Imagine yourself at a fashionable party, a century ago, in Belgravia, the Upper East Side, or the Ballplatz. After-dinner brandy is served, Augustas are lit, and the talk turns to world affairs. The host asks his guests what they deem to be the issue that threatens peace and stability more than any other.
A senior official mentions the perennial Franco-German enmity; an admiral sees the danger in the Anglo-German naval race; a banker is worried about Japan’s further ambitions after her victory over Russia; a diplomat warns of the ever-present possibility of some damn nonsense in the Balkans . . .
It is your turn, and—while confessing indecision on the most pressing issue of the day—you opine that, a hundred years hence, “the Middle . . . er, the Near East will preoccupy the nations of the civilized world more than any other region. Over a hundred thousand American soldiers, supported by some British auxiliaries, will be bogged down in Mesopotamia, and thousands will be killed. Further east, many regiments of Germans, Canadians, Poles, Czechs, and others will be helping Americans prop up the ruler in Kabul. The French will patrol the Litani—oh, it’s a river between Sidon and Palestine, you see . . . ”
By now, the respectful silence of those present has turned cold. Quick glances are exchanged, throats are cleared, but you are on a roll:...