As literature and legend has it, the ancient Persian king Shahryar was betrayed by his new wife. Upon learning of her infidelity the King had her executed. Having also seen his brother similarly dishonored, he becomes convinced that no woman can be trusted and so begins to marry young virgins only to have them killed the following day before they too can betray him. His chief advisor, the vizier, is charged with finding him new virgins to marry and scours the kingdom for them but eventually no more can be found. Alas, only his daughter, Scheherazade, is left and at her own urging he sends her to the the King. On their wedding night, and knowing her fate, she tells the King a magnificent story but does not finish it by morning. The King, wanting to know how the story ends, spares her life so that she can finished the tale the next night. When evening comes, Scheherazade finishes the first story but quickly begins another, likewise leaving it incomplete when the new day dawns. She continues with the trick for a thousand more nights, the King continuing to spare her life so that he can learn the end of one story only to be drawn into the next. Eventually, he awards her a full pardon and makes her his queen.
I couldn't help but think about this tale while following all the news of the latest crisis in the Middle East, this time the rapidly evolving conflict in Iraq. It seems that there is always some war breaking out in these ancient lands. No sooner does one stop than another begins. Since the discovery of oil in the region just after the beginning of the 20th Century and certainly from the formation of the modern state of Israel in 1948, the West has been drawn in like Shahryar to the never ending series of 'stories'--desiring the see one end, presuming that some final condition will at last be at hand, only to discover that another one opens that can't help but hold its attention. But there's another way to look at the issue: there is always another story and one cannot presume that the current story will be the last.
Given this latest spasm of violence in Iraq--coming on the heels of the chaos in Syria and the squandering of America's tremendous investment of blood and treasure by people who seem only to want to remain mired in the 8th Century--one could reasonably conclude that any further involvement by the U.S. would simply be more wasted effort. It certainly is the case that we cannot solve the problems of the Middle East. But like the stories told by Scheherazade, tales unfolding within tales, the larger story in which this current tale is unfolding...ultra-violent jihadis, corrupt and inept rulers, scheming neighboring powers...centers on the strategic interests of our own country. What interests of America's are at stake, threatened by the mayhem of warring factions who refuse to reconcile their differences?
Here is one nightmare scenario to consider:
- Left unchecked, the assault by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, aka ISIS) serves as a catalyst for the partition of Iraq into Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish zones
- Iran's support of the Maliki government and its willingness to invest military resources in the battle against ISIL and other Sunni militants enables it to dominate the Shia north
- Saudi Arabia, rising to aid the disaffected and abused Sunnis of Iraq, similarly dominates the Sunni south
- The Kurds establish their own autonomous zone in north Iraq, fomenting an increase in separatist activity among their Kurdish brethren in Turkey and western Iran
- Iraq ceases to serve as a buffer state, effectively creating a shared border between Iran and Saudi Arabia but one not so clearly defined that it precludes proxy battles between the two powers
- The chaos in Iraq effectively merges with that of Syria, embroiling an ever larger region in conflict and worsening the flow of refugees into the surrounding states of Turkey and Jordan
- To further burnish their credentials, both sides (Shia and Sunni) start funneling increasing support to militant Islamists of their respective sides who not only export their violence to other theaters (most likely Europe) but also increase attacks against Israel
- Beset by increasing attacks against its monarchy and unable to cope with the flood of refugees and militant groups, Jordan falls
- Iran announces (or is finally revealed to have) a nascent nuclear capability akin to North Korea's but more destabilizing given Iran's missile inventory and more ready access to advanced technologies from Europe and Russia
- In response, Saudi Arabia makes it known that it will also acquire a nuclear capability (most likely purchased from Pakistan) to offset Iran's -- the two in continual competition for dominance within Islam
- Israel is now surrounded by a more militant Hezbollah (now supported by a nuclear power) to the north, a chaotic if not fully Islamist Jordan to the East, an Egypt still in disarray to the south, better armed and motivated Palestinians to the West, and the imminent threat of a nuclear Iran
- The next chapter of Arab/Islamist-Israeli wars opens with a rising tide of militant attacks in cities across Israel and increasingly accurate rocket fire from Lebanon, Gaza, portions of Jordan, and the Sinai Peninsula
- Faced with this existential threat, Israel uses its nuclear arsenal
The consequences of such a scenario on the economic and security interests of the US would be devastating. Energy prices would skyrocket. The European economy would be rocked with ripples spreading outward to the US and Asian markets. Like-minded militants across the northern and trans-Sahel portions of Africa would be motivated to increase their activity. Terrorism would likely reach the shores of America once again.
Like Scheherazade's stories, we can't know the end until we get there, but not knowing the end also means we can't presume that the crisis in Iraq won't impact us here at home. I think that at the very least there is not only merit but a compelling case for doing what we can to shape the outcome. Will our continued involvement cost us more that we've already paid? Quite probably. But doing nothing won't insulate us from the consequences, and will likely cost us even more in the end.