Ignorance about Eurasia’s two Great Games imperils the West

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After the assassination last Monday of Yemen’s double-dealing former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the British Broadcasting Corporation ran an analysis titled “Yemen’s future looks grim after Saleh’s killing.” That reads a bit like “Dow Jones expected to slide after end of the world.”

Stating-the-obvious headline notwithstanding, the analysis by Peter Salisbury of Chatham House provided rare insights into the machinations that triggered — and are prolonging — one of the saddest conflicts or our time. But the fact that intelligent analysis of the two unfolding Great Games in Eurasia — of which the blood-soaked Yemen civil war is a part — is so rare is itself a tragedy.

While much of the English-language mainstream media is obsessed with alleged Russian interference in Western democracy and with the ancient sexual indiscretions of sad old entertainment celebrities and politicians, the unfolding of these two Great Games — and their inevitable confluence — is largely ignored or, if noticed at all, misunderstood.

One of these is the politicization of a very old rivalry; the other is the much more recent collusion of two great Eurasian powers. Both of these phenomena are reshaping the Asian continent in ways that are already beginning to reshape geopolitics and economics across the world and making American and European imperialist power irrelevant.

From time to time secularism and the need to get rich have intervened and maintained the peace between Sunni and Shiite communities in places like Iraq and Syria, until malevolent external forces got them at each other’s throats again. It’s an old story. A much newer story is the rise of China

The great schism between Shia and Sunni Islam began centuries ago and has long been the root of violence in the Middle East, and the perpetuation of the backwardness of much of the region. From time to time secularism and the need to get rich have intervened and maintained the peace between Sunni and Shiite communities in places like Iraq and Syria, until malevolent external forces got them at each other’s throats again. It’s an old story.

A much newer story is the rise of China. That one arguably had its opening chapter during the reign of Deng Xiaoping, who abandoned the isolationist policies of Mao Zedong and opened the country with the amalgamation of a planned economy and capitalism. It’s doubtful that Deng foresaw how the West’s disastrous descent into neoliberal economic fundamentalism would play into China’s hands, but it did, and the result is there for all but the most obtuse to see: The center of global power is now Beijing, not New York, Washington, London or Berlin.

And so it is that Russia’s vast natural resources and China’s treasury bloated with Western loot, through the BRI, SCO, BRICS, AIIB and other ingredients in an alphabet soup rarely tasted by Western media are remaking much of Eurasia, other than — so far — the Middle East. There, the other Great Game is in play. It’s also not Moscow.

But one of the shrewdest operators in Russian history currently sits in the Kremlin. While the American establishment frets over whether Vladimir Putin got a prostitute to pee on Donald Trump in a Moscow hotel, and Theresa May stokes the fires of Russophobia to divert attention from her mismanagement of Brexit, the Russian president has been stifling his laughter long enough to concentrate on tightening ties with Xi Jinping.

Let’s get back to Yemen. Those who stand to profit, both politically and financially, from the hellish conflict in the Middle East’s poorest country between the predominantly Shiite Houthi rebels and the “internationally recognized,” predominantly Sunni regime of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, wish to frame it as a clash between the West’s current pariah, Iran, and its most recent darling (even overshadowing Israel), Saudi Arabia.

Even leaving aside the dearth of evidence that Tehran has provided significant support to the Houthis, the Yemen tragedy is a microcosm of the extremely complex drama playing out in the Middle East. One of the toxic ingredients in the mix is, of course, the centuries-old religious feud between Shia and Sunni, but even that observation is simplistic — both of those sects are themselves riven by sub-sects and cults such as Bashar al-Assad’s Alawites in Syria, the Sufis, and Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis.

Analysts dazed by Middle Eastern geopolitics

And meanwhile, as Western analysts dump the re-ordering of Middle Eastern geopolitics by Tehran and Riyadh into the “too hard” basket, “Xi Jinping Thought” is sweeping through the rest of Asia along the New Silk Roads.

In this Great Game, as what remains of democracy turns to authoritarians like Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to cling to existence, or floats on oceans of debt in Japan and South Korea, or descends into religious or ethnic majoritarianism in India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, or dies altogether in Cambodia and Thailand, China quietly uses the vast wealth it has extracted from the West to purchase the East. And the West’s response? Preoccupation with Kim Jong-un, the “Pipsqueak of Pyongyang,” and his missile tests, and “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea.

So far, Beijing is biding its time while the Iran-Saudi Great Game plays out. China has long had interests in Iran’s oilfields, and the huge mineral resources of neighboring Afghanistan; meanwhile, ally Russia in collusion with Iran and its ally Hezbollah have stabilized Syria somewhat, to the chagrin of the House of Saud and its Western backers. But these are short subjects so far; the main feature is yet to come, and when it does, mainstream analysts will still be discussing the opening cartoon.

Some say the blossoming of ignorance in the West, the denigration of science, the impoverishment of education and literacy, the deterioration of thought processes to the point that a leap from 140 to 280 characters is seen as progress, and the self-destructive militarism of former great powers are signs of the imminent collapse of empire. The same thing happened to the ancient Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the czars, they argue. Others say we cannot know for sure because history is written by the winners.

But even that adage is now in doubt.

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