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A small country, its land reclaimed from a hostile nature, fights for survival against overwhelming odds for 80 years. Surrounded by enemies dedicated to its destruction, it fields the world’s most innovative army and beats them. Despite three generations of war, the arts, sciences and commerce flourish. Its population grows quickly while the conflict empties the failed states that surround it. And it becomes a beacon of hope for the cause of freedom.
I refer not to Israel, but to the Dutch Republic of the 17th century, whose struggle for freedom against Spain set the precedent for the American Revolution. The final three decades of the Eighty Years War (1568-1648) coincided with the terrible Thirty Years War.
In 1600, a million-and-a-half Dutchmen faced an Austrian-Spanish alliance with more than 10 times their population; by 1648, the people of the Netherlands numbered two million, while the Spanish and Austrians had perhaps a quarter of their people. Holland had become the richest land in the world, with 16,000 merchant vessels supplying a global trading empire, graced by artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer and scientists like Huygens and Leeuwenhoek.
We might speak of the “isolation” of the Dutch at the outset of the Thirty Years War, although England backed them from the outset; that is why Philip II of Spain launched the Great Armada in 1588. Holland faced more formidable enemies than modern Israel; in place of the feckless Third World armies of Egypt and Syria, the Dutch fought Spain, the superpower of the 16th century, with the world’s best professional infantry bought with New World loot. The superior Dutch navy disrupted Spanish lines of communication, and a new kind of mobile infantry defeated the static Spanish square with continuous musket fire.
Holland confronted a formidable adversary, determined to extirpate its Protestant religion; Israel faces a group of failed or gradually-failing states whose capacity to make war is eroding. Seven months after the start of the Arab uprisings, Israel’s position is a paradox.
The prospects for a formal peace are the worst since 1977, while Israel’s military position has improved. The Syrian army is too busy butchering protesters to attack the Jewish state, and the uncertain position of the Bashar al-Assad regime weakens its Lebanese client Hezbollah. Egyptian popular sentiment has turned nastily against Israel, but the last thing the Egyptian army needs at the moment is a war with Israel that it inevitably would lose.
Egypt is a failed state. It has no way out. Chinese pigs will eat before the Egyptian poor, as wealthy Asians outbid impoverished Arabs for grain. Egypt imports half its caloric consumption, and its foreign exchange reserves last week dipped below what its central bank called the “danger” level of $25 billion covering six months of imports, down from $36 billion before Hosni Mubarak was toppled.The reported reserve numbers probably include Saudi and Algerian emergency loans. With no tourism and much of the economy in shambles, the country is sliding towards destitution; it barely can feed itself at the moment. What will Egypt do when its reverses are gone? Almost half of Egyptian adults can’t read, and the 800,000 young people who graduate yearly from the diploma mills are qualified only to stamp each other’s identity cards. It is not surprising that football rowdies attacked Israel’s embassy in Cairo last week.
The rupture in Israeli-Turkish relations, in turn, reflects Turkish weakness as well as the fanaticism of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey faces a short-term squeeze and a long-term crisis. Erdogan won re-election last June more as an economic manager than as neo-Ottoman imperial leader, but his economic success rested on a 40% rate of bank credit growth, and a consequent current account deficit equal to 11% of gross domestic product, the same level as Greece or Portugal.
As I reported last month (Instant obsolescence of the Turkish model, Asia Times Online, August 10, 2011), Turkey’s stock market has fallen by nearly half in dollar terms since late 2010, and its currency has lost 20% of its value. Erdogan’s economic Cave of Wonders has dissolved into the Anatolian sand, and Turkey faces a long period of belt-tightening.
Turkey’s economic problems are a discomfort; its ethnic problems, by contrast, present an existential threat in the long run. In a quarter of a century, Kurdish will be the cradle-tongue of nearly half of all Turkish children, as Kurds have four to five children per family while Turkish-speakers have just 1.5. At some point, Turkey in its present form will cease to exist. Kurdish nationalism is stronger than ever; as Omar Aspinar  of the Brookings Institution wrote on September 11 in Zaman Online:
Kurdish political aspirations have reached unprecedented levels in the last 10 years … Kurdish ethnic, cultural and political demands are fueled by a young and increasingly resentful generation of Kurds who are vocal and frustrated not only in Eastern Anatolia but also in Turkey’s large Western cities including Istanbul, Izmir, Mersin and Adana. Turkey’s nightmare scenario is Turkish-Kurdish ethnic violence in such western urban centers.
The Kurds know that the demographic future belongs to them, and that Erdogan’s frantic calls on Turkish women to have more babies will do nothing to change matters. “The Kurdish issue,” warns Aspinar,” remains Turkey’s Achilles’ heel.”
