100 years ago the first shots were being fired in the First World War. At the end of it the Ottoman Empire was split up into the states that are involved in the awful carnage that we are seeing every night on our TV screens.
The situation is serious and is already affecting us here. My colleague Michael Taylor has addressed the street tension in Manchester over the Gaza issue in his Downtown blog. 500 people from Britain have gone to the Syrian civil war. Some may return to try and practise jihad on our streets. On the business front the fragile recovery could be reversed by more general war in the Middle East and interruption of fuel supplies.
There have been many Middle East crises before. This one has two new characteristics. Firstly social media is centre stage in the propaganda and recruitment war. Everything is accelerated. Rumours and lies rub shoulders with the truth and people choose what to believe and what determines their action. Secondly the United States is largely absent. After the unwise involvement of George Bush we now have the isolationism of President Obama. The decision to pivot American foreign policy towards the Pacific might have had a certain logic to it when Obama took office. However as the only world super power you take your eyes off the Middle East and Russia at your peril.
There is undoubtedly a paradox in United States involvement in the Middle East. On the one hand it is the hated symbol of Western imperialism and ultimate defender of Israel. On the other hand it retains massive military power and the potential to bring people together (The Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel in 1978).
The situation is so bloody and complex that the likelihood is that the Middle East will remain a running sore for decades to come. There may be ceasefires and short term agreements but the heady mix of vast economic disparity among the people, religious fanaticism and unresolved issues of national identity may be too difficult to resolve.
In 1919 the world was a different place. One set of Empires: Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia and Ottoman Turkey were replaced by another set: Britain and France with the United States beginning to play a role.
Lloyd George, Clemenceau and President Wilson met in Paris without the chatter of social media and 24 hour news channels and carved up the Middle East and Africa. Although the superiority of the white man was beginning to be challenged, the western powers still called the shots and huge mistakes were made.
It was perhaps regrettable that T.E Lawrence’s idea for a Greater Arabia was not adopted. The secret of the Ottoman Empire was to govern lightly by collecting the taxes but letting local Sunni and Shia leaders run their areas.
The Kurds should have been given their own state and it goes without saying more thought should have been given to the implications for the Palestinians of the Balfour Declaration that set in train the creation of Israel.
The Palestinian issue is almost intractable but ultimately could a bargain be struck whereby Israel and its settlers withdraw to the pre-1967 borders in return for a demilitarised Palestinian state being set up in the West Bank and Gaza? Jerusalem should become an international city under the control of the United Nations with freedom of worship for all faiths.
It is easy to write such a proposal and it will offend many but the alternative seems to be continuing misery for the Palestinians and insecurity for the Israelis.