The US is Now Confronted by the Same Sectarian Strife in the Middle East That It Fostered

For years now, the global jihadist movement centered in the Middle East has been split into two broad factions, represented by the al-Qaeda franchise on the one hand, and the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) on the other. The latter is rooted, in part, in the Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad group founded by the Jordanian Bedouin Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which was once a rival of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda.

In the original vision of bin Laden and his lieutenant, the Egyptian cleric Ayman al-Zawahiri, sensational terror events, including those targeting civilians (as in the East Africa embassy bombings of 1998 or the 9/11 attacks), would provoke a general confrontation between the Muslim world and the west. The clash would  eventually—somehow or another—lead to the restoration of the heroic Caliphate of old.

The goal (not that bin Laden would have ever described it in these terms) was to exacerbate the contradiction between the two worlds. Like the terrorist actions of some nineteenth and twentieth century anarchists,  the point was to spark similar actions everywhere to somehow arrive at the goal.

But bin Laden  seems to have given little thought to a particular strategy of actually conquering and holding territory. In contrast, al-Zarqawi, whose organization evolved into the current “Islamic State,” was from the outset devoted to establishing a caliphate short-term through military conquest in the name of Sunni orthodoxy. This project required the exploitation of religious differences and fanning of religious hatreds. “The Shiites,” al-Zarqawi once declared, “are a more pernicious enemy than the Americans, and the best strategy for… Sunnis is to strike their religious, military, and other cadres.”

In al-Zarqawi’s vision, Sunni warriors would affirm their loyalty to the Sharia by brutally punishing those identified as offenders and by exterminating non-Sunnis, especially the Shiite “apostates” (murtadd). Their holy effort would target symbols of apostasy and paganism, such as the graven images passed down to humanity from posterity.

It is now quite apparent that their effort has stolen the wind from the sails of al-Qaeda, inspiring by its very insanity and ferocity the support of angry alienated people throughout the world.

The House of Saud and Anti-Shiite Sentiment 

Anti-Shiite feelings run deep in some quarters of the Muslim world. This is especially the case in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden’s homeland, which is governed by adherents of the (exceedingly strict) Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam.

Many Sunnis view Shiites as idolaters, due to their extreme reverence for Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali (whom they regard, along with the prophet’s daughter Fatima and other members of his household, as sinless and infallible) and their veneration of  religious figures such as Imam Husayn (enshrined in Karbala), Zaynab bint Ali (enshrined in Damascus), Umm Kulthum bint Ali (enshrined in Damascus), etc. The Shiites are charged with promoting the worship of certain human beings and treating Mohammad’s kin as intercessors between humanity and Allah. Some Sunnis also accuse Shiites of viewing their imams as such mediators.

Those familiar with early modern European history will note that such criticisms resemble those often leveled by Protestants against Roman Catholics. During the Reformation era  in Europe , the followers of Luther, Calvin and other reformers declined to even consider Roman Catholics Christians, and vice versa. Protestants were revolted by Catholics’ “worship”  of saints and of the supposedly sinless Virgin Mary, the adoration of religious images and the veneration of relics such as saints’ bones. They deplored the Catholic claim that priests could serve as intercessors between God and people.

The ideological divide contributed to a serious of bloody wars culminating in the Thirty Years War (1618-1638) which consumed most of Europe and resulted in around six million deaths. In that war, the torching of churches and the destruction of religious images was routine. (Spanish Hapsburg troops burned down the Protestant church in my ancestral hometown of Beggingen, Switzerland, unfortunately burning church records that might have helped me trace my Leupp family history back into the 1500s. I think about that when I read about Sunni attacks on Shiite mosques, such as the incineration of the Jafari Muhammadiye Mosque in Istanbul last year, attributed to ISIL.)

In Saudi Arabia, land of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, there is no law code except for (a Sunni version of) the Sharia. (The Sharia is not even coherently codified; thus there is no law code in the Saudi kingdom in a modern sense, but merely scripture that’s interpreted by Wahhabi jurists.) Contempt for Shiites is inscribed in the public school curriculum and in discriminatory policies towards the kingdom’s own substantial (maybe 15%) Shiite minority.

