Chaos Romana

Events a world away drench the television screen in the sinister scarlet of an innocent's blood.  The headline reads: “Game Over: Morsi Ousted, Constitution Suspended, Army in Control.”  Meanwhile, flames and bullets catapult to Aegyptus, which is down the road of Galileaem and Damasci.  We often forget the ancient names of lands that for a millennia served as the battleground of prophets and messiahs, of Crusaders and Saracens, of Roman Legions and Persian Immortals.  In this ancient region, innocence never failed to be choked in its cradle.  Its peoples have never known peace.  Long gone were the quiet days of Pax Romana.  Rising in its ashes was the spectre of Chaos Romana.

In 1992, a report surfaced from the US Army War College, written by an unknown strategist, Steve R. Mann.  It was titled “Chaos Theory and Strategic Thought.”  The content of the report is fascinating, as it suggested the application of the Chaos Theory to American external affairs.  Mann argues that the deterministic, linear, cause-and-effect thinking model adopted in strategic thought should be replaced by a more complex and mathematical approach to decision making.  Taping into Chaos Theory's dynamic equilibrium and fractals, and based on the logical basis that chaos cannot be predicted, Mann posits the application of “manageable chaos” in US foreign policy.

Fast-forward 21 years.  A Chinese warship has entered the Mediterranean, joining Russian counterparts in monitoring US and NATO assets stationed in the region.  While these carefully crafted measures are undertaken by the world’s powers, not far from the coast, on dry land, militants and soldiers cling to every room of every building of every block.  No great maneuvers, no generals, no heroes.  I would say a war of attrition, but war requires order.  What dwells in this desert is chaos.  And near the shores of that same, soft Mediterranean, known to the ancients as “Mare Nostrum” or “Our Sea,” the Egyptian Army is launching an offensive on outlawed Islamist groups.  Libya, just next door, had crumbled two years ago, and the region still hasn't achieved equilibrium.

These tragic developments underline a new, covert turn taken by the men in suits in Washington, a shift from Bush's “Nation Building” and neo-imperialistic delusions that resulted in costly and bloody messes in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Bush's US military reflected those ideals: large ground forces comprising heavy equipment well suited for a decade-long occupation of one of the largest countries in the region.  The US military of late is not a force of occupation, but a force of disruption, emphasising drones and “limited strikes.”

As the strategic goals changed, so did the nature and role of the military.  This downsizing reflects the shift in Washington, revealing its commitment to spreading chaos, but, critically, only to a manageable degree.  The puppeteers figured that it would be cheaper and simpler to pit radicalized factions against each other than to confront strong, centralized regimes with large reserves of fossil fuels.  “Controlled Chaos” is the new keyword in international affairs, so much so that even Russia's Foreign Minister called the US on it at a press conference following the failed Geneva talks on Syria.

Inspired by the results of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, this administration has discovered the advantage of supporting Islamist factions against once-hostile regimes and the prolonged chaos those militants bring with them, as seen in the case of Libya, which remains divided between various militant groups, many of which align themselves with al-Qaeda and the “Global Jihad.”  Libyans may not have recovered economically over the past two years, but their country’s vast oil reserves did revive nicely, unscathed by the country’s sectarian violence, even in the aftermath of the Benghazi massacre.

Similarly, chaos in Syria will benefit many of the so-called permanent players: Israel will capitalize on Iran's weakness; the Saudis, the Qataris, and the Bahrainis will enjoy high oil prices (for a limited but useful amount of time); and Turkey will thwart the formation of an economic and military bloc between the Russian Federation, Iran, and China to contest the neo-Ottomans regional dominance.  The chaos may also bring with it the consolidation of a pro-Russian Caucasus as the political winds change in the Kremlin’s favor in Georgia and Azerbaijan, which may ditch Brussels, while Armenia may cast its lot with Russia in a free-trade partnership rather than align more closely with the EU.

Each actor, regardless of their degree of significance, is vying for its survival in a Hobbesian world.  Such is Chaos Theory realized strategically.

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