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Divide and Conquer: Richelieu's Playbook for the Middle East

March 19, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Middle East

Divide and Conquer: Richelieu's Playbook for the Middle East

Many have likened the Middle East mess to the Thirty Years' War. Cardinal Richelieu might have the solution.

So what of the fabled need for energy stability? Even this legitimate national interest is less important today than it was a mere five years ago. Simply look at the price of crude in the last few months. Thanks to the shale revolution in the United States, America now has energy security. While it is critical to understand that the United States will never have energy independence due to the fungibility of the commodity and the global impact on price, security means that no one will “turn off the spigots.” We may have to pay more somewhere down the line, but oil will still flow. Ultimately, this means that while Middle Eastern oil still retains importance for the United States., it is more important to other nations that receive far more of the energy from the region than the United States now does. East Asia, especially China and Japan, gets the majority of its oil from the region.

Of course, the next concern, most readily pointed out by members of the GOP, is the need to confront terrorists “over there” rather than “over here.” While it is clear that the Islamic State represents a real idol for radicalized Muslims throughout the world, particularly the unassimilated in Europe, it is not clear that American boots on the ground are the best solution. It is far from clear intervention would not do the one thing that should be most avoided: unify competing factions that should be fighting each other.

Recent news that the Islamic State assassinated a member of the Taliban in Afghanistan should be a wake-up call for real strategists to consider the age-old wisdom of “divide and conquer.” This is certainly a pivotal element of the strategy employed by Cardinal Richelieu as he sought to downgrade the geopolitical threat of the Habsburgs. Why should Americans do the fighting when intelligence, bribes, and subterfuge can sow dissent amongst the various factions of its enemies? A recognition that the universalist aspirations of an Islamic State-dominated Caliphate are not shared by other radicals should be obvious. Cleavages exist and should be exploited. Further direct American intervention allows these competing factions to paper over their differences and temporarily align in order to fight off the “Crusaders.”

The Middle East is burning literally and figuratively. It is difficult to envision how this situation would end without the scarring or outright destruction of a whole generation. Large scale, direct Western actions to ameliorate this inherently tragic situation are not likely to work. Rather, they place our interests at risk in the midst of another civilization’s civil war.

Make no mistake, a dovish or isolationist response is naïve. Additionally, the United States will have to improve cooperation with Israel at a level beyond that of the Obama administration. However, limited engagement, fighting in the shadows, and using naturally embedded conflicts between our enemies makes far more sense than headfirst assaults. Richelieu understood this in the geopolitical context of his day and thus he is understood to have defended his nation’s national interests effectively. Ultimately, this is what a statesman does rather than pander to transient, emotional, and often misguided, public opinion. It is well past time for the United States to reconsider its entire approach to the Middle East. It is time to look at our core national interests and take actions in accordance with them, rather engage in dangerous illusions that the present tragedy in the Middle East can some how be avoided if only we show leadership.

Greg R. Lawson is a contributing analyst at the web-based geopolitical consultancy,Wikistrat. These views are his own.

Image: Flickr/ OliBac