Although renowned for their actions across the world, the US and EU no longer control the outcomes of what their foreign policies create. The unfolding refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East is a symbol of this failure.
The current European refugee crisis is a harbinger of deeper fundamental changes in the global system. It is driven by two streams – the African stream and the Middle East stream, linked to the post-9/11 invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.
A century-long crisis has also been unfolding in these regions, triggered first by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1919, and by the subsequent Arab fight against the neo-colonial overlords who replaced them – the British, French, then Americans. Since the end of WWII, four other challenges – the creation of Israel; Arab nationalism; political Islam; plus sectarian and demographic changes – have been disrupting this American/European order. The blow-backs from all these are the critical factors responsible for the current migration crisis.
The 1948 creation of Israel galvanised Arab nationalism and produced a flood of refugees to neighbouring countries, upsetting their finely balanced sectarian and demographic arrangements. A wave of nationalist and anti-colonial revolutions followed – the high point being Abdel Nasser’s 1956 Suez [canal] challenge, which led to French and British humiliation and retreat.
A decade later, the crushing Arab defeat in the 1967 war against Israel started to weaken nationalism and by 1978, totally exhausted and broke Egypt. As the nationalist secular camp retreated, another force ascended – political Islam, buoyed by the billions earned post the 1973 oil price hike in the Gulf kingdoms. Two further events in 1979 (the Iranian revolution and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan) entrenched the rise of political Islam under two banners – Saudi Arab’s Sunni brand of Wahabism which inspired the Afghan Mujahidin, and Iran’s own home-grown Shia variant, which inspired its revolution. Each would begin fighting for supremacy and fishing in regional troubled waters, supporting local clients, and accentuating internal conflicts. Three Gulf Wars would finally destroy the old order and produce the current chaos. Saddam’s subsequent invasion of a fellow Arab country triggered the second Gulf War, sounding the death knell of Pan-Arab unity and nationalism. Protection of Saudi Arabia and holy places by US troops during that war would provide the casus belli for Osama Bin Laden’s jihad, the 9/11 attacks in the US, and the unleashing of political Islam as a revolutionary movement.
The responding Western invasion of Afghanistan and third Gulf War or Iraq invasion would create millions of refugees, destabilising Pakistan, and Jordan and most importantly now, Syria. Over a million Iraqi refugees in Syria upset the delicate sectarian and demographic balance, in the same way that millions of post-genocide Rwandan refugees destabilised the Great Lakes region.
There are a number of conclusions to this saga, including the fact that the American and European attempts to maintain control in the Middle East are a source of great instability. Though their raw power and domination of international institutions can initiate changes, they no longer control the outcomes. After unleashing chaos, they also refuse to accept the blame, or face the consequences.
The refugees flowing north are a symbol of this failure. Perhaps now that the problems are washing up on the doorstep of Europeans, and numbers threaten to destabilise their own finely balanced societies, they may finally begin to hold their governments to account for the cavalier actions they unleash in parts of the world in which the benefits of protecting their economic interests, are now far outweighed by the tragedies that are unleashed as a result.
However, at the root of this is the inability of individual Arab countries to peacefully resolve their confessional and governance issues. This inability invites the meddling of outside powers with their own agendas in their affairs.