Every Soul is captive
Of its own Deeds
– Qur’an 74:38
From late 2007 through 2010, the United States and its Israeli partner ruled the roost in the Middle East. It was the best of all worlds – for them. With that construct now shattered, they are trying desperately to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. Sadly for them, their only tools are gorilla glue and prayer beads. Moreover, they are laboring without architectural design or engineering blueprints.
Let’s look back at that earlier structure so as to identify its sustaining features. That will serve as a point of reference for understanding why it collapsed with what implications for the hoped-for reconstruction. A main element was the clearing of the site of potential threats to American-Israeli dominance. Saddam Hussein, as leader of the Arab “rejection” bloc, had been violently removed from the scene and his regime uprooted. Al-Qaeda was hanging on by its fingertips in the high ridges of the Hindu Kush unable to strike any serious blows at America or its friends. The Palestinians had been neutered. Abba’s PLO had been coopted through seduction and intimidation to the point where it was little more than a Quisling auxiliary to Israeli occupational rule. Hamas in the Gaza was thoroughly isolated physically and diplomatically while subject to periodic muggings by the IDF which served to remind them who ran the ‘hood. The mullahs’ Iran had been ostracized by the world community thanks to some deft American diplomacy that turned the equivalent of a traffic misdemeanor into a grievous felony which allowed for the infliction of punishing sanctions.
As to Iraq, the chaotic conditions created by the American invasion and occupation that was marked by bloody sectarian violence seemed to have calmed enough to encourage hopes in ever optimistic Washington that the country would gain a measure of stability – under American guidance. Officials looked forward to maintaining a dominant influence via a somewhat pliable al-Maliki, ‘advisers’ placed in key positions of the civilian and military establishments, and a Status of Forces Agreement intended to keep in place a considerable mix of Special Forces, airbases, and trainers.
Meanwhile, the tacit coalition committed to enforcing the status quo across the Middle East was intact. It joined the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf dependents, Egypt and Jordan in a modern day counterpart to the Concert of Europe.
It was not to be. First, the Arab Spring shook the flimsy structure to its foundations. Then, the counter-revolution restored or strengthened authoritarian elites who redoubled political oppression. These measures had the effects of further estranging religious minorities who were a particular object of repression, elevating threat perceptions in Sunni governments to paranoid levels with attendant aggravation of relations with Shi’ite Iran, and opening new opportunities for the Israelis to meddle in ensuing civil wars (Syria) and to crack down even more severely on the Palestinians. As for the Democratic elements who made the Arab Spring, they have been relegated to the margins of history except for the attention lavished on them by foundations and the writers of doctoral dissertations. (Tunisia being the one, outstanding exception). An ancillary effect has been a residue of bitterness and suspicion in those Arab capitals about the United States which is criticized for having duplicitously undermined their friends in their naïve fondness for democracy promotion. Those suspicions are reinforced by anxieties over the prospect of an American modus vivendi with Iran which increasingly has come to be seen as a mortal sectarian and political enemy.
The degeneration of Syria into a multi-party civil war has added greatly to the disarray. It also has highlighted the intellectual disarray within the Obama administration. Officials in Washington face a crisis wherein they have no friends and steadily declining influence. American policy has been reduced to a patchwork of ad hoc measures which do not amount to a viable strategy; indeed, they do not amount to a strategy at all. The sudden and surprising (to Washington) emergence of ISIL has created multiple new dilemmas for America while exacerbating old ones. The spillover from Syria into Iraq in particular exposes the illusory basis of the official line about a stable, friendly government in Baghdad. There, the conundrum of what to do about ISIL casts a disturbingly stark light on the contradictions built into the American position.
The United States has no solid partners in the fight against ISIL. Iraq’s shi’ite government desperately wants military help while assiduously avoiding doing anything that might alienate the Iranians who are their closest allies and whose military assistance is crucial. Washington in turn refuses to acknowledge that it has common interests with Iran and pursues the childish course of making believe that the Iranians and the Iraqi shi’ite militias they sponsor don’t count. Last week’s airstrikes on Tikrit showed the full extent of this fecklessness. Obama tried to leverage the al-Abbadi government’s request for the strikes into a demand that the Shi’ite militias (and their Iranian advisers) distance themselves from the battle so that Washington could capture all the glory of victory. They overlooked the awkward fact that the small contingents of the Iraqi regular army involved never could take the city on their own even after it were pulverized by the Americans. The blackmail attempt failed. Most significant, it demonstrated that Washington still lives in a fantasy world – with visions dancing in their heads of the phantom Petraeus army which dissolved into nothingness almost a year ago outside of Mosul.
