[Column] Which empire will die in the latest war in the Middle East?

Posted on : 2023-11-14 16:47 KST Modified on : 2023-11-14 16:47 KST
Wars in the Middle East during the 1970s pulled the trigger for the Soviet Union’s collapse – what will come of the current war in Gaza?
Smoke rises from the ruins of buildings in Gaza following Israeli bombing on Nov. 12. (AFP/Yonhap)
Smoke rises from the ruins of buildings in Gaza following Israeli bombing on Nov. 12. (AFP/Yonhap)

By Jung E-gil, senior international affairs writer

They say Afghanistan is where empires go to die, but the same can be said of the Middle East in general as well.

After World War I, the UK permitted a Jewish nation-state in Palestine and divided the Middle East in order to consolidate the territory of the British Empire that spanned from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa to India. However, the Palestine conflict prompted by Israel’s founding caused the UK to lose its influence in the Middle East. The UK completely fell from the ranks of empires after interfering in the Second Arab-Israeli War that was triggered by the Suez Crisis of 1956.

The collapse of the Soviet Union also began with the oil shock set off by the Yom Kippur War, which Arab countries including Egypt started on Oct. 6, 1973. Oil-producing countries of the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia went so far as to place oil embargoes on Western countries like the US that supported Israel. Western capitalism in the postwar period faced its worst crisis ever, with the US suffering a serious fiscal deficit due to the Vietnam War and the recession continuing for almost 10 years.

Just in time, the Soviet Union became one of the biggest producers of oil with the discovery of the natural resource in Siberia. The country sped up its advance into the Third World by taking advantage of high oil prices, reaching its peak during the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979. But seen from a different perspective, the Soviet Union developed its national power in excess by riding the high of the oil shock, although it needed to reform its system due to decreasing productivity starting in the 1960s.

In contrast, the US handed over smokestack industries to emerging nations, moving on to knowledge-based high-tech industries. When oil prices dropped early in the 1980s, the Soviet Union seriously struggled with system ossification. Mikhail Gorbachev pursued reform (“perestroika”) and openness (“glasnost”) to the point of abandoning socialism, but ultimately, the Soviet Union broke down. Stephen Kotkin, a US historian of the Soviet Union, even dubbed the oil shock a “cruel trick” of history for the country.

The US’ proclamation of unipolarity through the Gulf War of 1991 was another beginning of a cruel trick of history. After blockading the Saddam Hussein regime of Iraq through the war, the US held the Madrid Conference, its ambitious solution to the Palestine issue. This led to the Oslo Accords of 1993, which promised an independent Palestinian state. A crucial flaw was that Iran had been excluded.

Although the Hussein regime of Iraq, which had been holding Iran in check, grew weak due to the Gulf War, and Iran’s regional influence expanded, the country was excluded from efforts to reorganize the regional order in the Middle East. Iran began supporting anti-Israel forces such as Hamas of Palestine. Expressing its discontent of and opposition to the slow-moving Oslo Accords, Hamas even went so far as to risk terrorist attacks. This triggered far-right Israeli settlers who expanded settlements in occupied territories like the West Bank to sabotage the Oslo Accords, ultimately leading to the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by the far right.

The US’ invasion of Iraq following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks of 2001 and the subsequent elimination of the Hussein regime created a massive power vacuum, leading to the Islamic State’s growing dominance in the region. Iran grew its regional influence by spurring its nuclear development. The US administration of Barack Obama that began in 2009 attempted a new approach to the Middle East problem by signing an international nuclear deal with Iran. However, the Donald Trump administration unilaterally scrapped the Iran deal in 2015, turning to extreme pro-Israel policies. The administration even arranged the Abraham Accords, normalizing diplomatic relations between Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel.

This agreement, which only involved Sunni Arab countries like Saudi Arabia — already not considered to be security threats to Israel — merely served to provoke Iran and Palestine. When the war in Ukraine broke out in 2022, Saudi Arabia’s calculations changed. With oil prices skyrocketing due to the war, Saudi Arabia cooperated with Russia in order to boost its greatest weapon, the ability to determine oil prices, and restored diplomatic ties with Iran through China’s mediation. The Joe Biden administration thrust the Abraham Accords to Saudi Arabia with the promise of security commitments in order to prevent it from drawing closer to China. Meanwhile, it turned a blind eye to the far-right Israeli administration of Benjamin Netanyahu, which expanded settlements in the West Bank and bolstered the blockade of Palestine.

The result is the war between Hamas and Israel in Gaza. The US must prevent the war in Gaza from expanding. The key to that lies in Iran. To resolve this situation, China and Russia’s involvement with Iran must be loosened, which is impossible as long as the war in Ukraine persists. The war in Gaza is likely to lead to the division of Gaza into north and south, with Israel militarily occupying northern Gaza. In other words, low-intensity conflict will persist in the long run in the region. The US is facing a triple challenge: the war in Gaza, the war in Ukraine, and its competition with China. On top of this, many in the international community are condemning US hypocrisy demonstrated through the wars in Ukraine and Gaza.

Wars in the Middle East during the 1970s pulled the trigger for the Soviet Union’s collapse. What will result from the war in Gaza?

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