from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

The New Arab Cold War

August 29, 2014

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This article was originally published here on ForeignPolicy.com on Thursday, August 28, 2014.

A bitter proxy war is being waged in the Middle East. It stretches from Iraq to Lebanon and reaches into North Africa, taking lives in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt’s Western Desert, and now Libya. Although the nihilism of the Islamic State and the threat of other extremist groups have garnered virtually all the attention of the media and governments, this violence is the result of a nasty fight between regional powers over who will lead the Middle East. It is a blood-soaked mess that will be left to the United States to clean up.

The popular conception of the Middle East is one of a region divided along sectarian lines pitting Sunni against Shiite, but another simultaneous struggle is underway among predominantly Sunni powers. The recent Egyptian and Emirati airstrikes on Libyan Islamist militias is just one manifestation of this fight for leadership among Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). All these countries have waded into conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, and now Libya in order to establish themselves as regional leaders.

Yet these regional contenders for power have rarely achieved their goals. Instead, they have fueled violence, political conflict, and polarization, deepening the endemic problems in the countries they have sought to influence. And if the United States doesn’t step in, the chaos will only get worse.

President Barack Obama’s attempt to disentangle the United States from the Middle East’s many conflicts has only intensified these rivalries.

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