Rather than isolate Israel diplomatically, Turkey and Egypt have buttressed its diplomatic position. By declaring the United Nations’ Palmer Commission report on the May 2010 Gaza flotilla incident “null and void,” Turkish President Abdullah Gul put his country in the position of the rogue state. Egypt’s failure to prevent an attack on Israel’s embassy was a gross violation of international standards. Diplomacy, though, makes little difference, because Israel requires only the support of the United States.
The most likely outcome is a prolonged low-intensity war in which Israel suffers more rocket attacks from Lebanon and Gaza, and occasional terrorist infiltration from Sinai and the West Bank, but no organized military threat from its immediate neighbors. Iran’s nuclear program presents an existential threat to Israel, and remains the great unknown in the equation.
As Jonathan Speyer  wrote in a September 11 report for the Gloria Center, Iran’s attempt to lead an anti-Israel resistance bloc “has fallen victim to the Arab Spring,” particularly after Tehran aided the despised Syrian regime. But Speyer warns that this “should because for neither satisfaction nor complacency.”
A country that knows it must fight daily for its existence may thrive under interrupted stress. That is unimaginable for the Israeli peace camp, which dwindled into political insignificance after the Intifada of 2000, as well as for America’s liberal Jews. But most Israelis seem to have adapted well to a long-term war regime.
The Dutch certainly did. When the Thirty Years War began in 1618 over Bohemia’s attempts to cast off Austrian rule, Holland knew that Spain would take the opportunity to settle accounts with its breakaway Protestant province. Expecting a Spanish invasion, the English Separatists living in Holland decided instead to become Pilgrims to the New World. ”The Spaniard,” their leader William Bradford wrote in 1618, ”might prove as cruel as the savages of America, and the famine and pestilence as sore here as there.”
A year after the Mayflower sailed to Plymouth Rock in 1620, Spain sent an army into Holland, and in 1625 the Spanish took the great Dutch fortress of Breda, just 90 kilometers from Amsterdam; Velasquez’s canvas depicting the city’s surrender hangs in Madrid’s Prado Museum. The Dutch defenders kept the Spanish army away from their coastal cities only by opening the dikes and flooding the countryside. Had the Pilgrims stayed and the Spanish won, the Pilgrims likely would have been burned as heretics.
Spain embargoed Dutch trade and succeeded in damaging its economy, although Dutch attacks on the Spanish fleets bringing treasure from the New World provided some breathing room. One by one, Holland saw its German and Danish Protestant allies beaten by Austro-Spanish alliance, and by 1625 was fighting alone. By the late 1620s, though, Holland was winning a war of attrition against overextended Spain, and could match the Spanish in the field.
The military balance remained precarious; in 1629 the Spanish army within 40 kilometers of Amsterdam. The turning point came in 1632, when the Dutch took the Flemish city of Maastricht, breaking Spain’s hold on the Catholic Low Countries. When Spain and France went to war in 1635, the victorious Netherlands dominated European trade and its “Golden Age” reached fruition.
Holland boasted the world’s strongest navy and a dominant position in world shipping trade, and its home provinces became impregnable.
The Dutch were smart and tough, but they beat the Spanish empire in large part by being better than their adversaries. The Dutch republic offered Europe’s first example of religious toleration. Iberian Jews and French Huguenot found refuge in Holland against religious toleration, and the skilled immigrants made invaluable contributions to the Dutch economic miracle – something like the Russian immigrants to Israel today.
When Dutch armies invaded the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium) they offered religious freedom to the Catholics they absorbed. Countries that attract talented people have an enormous advantage over countries that drive them out.
Without stretching the analogy too far, the religious conflict that surrounded 17th century Holland have something in common with today’s Middle East. Americans know almost nothing of the Thirty Years War; not a single Hollywood film nor one popular novel recounts its major events. It is a tale of unrelenting misery, of battles and marches and countermarches that left nearly half of Central Europe dead.
It degenerated into a duel between two powers who both acted out of the mystical conviction that they were God’s chosen people: the France of Cardinal Richelieu and the Spain of the Count-Duke Olivares. It foreshadowed the neo-paganism that nearly conquered Europe in what British statesman Winston Churchill called “the second Thirty Years War” of 1914-1945.
The conflict between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam may cause something like a Thirty Years War in the Middle East, as Arabs, Turks and Persians fight for the mantle of Divine Election. The difference is that Europe descended into the maelstrom from a peak of economic and cultural success; the Muslim nations of the Middle East are goaded by a profound sense of humiliation and failure.
What transpires may be even more horrific than the events of 1618-1648. The methods the American military employed to win a respite in Iraq might set such a conflict in motion, as I argued last year in “General Petraeus’ Thirty Years War” . Once again, the nation that embodies religious faith embedded in democratic values will prevail despite the chaos around it.
1. Time to focus on the Kurdish question Today’s Zaman, September 11, 2011. 2. Israel, Iran and the New Middle East Gloria Center, September 11, 2001.
3. General Petraeus’ Thirty Years War Asia Times Online, May 4, 2010.