Shiites are excluded from virtually all positions of power in Saudi Arabia, banned from teaching history or religion in public schools, discouraged from observing the Shiite Ashura holiday and forced to close their shops during the daily five prayer sessions required of Sunnis. (The Shiites have their own system and pray just three times a day.)

There have been open demonstrations demanding equality; 20 Saudi Shiites were killed in protests in 2011.  Thus the Saudi rulers’ concern about rising Shiite power in the region is rooted both in religious ideology and in anxiety about the possibility of domestic Shiite rebellion. The threat they perceive is all the more acute given that the Shiites are concentrated in the Eastern Province, right across the Persian Gulf from Iran, location of the kingdom’s main gas and oil fields. This region (surrounding the oasis of Al-Ahsa) was only brought under the control of the House of Saud through military conquest in the 1910s and its people have never been happy campers.

Imagine a Shiite, Iran-friendly Republic of Al-Ahsa adjoining Wahhabi-led Saudi Arabia. That is Riyadh’s ultimate fear, and helps explain the Saudi rulers’ visceral hostility to Iran, and even their readiness to make common cause with Israel.

How the U.S. Stimulated Sectarian Violence

When the U.S. invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003, on the basis of lies—as well as abysmal ignorance about the country’s history and sectarian composition— it toppled a secular regime and replaced it with a Shiite-dominated one.

Early on in the occupation, the Sunnis—jolted by the banning of the Baathist party and dissolution of the national army, which although secular institutions constituted their power base—rose up in armed resistance. Meanwhile Shiites at the call of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani protested peacefully, demanding democratic elections. As anger mounted at the occupation and its atrocities (Abu Ghraib, etc.), the occupation authorities were obliged to (at least attempt to) ameliorate popular anger with elections to an “advisory council” which ultimately resulted in a Shiite-dominated parliament and cabinet.

Sunnis had ruled Iraq when it was part of the Ottoman Empire, and continued to rule the Iraqi state when it was carved out by French and British imperialists after the First World War. A  prince from the Hashemite clan of Saudi Arabia was chosen by the British to serve as king in 1921—a Sunni ruling over a 60% majority Shiite nation. Although the monarchy was toppled in 1958, the ruling elite remained dominated by Sunnis. The Baathist Party that ruled from 1963 to 2003 was formally committed to secularism and viewed political Islamism as an enemy. But it favored the Sunni population over the majority Shiites and alienated many of the latter by restricting their religious freedoms.

(One should not image either of these religious communities as especially devout. Religious identity is as much about historical and neighborhood roots as it is genuine conviction and adherence to scriptural rules. There have been reports of whisky drinking , coke-snorting Saudi royals partying with girlfriends in London. This is not so much about heartfelt ideological affiliation as a kind of doctrine-based tribalism.)

With the Baathists deposed, and Sunnis boiling at their loss of livelihood, income, and power as some Shiites obtained a degree of political power, the ground was laid for a long period of secular violence. This was surely not anticipated by the war’s neocon planners, who had prophesized a smooth, joyous transition to a U.S.-allied “democracy.”

There was widespread ignorance in the U.S. leadership about the very differences between Sunnis and Shiites, and the potential for civil war between them. In 2006 Congressional Quarterly editor Jeff Stein asked top officials in the FBI and members of Congress in key committees how the two differed, and they proved to be entirely clueless. The same was apparently the case in the State Department, where officials competent in Arabic are a fraction of those proficient in Hebrew.

Nine years later,  as sectarian conflict consumes the Middle East, there are surely people in the U.S. State Department who are well aware of the problem of Sunni-Shiite antagonism and its role in the ongoing chaos. What they cannot see or frankly acknowledge is the fact that the U.S. is itself responsible for opening the Pandora’s Box of sectarian strife—not only in Iraq but throughout the region—by its destruction of the modern Iraqi state in 2003.

It is much more convenient for them to argue that the regime of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki squandered the marvelous opportunity for democratic prosperity our American “heroes” had fought and died to plant for them, foolishly alienating the deposed Sunni minority, provoking sectarian strife, and allowing ISIL the opportunity to threaten the occupation’s supposedly benign achievements. In this version of events, the blame isn’t placed on U.S. imperialism.

