly from Iran” were to blame. He offered no evidence to back up this claim.


But Vice Admiral Michael Gilday went further, saying “with a high degree of confidence that this [attack] stems back to the leadership of Iran at the highest levels”. Although this was strenuously denied by Iran’s foreign ministry, Mr. Bolton reasserted, “There’s no doubt in anybody’s mind in Washington who’s responsible for this. Who else would you think is doing it? Someone from Nepal?”


This is pure conjecture, buttressed by flippant rhetoric, but backed by no evidence. As noted by a commentator, we had the US National security advisor and an admiral in the US Navy stating with near-certainty that Iran has launched an attack against the US, yet they offer no evidence, other than their own antagonism toward Iran.


None of the ships that were claimed to have been damaged were US-registered ships, but US representatives insisted that this was a direct attack by Iran against the US. The mild public furor over this “incident” died down rather quickly. Then, a month later, two more tankers (neither of which is US-registered) were claimed to have been damaged in the strait – this time, more seriously. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was quick to state to the press, “Taken as a whole, these unprovoked attacks present a clear threat to international peace and security, a blatant assault on the freedom of navigation and an unacceptable campaign of escalating tension by Iran”. Ah, so this is now a trend.


Curiously, Pompeo on his recent visit to India to discuss terrorism and mutual cooperation mentioned Iran but was silent on Pakistan’s role. This suggests India has to be cautious in dealing with the US, because of its antipathy towards Iran and soft corner for Pakistan. The same commentator went on to observe:

“Interesting… If we read this statement carefully, it’s uncertain as to whether attacks have taken place at all, yet Iran has been blamed in advance of any certainty, in case attacks might have occurred. For its part, Iran also issued a statement – that it “categorically rejects” the US claim and condemns any attack that may have occurred. Iran stated further that it “stands ready to play an active and constructive role in ensuring the security of strategic maritime passages”. It warned of “U.S. coercion, intimidation and malign behavior” and expressed its concern “over suspicious incidents”.


Both claims cannot be true. We can’t be certain who is right, but whenever one nation accuses another of an attack but offers no evidence, no details and is unwilling to answer questions, the antennae should go up as to whether it’s a false-flag episode.


The U.S. has a history of making false charges based on preconceptions. In 1964, North Vietnam was accused of firing on U.S. ships, in the Gulf of Tonkin, starting the Vietnam War. It is now known that nothing had happened, and as far back as 1965 both President Lyndon Johnson and his Defense Secretary Robert McNamara had doubts about it, but went ahead with the war anyway. Later, McNamara acknowledged that no attack had taken place and he knew it at the time. But by then thousands of lives had been lost and Cambodia virtually destroyed.


More recently, a coalition led by the U.S. started the Iraq War (Gulf War) charging Iraq with the possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Saddam Husain was overthrown but no WMD were found. But the damage was done and the region is yet to recover.


As a former academic in the U.S., it has always amazed me how readily U.S. experts swallow simplistic academic theories. Sixty years ago, it was something called the “Domino theory,” how the whole of East Asia would come under Communism (then the Great Satan), once Vietnam came under Ho Chi Minh. Now it is a new doctrine called “Clash of Civilizations” propounded by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington, apparently seen by American Neo-Conservatives as profound and infallible.


The U.S. does not seem to realize that the conflict over Hormuz is part of the centuries long Sunni-Shia divide between Sunni Arabs and Shia Persians who detest the Arabs. The U.S. establishment is also laboring under the illusion that the Sunni Arabs are moderate and Shias are fanatics. If the conflict does escalate, we can expect Pakistan (largely Sunni) to join in on the side of the Arabs as a way of ingratiating itself with the Americans and Saudi Arabia, hoping to come out of its isolation.


India has to be careful that it does get drawn into the conflict, especially since it has close relations with Iran, including development projects like the Port of Chahbahar. This calls for skillful tight rope walking, but that is what diplomats are there for. More seriously, U.S. policymakers seem to be profoundly ignorant of the history and ideologies that drive the Middle East region while its academics offer shallow generalizations based on economic considerations, while ignoring the profound impact of religious motives that play a negligible role in the post-religious West.

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