The Middle East, by contrast, was always the “elephant path of history,” as Israel’s fabled defense minister, Moshe Dayan, put it. Legions of conquerors have marched up and down the Levant, and from Alexander’s Macedonia all the way to India. Other prominent visitors were Julius Caesar, Napoleon and the German Wehrmacht.
This is not just ancient history. Today, the Greater Middle East is a cauldron even Macbeth’s witches would be terrified to touch. The world’s worst political and religious pathologies combine with oil and gas, terrorism and nuclear ambitions. ~Josef Joffe
Of course, by “visitor” Joffe is being quite literal: Napoleon was obliged to depart soon after he arrived, and the region played essentially no role in the wars that followed, Caesar didn’t bother to stay for long, and the Wehrmacht “visited” a lot of places that were not of great strategic value (they got around). When was the last time the Near East actually possessed the strategic significance Joffe attributes to it? Realistically, the region has not been a significant “strategic arena” since the 17th century, and that is being fairly generous. Near Eastern campaigns in the world wars were relative sideshows, and while important the region was never the main stage during the Cold War. What great powers exist in the region now that have changed this? Not even the discovery of oil has changed the region’s marginal importance.
South and East Asia are shaping up to become such a “central strategic arena.” Numbers, wealth and the concentration of several major military powers all indicate that it will be the main arena of the future, if it is not already. In fifty years’ time, our heirs will look at our obsession with the Middle East (assuming that we have not perpetuated it until then) in the same way that modern Europeans must regard the scramble for Africa with some amazement. Late 19th century colonial advances into Africa were just symptoms of the rivalry of European powers, and it was in Europe where the major power struggles were going to take place.
Besides, a withdrawal from Iraq will not realistically entail any rapid departure from the Gulf as a whole. Fears of total Iranian domination are just that–irrational fears. Kooky predictions of Chinese domination of the western Pacific are even less credible. (Last I checked, the Pacific Fleet still existed, and there is this country called “Japan.”) Additionally, Joffe’s article contradicts itself: at the same time that he says that America isn’t dispensable, he warns that our allies will seek “insurance” elsewhere. But if there are no other powers that can credibly provide it, where will they go?
No, American superpower will persist well after any withdrawal from Iraq. Leaving Iraq will be a setback, but it will almost certainly not unleash the sort of worldwide backlash against the U.S. that Joffe predicts. Rather than opening the floodgates that will threaten to sweep American power away, getting out of Iraq will stop the bleeding of U.S. prestige and power, which are daily being consumed by an open-ended, pointless occupation of Iraq. Articles such as these are a good sign that war supporters have become extremely desperate and have dug in with their last excuses for keeping the war going. Perhaps they sense that the country has turned against them so strongly that their only hope is the most irresponsible kind of fearmongering. Then again, they have never had much in the way of other arguments.