The blame’s placed instead on age-old religious differences too arcane for the modern western mind to understand or indeed bother with.

Blaming Iran for Everything

U.S. officials suggest that forces in Iraq are at fault for their own misery. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has accused the U.S.-trained and funded new army of “having no will to fight” after they buckled in the face of ISIL advances. Much of the media and the political class in general lay much of the blame for the regional instability resulting from the 2003 invasion on—of all countries—non-Arab Iran.

Never mind that Iran has not invaded another country in centuries, has repeatedly sought rapprochement with the U.S. since 2003, and actually makes common cause with Washington in support of the Afghan and Iraqi regimes and the war against ISIL.

Close U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia both promote the view that Iran is the main regional evil.  Their view is echoed by some in the State Department, including the neocons who remain there and who once huddled around Vice President Cheney.  (Recall how Cheney once responded to Iranian overtures by sneering that the U.S. didn’t negotiate with evil but rather, “We defeat it.”) And diehard Iran foes can always exploit the “hostage crisis” of Nov. 1979-January 1981 to portray the Iran mullahs as mortal enemies of America to the end of time.

But it ought to be obvious: Iran, while the world’s leading Shiite-majority and Shiite-governed state, is not responsible for Shiite-Sunni violence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, nor even for the resistance activities of Shiites in Lebanon and Bahrain.

It’s well known that both the Saudi and Israeli regimes have been pressing the U.S. to mount an attack on Iran, and that diplomats from the two countries have even held secret meetings (five in 2014) to coordinate strategy in this regard. Their reasons for urging regime change differ, however.

Israel fears Iran as a large, populous, oil-rich, nearby country with substantial military strength. Although its annual military budget is only about six billion dollars—around one-quarter of Israel’s and one-eighth of Saudi Arabia’s—Israel’s leaders constantly depict it as an “existential threat” to themselves. (Israel of course also received billions in weaponry from the U.S.,  much of it free—or rather, covered by U.S. taxpayers—and itself has over 100 nuclear weapons. It refuses to discuss the matter publicly,  to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and to admit IAEA inspectors to its nuclear facilities.)

It depicts Iran as the devil incarnate due to its government’s refusal (like that of many governments) to accept the legitimacy of the Zionist project, entailing as it has, the cruel displacement of indigenous Palestinians and occupation of Palestinian land. As usual, it conflates anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, ignoring the fact that Iran has the second largest Jewish population in the Middle East, with recognized legal rights including parliamentary representation and the maintenance of synagogues. It ignores the existence of Hebrew schools and kosher grocery stores in Iran.

Israeli propagandists, ignoring Iran’s offer to support the Saudi plan for a two-state solution (stated for over a decade) seize upon a single statement of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, quoted by former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to the effect of “the occupation of Jerusalem will vanish from the pages of time” to declare that Iran has expressed its intention to “wipe Israel off the map.” Never mind that, in the real world in 2003, Tehran sent a letter to the Bush-Cheney administration via the Swiss ambassador to Iran expressing willingness to accept a two-state solution. (The letter was angrily rejected—by Cheney and his neocon team—and the Swiss diplomat warned not to pass on any more such missives.)

Israel of course insists that Iran’s nuclear program (initiated with U.S. support in the 1950s , when Iran was under the firm control of the U.S.-backed Shah, to produce electricity as part of President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program), has to be designed to produce nuclear weapons for use against Israel. Nuclear Israel demands that the U.S. bomb Iran, resorting to the most shameless fear mongering, warming of a “nuclear holocaust” should the U.S. fail to do so.

(Should one ask—logically, innocently—why Iran even if it had a bomb nuke Israel, with its long-established arsenal of nuclear weapons, inviting certain and overwhelming destructions, Israeli propagandists reply that Iranians—being self-flagellating, suicide-bomber-type Shiite fanatics—would happily sacrifice a few of their 80 millions to achieve their Nazi-like dream of Jewish annihilation. Whether this is paranoia genuinely ingrained in deluded minds or merely clever talking-point propaganda, it sadly resonates in the Amen-corner of U.S. political Zionism.)

