Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum (where I am associate fellow) replies this morning to Bret Stephens‘ June 3rd Wall Street Journal column, “The Muslim Civil War: Standing by while the Sunnis and Shiites fight it out invites disaster.” The Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, when the Reagan administration quietly encouraged the two sides to fight themselves to bloody exhaustion, did America no good, Stephens argues:

In short, a long intra-Islamic war left nobody safer, wealthier or wiser. Nor did it leave the West morally untainted. The U.S. embraced Saddam Hussein as a counterweight to Iran, and later tried to ply Iran with secret arms in exchange for the release of hostages. Patrolling the Strait of Hormuz, the USS Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iranian jetliner over the Gulf, killing 290 civilians. Inaction only provides moral safe harbor when there’s no possibility of action.

Today, he adds, there comes “the whispered suggestion: If one branch of Islam wants to be at war with another branch for a few years — or decades — so much the better for the non-Islamic world. Mass civilian casualties in Aleppo or Homs is their tragedy, not ours. It does not implicate us morally. And it probably benefits us strategically, not least by redirecting jihadist energies away from the West.” This is not a good thing for the West, but a bad thing, he concludes. Pipes and Stephens are both friends of mine, and both have a point (although I come down on Pipes’ side of the argument). It might be helpful to expand the context of the discussion.

I agree with Stephens that it is a bad thing. It not only a bad thing: it is a horrifying thing. The moral impact on the West of unrestrained slaughter and numberless atrocities flooding YouTube for years to come is incalculable, as I wrote in a May 20 essay, “Syria’s Madness and Ours.” If Syria looks bad, wait until Pakistan breaks down. The relevant questions, though, are 1) why are Sunnis and Shi’ites slaughtering each other in Syria at this particular moment in history, and 2) what (if anything) can we do about it?

Part of the answer to the first question is that Syria (like Egypt) as presently constituted simply is not viable as a country. Iraq might be viable, because it has enough oil to subsidize a largely uneducated, pre-modern population. As an economist and risk analyst (I ran Credit Strategy for Credit Suisse and all fixed income research for Bank of America), I do not believe that there is any way to stabilize either country. In the medium term, Turkey will lose national viability as well. I outlined some of the reasons for this view in my 2011 book How Civilizations Die (and why Islam is Dying, Too).

Globalization ruins countries. It has done so for centuries. Tinpot dictatorships that keep their people in poverty the better to maintain political control will break down at some point. Mexico broke down during the 1970s and 1980s; the Mexican currency collapsed, the savings of the middle class were wiped out, and the economy shut down. In 1982 I wrote an evaluation of the Mexican economy for Norman Bailey, then director of plans at the National Security Council and special assistant to President Reagan. I saw a crash coming, and no way to to prevent it.

Three things prevented Mexico from dissolving into civil war (as it did during the teens of the past century at the cost of a million lives, or one out of seven Mexicans). One was the ability of Mexicans to migrate to the United States, which absorbed perhaps a fifth of the Mexican population. The second was the emergence of the drug cartels as an alternative source of employment for up to half a million people, and generating between $18 and $39 billion of annual profits. And the third is the fact that Mexico produces its own food most years. When the currencies of the Latin American banana republics collapsed, there was always enough food to maintain minimum caloric consumption. Not so in Egypt, which imports half its food and is flat broke. Egypt and Syria are banana republics but without the bananas (Daniel Pipes assures me that Egypt does grow bananas, and he personally has eaten them, but they are not grown in sufficient quantity to meet the country’s caloric deficit). Turkey was the supposed Muslim model for democracy and prosperity under moderate Islam. That idea, which I disputed for years, has gotten tarnished during the past week.