Conflicts Lasting Millennia and the State of the Union

The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia. – Barack Obama, State of the Union 2016
I’ve been thinking about conflicts around the globe. While many of them occur in similar places as conflicts in the past, and while superficially conflicting parties may seem the same as conflicting parties in the past, I can’t think of  a single conflict where I’d be comfortable arguing that the roots are at least 2000 years old.
Or really 1000 years old.
I assume he’s talking about Sunni-Shia, but maybe Kurd/Arab/Turk, or perhaps Jew-Muslim, and maybe even Christian-Muslim. At any rate, when we make these historical arguments about conflicts rooted in antiquity of some sort, we absolve ourselves of any responsibility while suggesting that they remain intractable.
Vox covered this. So did Buzzfeed. So did pretty much my whole gang of history profs and students on my Twitter feed.
Here’s a piece from political science blog The Monkey Cage at Washington Post – Syria isn’t Bosnia. And no, the problem isn’t ‘ancient hatreds.’[my emphasis]

The “ancient hatreds” thesis is the idea that groups of people fight each other because they have always despised one another due to differences of identity and culture. According to this argument, if ancient hatreds drive conflict in Syria like they did in the Balkans, then the solution to Syria’s similarly intractable conflict, Stavridis suggests, should follow the Dayton Accords model, which, he argues, dealt adequately with ethnically divided Balkan populations…

Sadly, the narratives Kaplan and his followers peddled in the 1990s have found an afterlife in today’s discourse on Syria. As a result, the Syrian war, much like the Yugoslav dissolution, has been often painted as a fundamentally intractable, timeless conflict rooted in the primal urges of its respective combatants. This narrative has contributed decisively to a culture of indifference and reluctance among Western leaders to act in any meaningful capacity to aid the people of Syria. Writing off a conflict as based in “ancient hatreds” makes it easy for international actors to excuse their lack of coherent policy, or worse, to offer simplistic solutions.

This is why we need public engagement from intellectuals, to push back on this kind of analysis.

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