In fact, U.S. and Israel intelligence have concluded that Iran does not even have a nuclear weapons program; the IAEA have detected no evidence of one; and Iran’s Supreme Leader has issued a fatwa denouncing nuclear weapons as anti-Islamic and forbidding their production. (Gareth Porter’s Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Square effectively destroys the case made by the neocon and Israel Lobby fear mongers regarding Iran’s program.)

The bogus nuclear claim aside, the Israeli leadership more plausibly charges Iran with propping up the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

The background: Israel attacked Syria during the 1967 war (in a “re-emptive strike”) and continues to occupy Syria’s Golan Heights (an area over four times the size of the Gaza Strip). Syria has not attacked Israel since the 1973 war and has sought to negotiate the return of the Golan Heights, to no avail. Syria in itself is hardly a threat to Israel, but it supports Hizbollah (a Shiite-based political party in Lebanon with seats in the parliament and cabinet, credited with driving out occupying Israeli forces in 2000), and Hamas, the Sunni-based Palestinian party that governs the vast concentration camp of Gaza.

Israel (and the U.S., and all whom the two can influence) regards these organizations as “terrorists” and hence vilifies Syria along with its ally Iran as a “state sponsor of terror.” Once a person, group or regime has been so vilified by the U.S. intelligence establishment, and the decision rubber-stamped by the relevant clueless congressional committee, it is virtually impossible for the mainstream media to question the designation.

The Saudi leaders, on the other hand, do not think in terms of an overriding regional conflict between “terrorism” and western-Zionist interests. They think rather (like ISIL!) in primitive religious terms. They see the problem as Sunnis versus Shiites, and they hate the latter. While the Saudis were no fans of Saddam Hussein, they preferred him—a secular Sunni—to the current Iraqi Shiite-based regime, aligned as it is with Iran and sending Shiite militia forces (advised by Iranian officers) against Sunnis. No matter how vicious Sunni jihadis might be, the Saudi leaders (whose state leads the world in judicial beheadings) prefer them to empowered Shiites anywhere, of any stripe.

Bahrain, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen

Riyadh sees Iran as a powerful regional rival and its state-supported Shiite religion as a threat to Sunni hegemony throughout the neighborhood. The Saudi regime is  particularly worried about the possibility of Iran “stirring up” discontent among the Shiites in the kingdom. During the 2011 “Arab Spring” demonstrations in Bahrain (a tiny, majority Shiite island country off the Saudi coast), Saudi Arabia invaded in support of Bahrain’s Sunni king to suppress peaceful protests, blaming them as a matter of course on Iran.

There was in fact little evidence of Iranian involvement. But the Saudis discounted the possibility that Shiites might rise up as a result of their own oppression without any prodding from the outside. (It’s rather like Washington throughout the Cold War, denying the independent agency of leftist activists anywhere and seeing them as agents of “communist” regimes.)

The Saudis despise the Alawite-led government of Syria. No matter that the regime is Baathist and secular, and does not try to impose the beliefs of the Alawite denomination (regarded as an offshoot of Shiism) on the masses. (Indeed, the Alawites are a rather secretive community, do not proselytize, and discourage conversion.) The regime is all too religiously inclusive for Riyadh’s taste; didn’t Bashar’s father Hafez Assad actually try to change the Syrian constitution to do something unthinkable—allow for the election of a Christian or other non-Muslim as president? (About 10% of Syrians are Christians and they have been a leading presence in the Baathist Party from its inception. In Saudi Arabia there are, by law, no Christian citizens.)

That effort to distance religion from the state led, in 1973, to a huge uprising of Sunni Islamists in Syria. A sort of prologue to the current ISIL uprising, it was successfully if bloodily suppressed (to the relief of many disinclined to live under strict Islamist rule).

Riyadh depicts the Syrian Baathists as Iranian agents, not because they really are— or because they have much in common ideologically with Iran’s mullah-controlled regime—but because they are not Sunnis and resist an Islamist political agenda. The Saudi regime has supported the opposition to Assad since the Arab Spring, not because it opposes corrupt, oppressive governments in principle (on the contrary!) but because it has seen an opportunity for Sunni militants to bring down the Assad dynasty and take power themselves.

