Growing up, I loved the game Diplomacy. Die-hard aficionados compete in hours-long, even days-long competitions vying for mastery of early 20th Century Europe. For both lack of sufficient passion — and players — I enjoyed the computer version.
The basic premise is to be one of the seven great powers at the time — England, France, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia, or Turkey. Each nation is more or less equally matched at the start of the game, the point of which is to conquer the continent.
There are only a few basic rules to learn, and no dice. Winning is determined by best marshaling of forces, but primarily, through negotiations. No country is strong enough to win on its own; the empire usually turns on which ally will stab the other in the back first, but not prematurely.
Living and reporting in Egypt sometimes feels the same.
Especially during the high days of the revolution, so much didn’t make sense. Why is the (NDP, MB, US, insert your favorite actor here) acting against its interests? Or are they? Expand the question regionally and the changes were so rapid that it was hard to keep enough. Add enough conspiracy theory to fill in the gap, debate control vs. competency, and it is no wonder so few have been able to predict the outcomes.
Part of the problem is living in the middle of it all. Diplomacy, after all, is an overhead look. The ‘Great Game of Nations’ is won and lost in boardrooms, over phone calls.
And in this spirit, this recent article by Brookings takes a look at the region:
There is no place in the world today where chaos is more prevalent and the reestablishment of order more critical than the Middle East. The “great game” between rival great powers may have originated in Central Asia but it found its most intense expression at the “crossroads of empire” in the Middle East. As long as American interests are still engaged the United States cannot desist from playing it.
The US used to rely on regional pillars, it argues, specifically Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. These nations could be relied upon to maintain the status quo.
This worked well up until the aftermath of 9/11. The US abandoned the status quo in effort to remake Iraq. The Arab Spring also introduced a wild card.
In the process, the existing order collapsed and has been replaced by failing states, ungoverned areas, and the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIS. One should not be too nostalgic for the old order: its stability was regularly punctured by conflicts and coups and purchased at the price of repression.
The article criticizes President Obama for reacting to regional crises on a piecemeal basis. A grand strategy is needed, and the author sees two possibilities:
1. Joint Condominium with Iran: The essence of this approach is for the United States to concede Iran’s dominance in the Gulf in return for its agreement to curb its nuclear program, reduce its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad in Gaza, the Houthis in Yemen, and Basher al-Assad in Syria and contribute instead to the construction of a new regional American-Iranian order.
2. Back to the Future: This approach would require the United States to return to its dependence on its traditional allies in the region: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey. The objective of this renewed “pillars” strategy would be to restore the old order based on the containment of Iran, the roll-back of its advances in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and the curbing of its nuclear program. This same coalition of traditional allies would then have the sense of security to work more effectively with the United States against ISIS and Al Qaeda.
The author recognizes the difficulties in each strategy, but in part two of his article argues for option #2.
Fair enough. It is not my point here to argue one way or another, but to remark the sanity that is restored by having a ‘great game’ lens through which to interpret events. In each crisis a push-and-pull dynamic can be seen, and at times the American administration appears to be at odds with itself.
Do we want an Iran deal, or not? Do we prefer Arab autocracies, or political Islam? The questions are endless, and beyond the direct interests of the US regional rivalries are at play as well.
One in particular is aptly described by Foreign Affairs, analyzing Egypt and Turkey. Like Brookings, it begins with chaos:
The chaos in the Middle East has tested many relationships, not least the one between Egypt and Turkey. Shortly after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Turkey became one of Egypt’s chief regional supporters. When the new president, Mohammad Morsi, was himself pushed out of office in 2013, Turkey shifted course. With General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in power in Egypt, Turkey quickly became one of the country’s main adversaries in the Levant.
In the earlier analysis, both represent US interests in the pillars strategy. As such their rivalry is serious:
In the immediate term, it seems likely that the regional rivalry between Egypt and Turkey will exacerbate the Libyan civil war. Further out, it could throw the whole region in to worse chaos.
Reading the Egypt-Turkey article, it was easy to see the development of events. But through the lens of Brookings, it is not easy to see why. Clearly Turkey favors the Muslim Brotherhood. But good relations between nations in business and coordination can continue under any government. It almost feels as if Turkey feels that Sisi threw a wrench into a well-developed plan.
Such plans are part and parcel of great game thinking, but they are also only one step removed from conspiracy thinking. Egypt is full of ideas that Sisi has defended the nation — indeed, the region — from the schemes of US-Israeli-Qatari-Turkish efforts to remake the region. And given how strongly Saudi Arabia and the UAE have supported Egypt, there are definitely different agendas at play.
But what are they?
As much as great game thinking can give a sense of sanity, it also threatens to eliminate agency. As I spin my wheels to understand the region, I sometimes feel every article I read — or even write — is subjugated to someone else’s larger purpose. That is not to accuse respected journalists and analysts of bias, though sometimes I wonder. Rather, it is that any article about human rights in Egypt, or about the duplicity of the Brotherhood, or or or, winds up fitting in to some version of a great game agenda.
The news is not neutral, even if the reporters strive to be.
What then to do? Continue striving. Everyone else is, even those actively manipulating, whether engaged in conspiracies or only propagating the theories.
But the main ones striving are the ordinary people who actually make events happen. Maybe the (US, MB, Egyptian army, insert your favorite actor here) actually desired a revolution. But they did not go down to the streets.
Striving also are those who did not go down to the streets, but could have. Fulan al-Masry [the Arabic equivalent of John Doe] is as real a person as Barack Obama. Both deserve to have their stories told well.
Is this only a hopeful faith in agency, where all real decisions are made by those with power? Maybe. But to conclude with a different kind of faith:
He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning.
Maybe this also is a misplaced faith. But it too is a lens for a better sanity. God will achieve his purposes in the world, through and in spite of the strivings of all.
So we might as well strive for what is right and good. Anyone doing otherwise risks being of the devil. And the devil, in diplomacy or otherwise, is in the details.