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Published on August 7th, 2014 | by Ross Arthur Griffith
Image © By Photo: Pawel Ryszawa, Graffiti: unknown (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


Failed States and Chronic Conflicts

It would seem that after the feel-good high of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, and given the most recent fighting in Gaza, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict has settled in to stay for at least another generation or so. Israel seems to be in a position of strength, protected by Iron Dome missile technology and rolling its “settlements” outside of the Oslo Accord borders with impunity. Palestinian acts of smuggling, rocket fire or disorder are dealt with by periodic military incursion.

Of course, this image of strength disappears when one detects the strong odor of “bunker mentality” that wafts from the Israeli government and military. In the long term, Israel is in real trouble. Dependent on strong backing from the US government, and surrounded by fundamentally hostile governments and populations, Israel is in the center of the most intractable problem of international affairs ever imagined or contemplated. It would be one thing if Israel was ensuring its security while taking genuine steps to solve the fundamental problems of the conflict, but this is not happening.

Historically speaking, building walls – as Israel is doing – is a real loser, and a sure sign of weakness. Think of Hadrian’s Wall, or the Maginot Line, or even the US’ border fence with Mexico. Each of these is an example of  political actors attempting to master a larger, systemic problem with a short-term technical solution. Israel is caught in a problem that it urgently needs to take steps to untangle. Far from taking the side of the Palestinians in this conflict, I address Israel simply as a the stronger, unified actor in this conflict: the initiative lays at the feet of the Israelis.

This leads to my larger point. When the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is discussed there always seems to be this urgent need to establish “who is in the right”. And while I think it is important to weigh ethical considerations, in modern day-to-day life in the western world, when we ask “who is in the right”, what we really seem to be saying is that we do not understand the problem, or its background, we have no direct or economic relation to it, so “who should I root for?” When we there is no bottom line for us to worry about, we simply see the problem as one of “the goodies versus the baddies”.

To put it simply, both sides have valid claims and arguments, and both sides have gotten there hands very dirty with lies and misdeeds. In a world that is only capable of shades of gray, we get ourselves into trouble by trying to find who is the white knight. We have to become better at understanding the origins of the conflicts, and the factors that keep the conflict going, generation after generation.

It gets worse too. While Western warfare has traditionally been about decisive battles between armies, warfare has sense evolved and changed into what was called during WWI and WWII, ‘total war’. This is simply the observation that an entire society; its entire economic structure, culture and human population needs to be harnessed for maximum strategic advantage. Cities and populations become the targets, not soldiers. Since the world wars, it has become clear that modern warfare between major “industrial” powers would be far too destructive, and we have a resurgence of low-grade warfare.

By low-grade I mean both the asymmetrical warfare of guerrilla insurgencies like those in Vietnam and Iraq, but also the curious medievalism of modern urban protests (I am thinking here of riot police wearing helmets and armor, using shields and clubs; as well as the image of clashing massed bodies of people, each wearing distinctive garb). This low-grade warfare will become increasingly common, and the problems that they represent increasingly intractable. Conflict which used to be roughly ‘state-based’ and dependent on governments and tax-based bureaucracy are increasingly the result of global-level systemic problems.

The goals and and language of conflict are changing as well. We tend to assume  – in von Clausewitz’s phrase – that “war is the continuation of policy by other means”, which implies a sort of controlled, goal-based conception of warfare. It assumes both sides following a set of rules and sharing similar values; the defeated know when they are beaten, and seek no revenge, the victors carry no malice. I would argue that this is increasingly rubbish. Wars seem to have less and less to do with policy and politics and more to do with desperate struggles over resources. Ethnic, linguistic and social conflicts reflect and are aggravated by economic factors and problems. The reality is far more stark and desperate.

For example, the 9/11 hijackers were predominately Saudis, many with engineering degrees that had lived in the West at some point. From this, I think it is fair to say that to talk about terrorism, without understanding the greater systemic problems of globalisation and the insatiable demand for oil, is at best, pointless. Terrorism is not so much about religious fundamentalism, as terrorism and religious fundamentalism is a response too, and therefore a part of, the massive disruptions and destruction that are accompanying globalisation.

Looking at the “hot button” conflicts out there today, the Syrian Civil War, Ukraine, Iraq and Afghanistan, we can identify the underlying causes behind the conflicts as well the logic traps that each of the actors face. Looking at Ukraine, we can see that the conflict preforms a number of political actions for Putin (some of them he clearly did not anticipate and do not necessarily favour him), that he calculated would work to his longterm benefit, such as increased domestic support, a serge of patriotism, Russians seeing their country as a world power again, etc. Thus it is important that when we look at these chronic conflicts we ask ourselves: “Who are the groups that are directly benefiting from this conflict? Who supports who?”

Further, we can ask: “What are the systemic problems that are the root issue?” Does Africa’s ongoing poverty, starvation and ethnic strife have anything to do with a larger picture of economic exploitation?

In the case of the Israeli-Palestinianian Conflict, we can say that Israel’s massive purchase of US armaments help insure continued political support in the US government for Israel. Far from adopting a position of stating that the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is the fault of the US, I merely seek to point to larger structural problems and underlying profit motives that seem to lie behind failed states, ethnic strife, and chronic conflicts.

Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.

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About the Author

Originally from Olympia, Washington State, I am currently an intellectual history MA student at the University of Sussex. What interests me is 'big picture' questions: the area where psychology, economics, history, and politics deeply interact.

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