(Recall how the Saudis , almost alone in the world, joined only by Pakistan, welcomed and subsidized the Taliban regime in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. So what if they stoned women to death in soccer stadiums and pulverized Buddhist monuments. They were devout Sunnis, after all!)

Meanwhile the Saudis (like the U.S. and Israel) depict Lebanon’s Hizbollah, a Shiite party commanding a huge militia,  as puppets of the Iranians. There is indeed a close ideological affinity; the party’s chief Hassan Nasrallah has high praise for the Iranian leadership and extols the “fusion of Lebanese-Iranian blood on Syrian territory” in the struggle against the al-Qaeda and ISIL-dominated Syrian opposition. Ranking Hizbollah political and military leaders travel to Iran for religious training. Iran apparently provides the group with rifles, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and Katyusha rockets in caravans passing from Iran through Syria.

But Hizbollah, founded in 1985, is actually more an Israeli than an Iranian creation. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978 and again 1982, in attempts to destroy Palestinian Liberation Organization camps in the south, local Shiites were at odds with the central (Christian-Sunni) controlled government in Beirut and resentful of the (mostly Sunni) Palestinians in their midst. There was actually some sympathy among them for the Israeli attack on the Palestinians. The Amal militia (rooted among the Shiites, although secular-leftist) soon went to war with the Palestinians, attempting to seize their camps.

Amal’s rival Hizbollah, inspired by the Iranian Revolution of 1979 but aligned with the secular PLO, has emerged as a leading political force in Lebanon. It plays a key role in the parliament and cabinet and cultivates alliances with Christians such as Gen. Michel Aoun, a former prime minister who heads the Free Patriotic Movement. The U.S. and its allies have, at Israeli urging, demonized it as a “terrorist” organization. But it is a popular, mass-based movement that operates radio and television stations, hospitals, and charities.  It denies taking orders from Tehran and although at its inception advocated formation of an Iran-style Islamic Republic has since retreated from that objective.

In any case, as the Saudis must surely know, there would be militant Shiite resistance in south Lebanon to foreign invasion and religious oppression whether or not it received Iranian encouragement.

The Saudi Assault on Yemen

Finally the Saudis depict the tribal-based Houthi movement in Yemen, which is rooted in the country’s Zaidi Shiite community, as a mere tool for Iranian expansion. The Houthis seized power in the capital of Sana’a last year and now control the parliament. But there is little indication that their dramatic gains, following intermittent uprisings since 2004, have been spurred or significantly supported by Tehran.

The Zaidis are a substantial minority in Yemen, variously estimated between 30 and 45% of the total population. Their imams actually governed the country from the ninth century (long before Iran/Persia had embraced the Shiite faith) to 1962.  In the latter year a republican revolt backed by Egypt, then led by Gamal Abdul Nasser, brought down the imamate.

The Zaidis have not militated for a return of the old regime. But they have protested government neglect of the impoverished northern region, bordering Saudi Arabia, where most of them live. Their multiple uprisings during this century were directed at the regime of the U.S.-backed President Ali Abdullah Saleh who stepped down under U.S. pressure in 2012.  As it happens, Saleh is himself a Zaidi, and is currently aligned with the Houthis. This struggle is not fundamentally about religion.

The Houthis’ grievances are not religious in nature, and even if they were, they would not be making common cause with the mullahs in Iran, whose version of Shia Islam substantially differs from their own. (One should not see Shiite denominations as a monolith. Think about how Christian “Protestantism” includes he Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican schools etc. Whatever one thinks about religion in general, would it not be disrespectful to conflate them all and pretend there are no significant differences among them? Or to suppose they’re all coordinated by a central headquarters?)

The Houthis are not calling for an Iran-style Islamic state but appealing for talks with all parties, including the deposed former president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, to establish a coalition regime to effectively govern the country and combat al-Qaeda and ISIL in Yemen. Indeed their seizure of power occurred because Hadi’s weak leadership (after his assumption of the presidency, in a bogus unchallenged election arranged by the U.S.) was allowing the jihadis to gain ground in the restive south.

