One of the disappointments of the young 21st century is that H.L. Mencken was not around during the presidency of George W. Bush. He would have had what soldiers call a “target-rich environment.” Mencken would have understood Bush’s invasion of Iraq as a world-class blunder, one so dumb only a boob from the deepest, darkest Bible Belt could have made it.
One can imagine what Mencken might have written of Bush’s neocon advisors: perhaps something on the lines of “A cracker barrel of backwoods Arkansas faith healers, card sharps, and carnival side-show barkers, galvanized with the sheen of the garment district, clustered about the head of their moon calf…”
In Heaven, which may bear a resemblance to Mencken’s Baltimore, we shall know.
It is therefore ironic that Bush’s Iraq debacle may have opened the door to the possibility of American victory in the Middle East. How has this miracle come about?
One of the unanticipated and unintended results of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was to reignite the latent Sunni-Shiite civil war within Islam. As David Gardner wrote in the June 15 Financial Times, the invasion “catapulted the Shia majority within Islam”—a majority in Iraq—“to power in an Arab heartland country for the first time since the fall of the heterodox Shia Fatamid dynasty in 1171. It thereby …fanned the embers of the Sunni-Shia standoff into millenarian flame.”
Fighting for a sect or a religion is one of the most powerful contributors to Fourth Generation war, war waged by entities other than states. So powerful is religious war that it can sweep states away altogether, as has happened in Syria. Gardner writes, “The sectarian viciousness of the current Sunni-Shia battle knows no boundaries. It is bursting through the arbitrary borders drawn by the British and French a century ago.”
The harsh fact is that extensive Fourth Generation war in the Islamic world is inevitable. As descendants of Western colonies, most Islamic states are weak. Their legitimacy was open to question from their founding, in part because their boundaries seldom lie along natural divisions in the cultural geography. Sects, tribes, and ethnic groups overlap. Frequently, representatives of one tribe or sect—often a minority—form the political elite. They treat the state as a private hunting preserve, stealing such wealth as it has while supplying government as incompetent as it is corrupt.
On top of weak states has been laid a demographic bomb, in the form of vast populations of young men with nothing to do and no prospects. So what will they do? Fight.
They will fight us, they will fight their neighbors, they will fight each other in supply-side war, war occurring not as Clausewitz’s politics carried on by other means but war driven simply by an over-supply of warriors. If this sounds strange to moderns, it would have been familiar to our tribal ancestors.
Finally, we think of jihad as something waged by Islam against non-Muslims, but quite often it has been between one Islamic sect and another. Now Islamists are once again declaring jihad on each other. In June the New York Times reported on an influential Sunni cleric who “has issued a fatwa, or religious decree, calling on Muslims around the world to help Syrian rebels… and labeling Hezbollah and Iran”—both Shi’ite—“enemies of Islam ‘more infidel than Jews and Christians.’” David Gardner’s Financial Times piece tells of a “conclave of Sunni clerics meeting in Cairo [that] declared a jihad against what it called a ‘declaration of war on Islam’ by the ‘Iranian regime, Hezbollah and its sectarian allies’.”
How should the West react to all this? With quiet rejoicing. Our strategic objective should be to get Islamists to expend their energies on each other rather than on us. An old aphorism says the problem with Balkans is that they produce more history than they can consume locally. Our goal should be to encourage the Muslim world to consume all its history—of which it will be producing a good deal—as locally as possible. Think of it as “farm to table” war.
All we should do, or can do, to obtain this objective is to stay out. We ought not meddle, no matter how subtly; if we do, inevitably, it will blow up in our faces. Just go home, stay home, bolt the doors (especially to refugees who will act out their jihads here), close the windows, and find a good opera on television—perhaps “The Abduction From the Seraglio.”
William S. Lind is author of the Maneuver Warfare Handbook and director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation.