America has been rightfully consumed with the subdued opera of the Comey hearings, in which members of both parties accepted as a stipulation that the President was a grotesque, habitual liar, and that his best defense was he literally has no idea what he is doing, so how could he be obstructing justice? I don’t know the legal ramifications of this, but even as the GOP desperately tried to downplay Comey, which seems to imply a return to the status quo, I think there will continue to be a steady drip of revelations. Comey implying that Sessions is dirtier than we (well, the media) thought might be the first major crack. No one is going to want to be the last person to go down for this.
But think again about the essential shrugging reaction even senators from his own party have to the essential nature of Trump: sure he’s dishonest and completely incapable of being President, but is that illegal? Maybe for the former, probably not for the latter. But that’s not the issue: the issue is that it is extremely dangerous. It’s dangerous domestically, and potentially catastrophic abroad.
There could be few worse times to have a blundering, spite-filled, ego-driven ignorant man as President of the United States. The post-WWII order was crumbling, but just as importantly (if unremarked), the post-WWI order in the Middle East (and much or Eurasia) is crumbling and reforming in unexpected and difficult ways as well. This is a hinge moment for a huge part of the world, and with his disaster-junkie approach to things, Trump can’t help but make it enormously worse. And it starts, of course, with Qatar.
The last week has seen Qatar thrust to the front of the world’s headlines, or at least somewhere on the front page. The tiny country has long been a thorn in the side of dominant regional players like Saudia Arabia (KSA), UAE, and Egypt because it is the home and sponsor of Al-Jazeera, which openly supported the Arab Spring. Qatar also has ties with Iran, which given its geographic positioning, is all but inevitable. Qatar also is said to have people in its government who support ISIS, which may be true, and is terrible, but certainly shouldn’t be the subject of finger-pointing from the Hause of Saud.
But after Trump’s trip to KSA, where, surrounded by aging autocrats in gilded quarters, he felt right at home, the other countries on the peninsula decided the time was right to isolate Qatar. That’s partly because Trump took a firm stand against Iran, placing the United States explicitly on one side of the Sunni/Shi’ite divide. And when the regional tyrants, autocrats, and whatever the Yemeni government is made their move, Trump rushed to take credit on Twitter, undermining his Secretary of State and making a dangerous situation much worse.
He since backtracked and said there needs to be diplomacy. Rumors were that he didn’t know there were troops in Qatar when he first tweeted, and so didn’t know the ramifications. Those are said to be false rumors, but given the rash idiocy of his tweets, it might actually be the more comforting alternative.
Qatar isn’t totally isolated, though. Turkey has come to its aid with supplies of food and water. Turkey has been forming an alliance with Qatar for several years, and is in fact building a base in the small country (which, again, serves essentially as an American aircraft carrier for the fight against ISIS). So what is Turkey’s goal, here? I think to answer that we have to take a big step back.
There are two major events happening in the Middle East right now, tied together. One is the dissolution of the post-Ottoman order, with Iraq and Syria no longer being states in any real sense, and the danger of that spreading centrifugually to Lebanon and Jordan. It is also happening in Yemen, for different historical reasons, but from the same colonial impulse. So what we’re seeing is the regrowth of multiple power centers, based on region, religion, tribe, family, convenience, avarice, coercion, and any combination of those factors. This fragment zone could potentially encompass most of the land between Iran, Turkey, the Mediterranean, and the Arabian Peninsula.
Those are the borders of the fragmentation zone because those are the states which are the strongest right now. That isn’t to say that they don’t have their own internal issues, political and ethnic. The Turks have the eternal Kurdish issue, and the Iranians the Azeri question (which is getting more interesting). These regions bleed into the fragmentation zone. Indeed, you could extend the Caucuses, both in Russia and south of it, into this zone.
And that’s sort of the point. Turkey, Iran, and Russia, as well as KSA, have dissolution along the edges, and historically, to control that, states expand. They expand their influence, and they expand their borders.
A suddenly-chauvinistic Turkey led by an authoritarian Erdogan is making a claim for the new Middle East by staking a contentious alliance with Qatar in the midst of the biggest crisis in its history. It is increasingly active in northern Syria, where a fragile alliance with Russia keeps threatening to shatter. Iran is pushing westward through Iraq and eastward through Damascus, with its support of Assad and Hezbollah. KSA is trying to dominate the peninsula even further, and trying to remind people that they are the forefront of Sunni Islam.
That’s important. Erdogan’s Turkey is, more and more, trying to re-establish itself at the dominant Sunni power. Remember, they were the seat of the Caliphate for nearly 700 years, and less than 100 years ago, most of which time Mecca was just a historic backwater. I’ve noticed on threads relating to Qatar and Turkey a growing number of people talking about the Ummah, and Turkey’s power, and the caliphate. This is anecdotal, but I don’t think incidental. A growing clash between KSA and Turkey is based in modern geopolitics, but those can’t be separated entirely from history and religion.
Russia, meanwhile, is trying to be a major player in the Middle East as well, creating a swath of influence that encircles its tradtional empire. This, Putin hopes, will give it weight against an encroaching China on its eastern flanks (not to mention around the Caspian Sea).
So you have resurgent-but-fragile Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Russia maneuvering with and against each other in a region that is falling apart for historic and contemporary reasons. Throw in the ravaging specter of ISIS and the growing ecological catastrophe of climate change and disease (poor Yemen, poor Yemen), and we are on the edge of the unprecedented. We’re already in catastrophe. It can get worse.
One thing that can make it worse is idiotic American interference. Trump knows nothing about this region, or about anything, outside the dim star of his own ego and the spluttering of his rage, given more force by the all-encompassing bigotry of people like Bannon and Steve Miller. They want to take it to Iran, and ISIS, and remake the region, and haven’t begun to understand the confusing alliances or nuances or history which led us to where we are. Based on their reaction to the (legitmately important and hinge-moment) ISIS attack in Tehran, they might actually think the IRG supports the Islamic State.
And it isn’t like the grown-ups are actually in charge. Mattis and McMasters were shocked and enraged when Trump, against their wishes, failed to affirm Article 5 at his NATO meetings. He listens to himself. He listens to Bannon and Miller, because they tell him what he wants to hear. And they want to appeal to the side of America that isn’t isolationist, per se, but thinks America should do whatever it wants. These aren’t neo-cons; they’re coal-rolling imperialists. It’s foreign policy dictated by domestic politics rooted in appealing to the worst segments of society.
(And, meanwhile, as this Ilan Goldenberg tweet string points out, we seem to be slipping into war in Eastern Syria, right in the path of Iran. That really should be the lede)
Do we need to talk about how dangerous this is? The situation would probably be unmanageable for a man like Obama, who tried to see the world as it is. It’s most likely unmanageable for the major players, even men like Putin and Erdogan, who dream maps every night. For Trump, who knows nothing, cares less, listens to the worst, and who thinks that the world should bend to him? And who is increasingly persecuted by his own laziness, lies and greed?
As he’s backed into a corner and Eurasia burns, it is impossible to say what will happen. But it won’t be good. The remnants of slave power and the nostalgia for American apartheid colluded with a literally-thoughtless culture and moment-driven media, along with the help of Russia, to select the worst person at the worst time. History works in mysterious ways, but sometimes, she’s a real jerk.