Why does Riyadh feel obliged to depict the new government as a pawn of a relentlessly aggressive Iran? Surely it is in part because, along with the Saudi Shiites concentrated in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, there are significant numbers of Zaidi Shiites in the Saudi provinces of Najaran and Jizan bordering Yemen who resent the religious discrimination built into the Saudi system.  They must not be inspired by Zaidi gains across the border. They must not be allowed to rise up. If they do, they must be smeared as Iranian stooges, the better to build international support for military intervention.

Imagine Shiite-led regimes of some sort (more or less secular, as in Syria, or more or less religious, as in Iran) surrounding Saudi Arabia from Iran to Syria to Lebanon to Yemen to Bahrain, while pieces of the kingdom break off taking with them the gas and oil fields that finance the monumentally cruel and corrupt regime. This is the Saudi rulers’ ultimate fear, and the explanation for the vicious campaign against the current regime in Yemen.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the U.S. between 1983 and 2005, once told the chief of Britain’s M16, Sir Richard Dearlove: “The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will literally be ‘God help the Shia.’” Riyadh’s alignment with Israel against Iran, its support for Sunni Islamists including al-Qaeda against the Syrian government, and its attacks on neighboring Bahrain and Yemen, indicate its intention to take Shiite-led forces head on.

Why the U.S. Must Embrace the Saudi anti-Shiite Effort

You’d think, if you were thinking rationally, that the U.S. would have no interest nor take part in this sectarian conflict, paralleling (as it so clearly does) al-Zarqawi’s drive to unite the Sunni world against the Shiites and impose the Sharia throughout the Islamic world. (Repeat: Saudi Arabia, quite uniquely, has no national law code other than the Sharia.) You’d think that U.S. interests in Yemen would center on the suppression of al-Qaeda and the (even more hideous) ISIL, which the Houthis want to stamp out, curbed in that effort by Saudi attacks.

But no! Even as it pursues a possible nuclear deal with Iran, and (having no other choice, given the mess it’s created) cooperates with Shiites in trying to stem ISIL in Iraq and Syria, Washington backs the Saudi assault on Yemen. The U.S. State Department, through its incestuous relationship with the mainstream media, and its careful dissemination of talking points, has succeeded in spinning what is in fact Saudi expansionism as a response to Iranian expansionism. Most people in this country paying attention to the news would no doubt agree that the problem in Yemen is Iranian meddling. They have been brainwashed.

The fact is, U.S. actions in Yemen since 2001 including the often mis-targeted drone strikes have encouraged, not suppressed, local al-Qaeda affiliates and offshoots. They have produced overwhelming antipathy to the U.S. in general. A 2011 poll by Glevum Associates found that 98% of Yemenis had an unfavorable perception of the U.S. government. There was not much variance among religious communities on this point.  Surely this gut-felt antipathy is the main reason all U.S. military forces were obliged to close the U.S. embassy in Sana’a in February, and withdraw (retreat) from Yemen in May.

Just as the U.S.’s violence has failed to crush its jihadi foes in Afghanistan, Pakistan,  Iraq and Somalia; and has provoked and invigorated new Sunni terror groups in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere; so it has thrown Yemen into renewed civil war  providing Saudi Arabia a pretext to intervene. Taking advantage of the U.S.’s longstanding (bipartisan) hostility to Iran, the Saudis figure they have the U.S. over a barrel. Obama is obliged to embrace the anti-Houthi campaign or appear soft on Iran, even as a huge bloc within the political class prepares to sabotage the Iran nuclear deal Obama badly wants to leave as part of his legacy.

George W. Bush intended to respond to bin Laden’s effort to spark a general Islam vs. the west confrontation with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. These in fact intensified that broad conflict. Barack Obama, while (quite dishonestly) taking credit for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, and proclaiming an end to the war in Afghanistan, has responded to ISIL’s effort to provoke a showdown between Sunnis and Shiites with moves, especially in Syria and Yemen, that place the U.S. on the side of the worst sort of Sunni fanaticism against a wide range of Shiite forces.

