in the Middle East
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed
History may or may
not repeat itself. But its lessons endure. The deepening involvement of the
United States in the Middle East invites an examination of historical patterns
that repeat. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Ottoman Turks
exhausted themselves in Central Europe while Europeans on the Atlantic seaboard
went on to discover America and capture the Asian trade. Does the analogy hold
for the involvement of the United States in the Middle East in the first half of
the twenty-first century?
Let us first look
at the Turkish experience. It was the year 1529. The Ottoman forces under
Suleiman the Magnificent laid siege to the Hapsburg capital of Vienna. Winter
set in early that year and snowfall was heavy. To avoid getting trapped deep in
mid-winter deep in enemy territory, Suleiman called off the siege and the
Ottoman armies retreated towards Belgrade.
Over the next
hundred and fifty years, the Ottomans were heavily engaged in Central Europe,
fighting no less than six major wars and scores of minor ones. Indeed, one may
summarize the military history of Central Europe in the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries as the Turks advancing up from Istanbul and the Austrians
stopping them short of Vienna.
continued until the second siege of Vienna in 1683 when the ill-fated and
ill-planned advance on the Hapsburg capital by Grand Vizier Mustafa Pasha was
smashed by a contingent of Polish troops. While the thrust of Ottoman power was
towards Europe, there was continuous warfare with Safavid Iran to the east for
control of Iraq and Azerbaijan, with the Russians for control of the Caucasus
and with the navies of Venice, Portugal, Spain and the Vatican for control of
the seas. The battle of Lepanto (1571) effectively contained Ottoman naval power
in the Eastern Mediterranean. The bloody conflicts with Safavid Persia ended
only after 1639. Warfare with Russia to the north and the Hapsburgs to the west
continued, on and off, well into the twentieth century. .
warfare required the Ottomans to expand and maintain a large army placing an
enormous burden on the treasury. During the same period, shiploads of silver,
looted by the Spanish from the Aztecs in Mexico (1519-1540), arrived in Europe
and gradually traveled eastward from Spain, France and Austria into the Ottoman
Empire. Silver was the basis for the currencies of Europe, and the infusion of
such large quantities of the metal debauched their currencies. Inflation went
up. The Ottomans were forced to devalue their currency. This only made matters
worse for the army. The amount of cash required for defense became
excruciatingly painful. Discipline in the army suffered as the soldiers, unable
to feed their families, resorted to occasional extortion.
While the Turks
were so preoccupied with Central Europe, Europeans on the Atlantic seaboard were
rewriting history. Columbus discovered America in 1492. Vasco de Gama sailed
around the tip of Africa and journeyed to India in 1496. The Spaniards enslaved
the Aztecs, Incas and Mayas, looted their gold and imposed an empire on the New
World. The Portuguese destroyed the Indian Ocean trade which was until that time
controlled by the Muslims and set up colonies all along the rim of the Indian
Ocean. Traditional trade routes between Asia and Europe which had passed through
the Middle East were cut. The Islamic world which had bottled up Europe until
the fifteenth century was itself circumscribed and cornered. New world powers
emerged riding on the wealth of the Americas and on trade with the littoral
states of the Indian Ocean. First it was Spain. Then, it was the turn of the
Dutch. And finally England became the mistress of the world supplanting both the
Spanish and the Dutch.
hindsight, the great battles between the Turks and the Habsburgs come across as
border skirmishes on the global stage. While the Turks were exhausting
themselves in Central Europe, the Europeans were making a bold gambit to conquer
and rule the world.
hold the first siege of Vienna in 1529 and the second siege in 1683 as the high
points of Ottoman power. In fact, the decay of the empire started with the
Ottoman thrust into Austria and was complete with the defeat of the Turkish
armies in 1683.
Move the clock
forward some three centuries plus. Towards the end of the twentieth century, the
United States became the sole global superpower. Currently, it is heavily
engaged in the Middle East. More than a half a dozen American military bases dot
the Persian Gulf region. Some 150,000 troops are on active duty in Iraq. The
cost of the war exceeds 200 billion dollars. The American involvement shows no
sign of abating. Instead, there is a possibility that it may expand even
There are three
strategic interests at stake in the Middle East. First, it is control of oil
resources. Second, it is defense of the dollar. Third, it is support for Israel.