At the strategic level, the overriding reality is that the U.S. and Iran are tacit allies by dint of circumstances, e.g. they have a common, dangerous enemy. Any attempt to replace that truth with a juvenile spitting contest means failure. Moreover, in the long-run, Iran of course will have the dominant external influence in Baghdad. If Washington doesn’t know that, then a drastic redeployment of personnel at the highest levels is in order. Buying into the Israeli and Saudis self-serving idea that Iran is the Islamic Great Satan – as John Brennan and others have stated bluntly – is a testament to abiding ignorance and strategic obtuseness. The Obama people seem to believe that it better serves us to oppose Iran at every turn than to improve our chances of defeating ISIL, of securing the Baghdad government, and of reaching some modus vivendi with the IRI which could bear fruit in several other places where we’re in a jam.
Nobody else in the region is ready to jump into the fight against ISIL with badly needed ground troops either. The Saudis play their usual game of holding our coats while singing choruses of “Onward Christian Soldiers.” They take absolutely no responsibility for the critical support that the KSA and some of its citizens have given to ISIL and associated jihadists groups. The same for the Gulfies. Furthermore, we seem to get nothing in return from the KSA for our unstinting backing – more energetic efforts to cut off funding to ISIL, less promotion of virile Wahhabi doctrine in the Islamic world, more restraint in trying to undermine the nuclear talks with Iran?
As to the other Sunni states, King Abdullah of Jordan is too scared about imperiling his rule at home to get mixed up in actual combat against ISIL. Same for Egypt. All of them prefer shooting Houthis in Yemen (the dreaded shia) who do not endanger them directly rather than fighting ISIL which does. Turkey, too, is playing the same double-faced game as Erdogan excites himself with visions of a reinvigorated Caliphate adorned with a red fez.
Then there is Israel. Bibi Netanyahu has been launching an audacious campaign to hijack American Middle East policy. To date, he has been unable to instigate a war against Iran – his priority. Still, his outrageous personal foray into American partisan politics succeeded in fusing domestic and external forces into a powerful bloc that has crimped the administration’s flexibility in dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue and attendant matters. Israeli pressure no longer is just a matter of Palestine. It is the Netanyahu government’s vision of a safe (i.e. no challenge to Israel) region that drives Israel’s scheming to to produce a confrontation with Iran, for unseating Assad in Damascus even if it opens the door to ISIl et al, to weakening Baghdad’s Iran-allied Iraqi government, for intensifying and spreading the emerging Sunni-Shi’ite civil war within the Islamic world. The United States Congress, the overwhelming majority of the MSM and the commentariat have bought into this Israeli way of thinking. Some do so out of a dedication to Israel’s self-defined national interest, some do so because they believe in a coincidence of Israeli and American interest, some because it’s the political fashion, some to get reelected. The White House long refused to acknowledge these realities. Even in the wake of the Israeli orchestrated mutiny against Obama in Congress, his response has been tempered as he follows his standard course of conflict avoidance, conciliation and placatory gestures.
This timidity owes in part to the administration’s own attitude toward the myriad Middle Eastern problems. The diverse bits and pieces of policy represent the tactical thinking of the President and his senior advisers who cope without an overall conception of what they are doing. That void seems to have been filled by absorbing the essence of the Israeli and Saudi world views through a strange process of osmosis. To call the result a strategy would be an unjustified compliment. The United States today has no strategy. It has an orientation – one that is suffused by a nostalgia for what used to be. They are not the same thing. That leads to overall incoherence and misjudgments on specific issues. Thus, the White House fights in parallel with Iran against ISIL in Iraq while every other day some high official or other inveighs against Iranian influence there. Thus, the White House denounces the Houthis in Yemen as an enemy, going so far as aiding in tangible ways the Saudi led assault on their neighbor, even though the Houthis are bitter enemies of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular while the Saudis vacillate. Thus, the United States is sleep-walking into the trap of taking sides in Islam’s civil war that goes back 1,300 years.
No Houthi has attacked or killed Americans – except rhetorically. They are known for their practical bent, not their Islamic fundamentalism. Americans are incapable of accepting that our stomping around the region killing and offending many “folks” (to use Obama’s down-home term) makes some of them angry enough to call Uncle Sam the political equivalent of ‘bastard” or “SOB.” A grown-up power does not take name-calling as the basis for making strategic judgments.
Thereby, we raise serious questions whether we have the skills and probity of judgment to handle the responsibilities that we have assumed throughout the Greater Middle East – and worldwide.
The United States is heading over a cliff in the Middle East. The impending crack-up, though, evokes no serious debate about the thinking and methods that have led us there. Instead, the only criticism solicited or heard is from the John McCains and Lindsey Grahams who have perfect records of being wrong on everything since 2001. The foreseeable accident is due to driving a vehicle with faulty steering at breakneck speed on a treacherous stretch of road. Their advice: we should go faster. No nation, however strong, can overcome that level of …..
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.