Yes, the U.S. is allied with Iraqi Shiites resisting ISIL (although the militias for good reason oppose any more U.S. boots on the ground). It does so because otherwise ISIL might storm Baghdad, exposing the criminal U.S. invasion of Iraq as the mother of ultimate blowback. But elsewhere the U.S. sides with Sunni protagonists against Shiite foes almost by default.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE dispatch 1500 troops into Bahrain in May 2011 to put down peaceful protests of the 70% Shiite majority against the repressive Sunni monarchy. The U.S. maintains silence; this never becomes a news item in the U.S. media. Bahrain is the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet. How could Obama alienate its regime by making a fuss about human rights and religious liberty?

Sunni militants hell-bent on smashing Alawites and other Shiites, along with Yezidis, Druze, Christians and other nonbelievers, take control of the “opposition” movement in Syria. Not for a minute does the U.S. rethink its policy of supporting that opposition or reconsider its policy of overthrowing Bashar Assad. How could Obama challenge the Israel lobby and conclude that actually, a regime that protects the ruins of Palmyra is better than a movement that smashes them; that a system that lets women do without headscarves is better than one that imposes the head-to-toe abaya; that a judiciary that (however corrupt) doesn’t crucify, behead, bury alive or incinerate but merely hangs convicted criminals might be preferable from the standpoint of humanity to an opposition doing all the above?

Saudi bombing kills at least 1,300 civilians in Yemen as of June 15, according to CBS News. In a piece headlined, “Saudi-led bombing of Yemen breeding hatred of U.S.”  Gerald Feierstein, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs in Obama’s State Department,  demands that Iran “stop sending weapons to the Houthis” and complains about “Iranian attempts to foment instability in the region.” How could Obama publicly acknowledge that the instability in the region has been infinitely heightened by U.S. efforts to reconfigure what the neocons call “the greater Middle East”?

The chickens are (once again, as they do often) coming home to roost. Knowing nothing about the Sunni-Shiite divide, the U.S. barged into the Middle East, beating its chest in triumph, trampling on history in its cowboy boots, crowing about a new age of democratic transformation. Nothing panned out as planned.  Having unleashed sectarian violence on a scale unknown in recent history, it must now deal with the consequences.

How to fight the war declared in 2001, against al-Qaeda, its affiliates and spin-off groups, a war so simply defined as “us” versus “the terrorists,” alongside the endless war provoked by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a war between Sunni extremists and their foes, who include Shiites that the U.S. and some allies also define as terrorists? And how do so without doing any homework, wandering in the dark?

How to straddle a Sunni-Shiite divide you don’t even understand? How to navigate rapprochement with Iran,  while pursuing a relationship with a regime that controls world oil prices and wants you to bomb Iran? How to decisively defeat the dead Zarqawi, the evil genie you broke from the bottle when you broke Iraq?

How to erase the world’s perception that every child crucified, every Christian beheaded, every Yezidi enslaved, every Palmyra statue smashed, is in fact ultimately your doing—because of your criminal invasion of Iraq ?

It’s something those responsible just want us all to forget, and move on from pondering, even as they plot to prevent a deal with Iran and to attack the Shiite-led Islamic Republic of Iran , inevitably encouraging more region-wide sectarian strife and playing into the hands of ISIL.

* * * *

The Pentagon has now acknowledged that its plans to train 5300 Syrian fighters per year to overthrow the secular government of Syria has only drawn 60 training candidates.  Mainstream press commentators are perplexed. Why do Syrian youth not flock to our side? Why does ISIL, almost effortlessly, recruit English school girls to its black banner while the CIA’s hard-pressed to find any love anywhere?

Maybe it’s because the U.S. doesn’t know what it’s doing, why it’s so widely faulted with so much evil and shunned by people who find its posturing (about “freedom” and all that) insulting to their intelligence. Maybe because, in the competition between ideologies, some version of fundamentalist Islam (Sunni or Shiite) provides more comfort than the delusions served up by a U.S. Army sergeant somewhere in Jordan.

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: