Friday, May 25, 2018
Opinion

Column: The headless superpower

If the U.S. imperium in all its might did not exist, if the Washington, D.C., of Donald Trump and James Comey were just the Sicilian-style backwater that it currently resembles, then no one looking at recent events would doubt that the entire Middle East is on the verge of its own version of a European Great War.

Most of the elements that hurled European powers into conflicts in 1914 and 1939 (and 1870, 1853, 1805, 1756 …) are present in the Middle East right now.

You have two rival alliances, one led by Iran and the other by the Saudis, riven by religion, ideology and strategic interests. You have ongoing proxy wars between them, in Syria and Yemen, that resemble the Spanish Civil War in their ferocity and factional complexity. You have various unpredictable third forces, from the Islamic State to the Kurds to the Russians, whose instigationist activities or mere self-interest could help set a catastrophe into motion.

And now, with the sudden Saudi-led attempt to isolate Qatar and impose a long list of demands on the tiny emirate, you have an Austria-and-Serbia-in-1914 confrontation — a larger power demanding a small country cut ties to terrorism, while the small country looks to the larger power's rivals for support, and a fog of rumor and misinformation (now Internet- rather than telegraph-enabled) hangs over efforts to resolve the spat.

Indeed, what the Saudis and their allies are doing to Qatar is, by traditional definition, already an act of war — closing borders and waterways and halting flights in what amounts to a soft blockade. The shows of support for Qatar from the Iranians and Turkey, meanwhile, are the kind of steps that historically turn crises into open conflicts, as escalation feeds on escalation until the real war comes.

Except: In the historical examples, 1914 and all the rest, there was not a global hegemon with a military dwarfing all the rivalrous powers and a clear interest in making sure that conflicts stay local and that borders stay where they've been drawn. And the main point of the Pax Americana, the best case for all the money we spend maintaining it, is that it promises to keep a lid on exactly these sorts of regional conflicts — by variously reassuring, cowing and protecting nations that would otherwise be engaged in arms races and shooting wars.

Thus we rely on our unpleasant friends the Saudis not to start a regional war because they depend on us for military hardware and, often, to do their fighting for them. We rely on our unpleasant enemies the Iranians not to start a regional war because they don't want to risk going up against our juggernaut directly.

We expect Qatar to accept our mediation because (among other reasons) we have a major military base in their territory. And while the Qataris and all the other players — Kurdish, Turkish, Iraqi, Israeli — have ways to be the tail that wags our dog, they know there are limits, that they have to get what they want without doing anything that makes us turn on them.

All of this can work, and it has worked, in the Middle East and elsewhere: Recent decades have seen fewer major wars, fewer combat deaths and many fewer interstate conflicts than in a multipolar, pre-Pax Americana age.

But it doesn't inevitably work, and it won't inevitably last. Our leaders can destabilize things from above, as George W. Bush did when he tried to remake Iraq by force of arms. And local actors can expose the limits of our hegemony, as they did under Obama's more hands-off style, which avoided an Iraq-level blunder but saw the world's peace weaken as bloody proxy wars increased.

Now the heir to Bush's blunder and Obama's struggles is a man who has no idea what he's doing in almost any aspect of the presidency. And not surprisingly, that inexperience or incompetence is one reason the Qatar crisis has become this dangerous already.

All that Trumpian glad-handing and orb-stroking in Saudi Arabia seems to have given the Saudi alliance the sense that they had room to be unusually aggressive, and since the crisis started, his tweets and public statements have often seemed to clash with what our diplomats are doing. (Meanwhile, the Trumpian strategy, such as it is, in Syria has us getting deeper into that proxy war ourselves.)

So we have a test: How well does U.S. hegemony function when the colossus lacks a head? Is the basic structure of the Pax Americana — the weight of our military advantage, the geopolitical habits instilled by 25 years of unipolarity, the atrophy in other nations' readiness for interstate conflict — strong enough to keep lesser powers out of major wars even if the president of the United States doesn't understand his role or how to play it?

This time, we can reasonably hope, the answer will be yes.

But if so, don't get comfortable: The Middle East will be in a 1914 alignment for the duration of this presidency, and the kind of test happening in Qatar will come around more than once.

Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times, writing about politics, religion, moral values and higher education. © 2017 New York Times

Comments
Editorial: Welcome Bayshore changes still canít stop bad judgment

Editorial: Welcome Bayshore changes still canít stop bad judgment

Itís human nature in following any tragedy to imagine: How could this have been prevented? On that score, the city of Tampa responded appropriately to the deaths this week of a mother and her toddler whom police say were hit by a teenage driver racin...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Editorial: Filling Rocky Point lagoon to build townhomes is an empty-headed idea

Editorial: Filling Rocky Point lagoon to build townhomes is an empty-headed idea

One of the worst ideas in a long time in the field of urban planning received a blessing this month when the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission approved a land-use change for a project that calls for filling three acres of water insi...
Published: 05/25/18
Editorial: Searching for the real Adam Putnam

Editorial: Searching for the real Adam Putnam

Send out an Amber Alert for Adam Putnam. The red-haired, affable fellow who has served capably as a state legislator, member of Congress and agriculture commissioner is missing. In his place is a far-right caricature who has branded himself as a prou...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Editorial: A strong economic case for restoring voting rights for felons

Editorial: A strong economic case for restoring voting rights for felons

Floridians are paying a steep price for a system that makes it as difficult as possible for people who leave prison to reintegrate into civic life. Gov. Rick Scottís clemency process isnít just archaic and cruel ó it also wastes enormous public resou...
Published: 05/24/18
Updated: 05/25/18
Editorial: Trump right to cancel North Korea talks on nuclear weapons

Editorial: Trump right to cancel North Korea talks on nuclear weapons

Regardless of the reason, the cancellation of the U.S.-North Korea summit to address Pyonyangís nuclear program is hardly the worst possible outcome of this high-stakes diplomatic gamble. President Donald Trump was unprepared, North Koreaís Kim Jong ...
Published: 05/24/18
Updated: 05/25/18

NFL kneels before the altar of profits

The owners of the 32 National Football League teams sent a wrongheaded and, frankly, un-American message to their players Wednesday: Expressing your opinion during the national anthem is no longer permitted."A club will be fined by the League if its ...
Published: 05/24/18

Editorial: A positive first step in ensuring student access at USFSP

As a task force sorts out countless details involved in folding the University of South Florida St. Petersburg back into the major research university based in Tampa, ensuring access for good Pinellas students remains a concern. An enhanced cooperati...
Published: 05/23/18
Updated: 05/25/18
Editorial: Banks still need watching after easing Dodd-Frank rules

Editorial: Banks still need watching after easing Dodd-Frank rules

Legislation that waters down the 2010 Dodd-Frank law and was sent to President Donald Trump this week is a mixed bag at best. Some provisions recognize that Congress may have gone too far in some areas in the wake of the Great Recession to place new ...
Published: 05/23/18
Updated: 05/24/18
Editorial: Honoring our fallen soldiers on Memorial Day

Editorial: Honoring our fallen soldiers on Memorial Day

The rising tensions with Iran, the resurgence of violence in the Mideast and the uncertainty over a nuclear disarmament deal with North Korea combine to create an unsettling time this Memorial Day. These grave threats to peace are another reminder of...
Updated: 9 hours ago

Another voice: The chutzpah of these men

A new phase of the #MeToo movement may be upon us. Call it the "not so fast" era: Powerful men who plotted career comebacks mere months after being taken down by accusations of sexual misconduct now face even more alarming claims.Mario Batali, the ce...
Published: 05/22/18
Updated: 05/23/18