The first two are interrelated. The third is a reflection of American internal
Control of oil
resources is driven not just by the profits of giant oil companies and the love
of gas guzzling SUVs. Larger issues are at stake. To understand the genesis of
these issues one should go back to the end of World War II when the United
States emerged as the only major industrial power unscathed from the ravages of
war. The US also became the principal creditor of the world. The US dollar, tied
to a fixed gold conversion rate for government-to-government transactions, was
the de facto international currency.
was insufficient gold in the world to finance expanding world trade plus the
reconstruction of Western Europe and Japan. The dollar needed to be backed up by
something else of value. And that something else was black gold, namely oil. The
Bretton Woods agreement of 1945 established the World Bank and the International
Monetary Fund and solidified the position of the dollar, backed up by oil
reserves, as the currency of exchange.
It was for this
reason that President Roosevelt made a hasty detour immediately after the Yalta
Conference of 1945 to meet King ibn Saud of Arabia in Suez. The strategic move
was to secure the oil of the Middle East before someone else made a dash for it.
The Americans guaranteed the protection of the Saudi monarchy in return for
access to Saudi oil. The Saudi-American relationship has remained a cornerstone
of American foreign policy in the Middle East since the end of World War II. The
United States cannot tolerate a serious threat to the Saudis. That would be
unacceptable to the vital interests of the United States.
of the convertibility of the dollar to gold was removed by President Nixon in
1971. It was an effective way of devaluing the dollar. Immediately, the price of
gold shot up from $40 an ounce to $400 an ounce. The dollar value of real assets
in the United States floated upwards. For instance, a three-bedroom house in Los
Angeles that cost twenty thousand dollars in 1961 costs more than four hundred
thousand dollars in the year 2006.
To complete the
analogy of the United States in the twenty-first century with the Ottomans in
the sixteenth century, the devaluation of the Ottoman currency took place
because of the influx of Mexican silver into Europe and the extraordinary
expenditures on the Ottoman war machine. The devaluation of the US dollar is
taking place because of the voracious appetite of the American consumer and
deficit financing in the Federal budget. The reasons are different but the end
result is the same.
Just as new
powers emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries while the Turks were
preoccupied with Central Europe, new world powers are emerging today while the
United States is focused on the Middle East. The Chinese economy, growing by
over eight percent per year, is already the second largest in the world and is
projected to overtake that of the United States within the next generation. The
Chinese manufacturing industries dominate the world consumer markets. Whether
you buy an ihram for hajj in Mecca or pajamas in Indonesia, you buy
made-in-China products. Chinese cranes sail under the Golden Gate Bridge in San
Francisco even as California struggles with the Enron scandal. Simultaneously,
India, riding on a vast pool of trained technical manpower, positions itself as
the workhorse of the twenty-first century and the third economic giant after
China and the US.
The rise of China
and India in modern times is comparable to the rise of Spain, Holland and
England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Just as the Turks paid scant
attention to the changing power balance in the world in bygone centuries, the
United States has devoted insufficient resources to countervail either the
manufacturing capacity of the Chinese or the Indian gambit to become the
technological services work horse of the world. Add to this the enormous energy
and raw material resources of Russia and Brazil and you have before you the
strategic power map of the twenty-first century.
The response of
the United States to these emerging challenges has been disjointed. The
educational infrastructure is in decline. Comparative scores of American
children in math and science keep slipping. American industry is driven by a
penchant for short-term profits. Deficits run high while savings and investments
sag. The United States, which was the creditor nation of the world at the end of
WW II, has become the largest debtor nation on the globe owing hundreds of
billions to China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and India. Slogans of democracy
fail to evoke a positive response in international affairs.
The question may
be asked: Is the United States exhausting itself in the Middle East? Is history
set to repeat itself?
The answers need
not be negative. The United States will remain the principal agriculture
powerhouse of the world for decades to come. It is blessed with a continent size
landmass and enormous natural resources. Despite recent restrictions, it is
still the only country in the world that welcomes tens of thousands of
immigrants from around the globe. It remains the favorite destination of the
educated elite of the world. For two hundred years, its political and social
systems have demonstrated a remarkable resilience and have continually
reinvented themselves. Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln are American icons
not found elsewhere in the world.
What is needed is
a judicious disengagement from the Middle East and a re-engagement with its own
educational and technological infrastructures. Political engineering and the
spread of democracy may not be ideal goals for America as it steps into a
strategic competition with China and India. Oil interests can be protected, and
the dollar defended, based on a strong, technologically dominant economy. Let
the nations of the Middle East evolve their political and social systems on the
basis of their own historical experience. Given the freedom to choose, they will
opt for democratic, civil societies on their own.