Most of the elements that hurled European powers into conflicts in 1914 and 1939 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.Except that the whole region is under American military domination, and that may make a crucial difference:
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.
The main point of the Pax Americana, the best case for all the money we spend maintaining it, is that it promises to keeps 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.It seems clear to me that skillful US management could prevent a Saudi-Iran war. But skillful diplomacy is one thing we are almost guaranteed not to have with Trump at the head of the government; can our mere presence keep a hot war from breaking out? Stay tuned.