President Trump’s decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria is wise and, in fact, long overdue. There is no natural end-point for serving as a buffer between the Turks and the Kurds; their feud will go on forever. We should never have gotten ourselves into it in the first place.
Similarly, the President was correct in refusing to attack Iran in response to the Houthis’ strike on Saudi oil facilities. His refusal to pull the Saudis’ chestnuts out of the fire has led them to approach Iran about reducing mutual tensions, which is just the outcome we should desire. As the New York Times reported on October 5, “Any reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran could have far-reaching consequences for conflicts across the region.”
President Trump understands that our involvement in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf should be minimized. It brings us no benefits and carries the risk of high costs, i.e., more wars in which our interests are not really at stake. What we need is a comprehensive settlement of all major disputes across the region. This is what Bismark sought and reached in the face of a number of European crises that could have brought on a general war.
So what might Bismarck do? His approach was well illustrated by the Congress of Berlin. His rule was, everyone gets something they want but nobody gets everything. In the case of the Middle East, an outline of a comprehensive settlement might look something like this:
Iran gets most sanctions on the sale of oil lifted. In return, Iran stops hostile acts aimed at Saudi Arabia, largely withdraws from Syria, where the Assad government (which Iran and Russia support) has won, and pushes the Houthis to accept a deal to end the fighting in Yemen.
The Saudis get an end to Iranian threats, an end to the war they have lost in Yemen, and the regional stability they crave. In return, they cease exporting Salafism through their funding of extremist schools and organizations throughout the region, which is one of the main sources of upheaval.
Syria gets an end to its civil war, restoration of the Assad government and financial help in rebuilding. Iraq receives a U.N. mission to help get the country working again, i.e., the electricity on, the water safe to drink, and jobs. The Saudis pick up the tab for both, or most of it. The Gulf states get renewed cordial relations (including with Qatar), tranquility and a chance to make even more money. Everyone agrees to ignore the Israeli-Palestinian standoff, which is what they are already doing.
The question is, how do we get all the parties to agree on a deal like this? Again, what would Bismarck do? He would call a conference of the Powers. In his day, those were Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France, and Britain. Today, the Powers are the U.S., Russia, and China. They craft the terms of the deal, largely without reference to what the local parties want, beyond the rule that everybody gets something but nobody gets everything. Then, they impose the settlement. Anyone who refuses it gets hit with massive trade and financial sanctions, enforced by all three Powers together. This is less brutal than it seems, because it allows the local politicians to blame the Powers for aspects of the deal their citizens do not like. They can say, “Hey, don’t blame me. Who can stand up to the U.S., Russia, and China acting together?”
But, you may ask, what do the Powers themselves get out of it? The U.S. gets to pull out of a region where, if we stay long enough, we are guaranteed to get into more wars we don’t want and can’t afford. Russia gets de facto recognition as a major player in the region, including American acceptance of Russia resuming her 19th century role as protector of the region’s Christians (it is in that role Russia intervened in Syria). China gets regional stability in an area she depends on for oil plus an OK from the U.S. and Russia to push her One Belt, One Road initiative there.
In the end, nobody is completely happy, but no one is so unhappy as to go to war. Children sing, doves are released, bands play, and everyone goes home grumbling but at the same time relieved. Chaos and Old Night have been pushed off, at least for a time. As a realist, Bismarck understood that was the most diplomacy can do.
So, Mr. President and Secretary Pompeo, it’s time to call a conference. May I suggest it meets in Berlin?
Interested in what Fourth Generation war in America might look like? Read Thomas Hobbes’ new future history, Victoria.