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Middle Eastern Chaos Is A ‘Ladder’ In The Real Game Of Thrones – Analysis


In the wake of the heightened tensions between Gulf Arab states and Iran since the execution of the Shiite cleric Nimr-al Nimr fears of even greater regional chaos loom.  However, from a realpolitik strategic standpoint these fears are greatly exaggerated.  Even one of the most extreme imaginable outcomes, the downfall of the Saudi royal family, no longer represents a calamity on the scale it has long been considered.  As the character of Littlefinger in the popular television drama Game of Thrones once stated, “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder.”  Middle Eastern chaos can actually benefit the United States if it chooses to climb the ladder rather than sink into the pit.
The historical assumption is that such unleashed chaos is inevitably against U.S. national interests.  But that calculus is outdated.  The new reality calls for a different approach. This author has argued that a policy of “divide and conquer” akin to Cardinal Richelieu would secure minimal U.S. national interests under the present, dark set of circumstances which are analogous to Europe’s own Thirty Years War. The continuing deterioration in the Middle East’s strategic landscape only reinforces that a Richelieu-like strategy, as opposed to some form of illusory and externally imposed peace, makes sense.  Not only should both sides of the increasingly bloody Sunni-Shia split be allowed to fight amongst themselves; the fight should be leveraged to U.S. advantage. 
First, clearly the prevention of ISIS terrorist attacks in the United States must be a priority. This can be largely accomplished through prudent modifications to our immigration and domestic security policies.  It does not require boots on the ground in the middle of an intra-civilizational civil war that is not our own.
The U.S. has been the predominant power in the Middle East for a generation.  The core element of American policy was to keep its then major geostrategic rival, the Soviet Union, out of the Middle East while also making certain that there would not be the rise of a regional hegemon that could dictate the terms of oil trade.  For most of the intervening years this was a sound strategy.  With the fracking revolution in North America it no longer is.  Today, there is no regional hegemon or external actor able to impose themselves on the region.
Long-standing blind support of the Saudi regime has had numerous negative ramifications, not the least of which has been the regime’s funding of exportable Wahhabism.  Unfortunately, if prior to Obama, American policy was too pro-Saudi, under Obama, policy has tilted too much towards Iran.   Pivoting between the Sunni and Shia poles of the conflict should avoid either side gaining the decisive advantage in their sectarian conflict.  This is the entire point of a “Richelieu”-like strategy.
This strategy would still be sound even under the so-called “nightmare” scenario of Saudi regime collapse.  Though price spikes would be inevitable given Saudi Arabia’s importance in the global oil market, it is also no longer as cataclysmic geopolitically for the U.S. as advertised.  The law of supply and demand will rectify price spikes quicker than doomsayers indicate.  For example, North American oil and gas companies that led to the fracking revolution have been sucking wind and idling a lot of rigs due to the Saudi open-spigot policy.  Price spikes will end that and supplies would increase.
In the shorter to medium term, it would help Russia by increasing the price of oil and thus backfilling its coffers. 
Though conventional American foreign policy wisdom would find that a negative outcome, it could open the door to a better relationship with Russia if skillful diplomacy, as opposed to the all too-common rhetorical chest thumping, is employed.  As this author has long-maintained, Russia is a critical pivot player in the great geopolitical drama of the 21st Century- the rise of China.  A potential Sino-Chinese axis would be, by far, America’s greatest geopolitical problem since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Avoiding this should be of paramount importance to U.S. foreign policy makers.  Strengthening Russia combined with a more productive U.S.-Russian relationship will prove indispensible to balancing China.
Finally, a complete breakdown of the Middle Eastern order likely poses more problems for the U.S.’ greatest geopolitical competitor, China, than it does for the U.S. itself.  China gets a greater percentage of its oil from the region than the U.S. does. 
To return again to pop culture, consider the full quote from Game of Thrones mentioned above:
Chaos isn’t a pit.
Chaos is a ladder.
Many who try to climb it fail
and never get to try again.
The fall breaks them.
And some are given
a chance to climb,
but they refuse.
They cling to the realm
or the gods
or love.

Only the ladder is real.
The climb is all there is.”
This quote is not quite true.  There is more than just the ladder.  A nation’s own interest is in securing the best possible situation for itself and the people it represents.  The climb is about survival.  This is something too many in the Western world have forgotten is precarious and remains a struggle in a world defined more by anarchy than law.
 Understanding how to leverage inevitable chaos is a necessary and under appreciated skill.  It requires leadership willing to cast aside the nostrums of bygone geopolitical eras.
*Greg R. Lawson is a contributing analyst at the web-based geopolitical consultancy,Wikistrat. These views are his own.


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