Wednesday, June 14, 2017
Ignorance Used to be Bliss
As the son of a U.S. diplomat, I spent all of my high school years in the Middle East, specifically Beirut, Lebanon. That time among an amalgamation of Christians, Muslims and even a few Jews – well before the Arab-Israeli conflicts of 1967 and 1973 – shaped my world view and my understanding of the underlying sectarian schisms and irrelevancies. The Middle East has changed a lot since then.
The days when Shiite and Sunni Muslims lived peacefully, side-by-side, seem to have fractured when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, deposed a Sunni dictator in a nation that was 60% Shiite, and literally forced Shiites and Sunnis to declare their loyalties, pick sides and take arms against each other. Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites had previously lived together, children playing with each other without a care.
As Shiite militants seized power in upscale Iran in 1979, creating a theocracy revolting against the brutality of the secular, U.S.-backed Shah, battle lines between Shiites (around 20% of all of Islam, heavily focused in Iran, Iraq and contemporary Lebanon) and the Sunni world (80% of Islam) went into high gear. We had two regional goals back then: containing Iran and supporting anything that would collapse the U.S.S.R. What followed was a long list of “what can go wrong will go wrong at the worst possible time.”
The Iran-Iraq War. Then, Iraq was 60% Shiite led by a Sunni dictator, and Iran was 95% Shiite, but Saudis and the U.S. backed dictator Saddam Hussein. Saudi money massively seeding Sunni fundamentalists (“our way – God’s way – is the only way”), militants and those “religious schools” – madrasa – teaching that Western values, Christianity, and Shiites needed to be rooted out and purged. The Saudi Wahhabi view of the world. 1993 World Trade Center bombing. 9/11/2001. Trillions of dollars and thousands of U.S. military casualties wasted in an increasingly destabilized Iraq and Afghanistan. Hapless farmers were caught up in the slugfest, as global warming decimated their farms, fanning the flames that would become al Qaeda and ISIS. Terrorist attacks all over the West.
Even after the Soviets fell, the Western world (especially the U.S.) continued to pour money into Saudi Arabia and any other nation that would “contain” vehemently anti-American Iran. Our policies seemed to produce a consistent mass of astounding conflicts, where U.S. military and financial aid seemed to blowback to attack U.S. interests. Remember that Soviet take-down? We funded and provided sophisticated arms to the Muhijadeen (Sunni fighters that included Osama bin Laden) as they defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Those fighters soon turned that training, their combat experience and retained Western-supplied weapons, with heavy continued funding from sympathetic Sunni wealth (lots from Saudi sources), against the West.
I don’t have to remind you about the Wahhabi conservative faith that dictates a veiled, monarchical society, where woman cannot drive or be out in public without a male family member in attendance, that is not exactly the epitome of American democratic values. If President Obama was coming to terms with this Saudi support (most of which is not directly traceable to government sources) of radical Islam – limiting military aid to reduced levels – Donald Trump dived into the pool without measuring its depth first.
Touting his pragmatic willingness to deal with “strongmen” without asking human rights questions, our President Trump began imposing his unschooled “businessman” assumptions to this exceptionally volatile part of the earth. Strutting like a proud peacock during his recent Middle Eastern trip, Trump embraced right wing Israel in the same breath as he signed an accord with the Saudi monarchy pledging long-term military hardware sales well-north of $400 billion. “Jobs, jobs, jobs” he declared for the benefit of the U.S. press. His stated purpose was to contain Iran, even as he suggested that the multiparty U.N. nuclear accord with Iran was “the worst” treaty (joining a litany of other worst treaties) ever entered into.
Fareed Zakaria, writing for the June 8th Washington Post, explains what happened next: “President Trump returned from his first overseas trip convinced that he had unified the United States’ historic Arab allies, dealt a strong blow against terrorism and calmed the waters of an unruly Middle East. Since then we have seen a series of terrorist attacks in Europe and the Middle East, and an open split within the Arab world. What is going on?
“The premise of Trump’s strategy was to support Saudi Arabia, in the belief that it would be able to fight terrorism and stabilize the region. In fact, Trump gave a green light to the Saudis to pursue their increasingly aggressive, sectarian foreign policy.
“The first element of that policy has been to excommunicate its longtime rival, Qatar, breaking relations with that country and pressing its closest allies to do the same. The Saudis have always viewed Qatar as a troublesome neighbor and are infuriated by its efforts to play a regional and global role by hosting a large U.S. military base, founding the Al Jazeera television network, planning to host the 2022 World Cup and punching above its weight diplomatically.
“It’s true that Qatar has supported some extremist Islamist movements. So has Saudi Arabia. Both are Wahhabi countries, both have within them extremist preachers, and both are widely believed to have armed Islamist groups in Syria and elsewhere. In both cases, the royal families play a game of allying themselves with fundamentalist religious forces and funding some militants, even while fighting other violent groups… In other words, their differences are really geopolitical, though often dressed up as ideological.
“The open split between the two countries will create much greater regional instability. Qatar will now move closer to Iran and Turkey, forging deeper alliances with anti-Saudi groups throughout the Muslim world. The battles among various factions of militants — in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and North Africa — will heat up. The terrorist attacks in Tehran on Wednesday, for which the Islamic State has claimed responsibility, are viewed in Iran as being part of a Saudi-inspired campaign against it. We should expect that Iranian-backed militias will respond in some way. So much for regional stability.
“And the United States is in the middle of it all, keeping close relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates while directing U.S. regional military operations out of its base in Qatar. Trump has issued anti-Qatar tweets, but U.S. troops will have to live with the reality that Qatar is their host and close military ally in the war against the Islamic State.
“For a superpower such as the United States, the best policy in the Middle East has always been to maintain ties with all regional players. One of the great successes of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s foreign policy was that they were able to woo Egypt into the American sphere, while simultaneously preserving an alliance with the shah of Iran. For decades, Washington was able to play a Bismarckian game of cultivating good relations with all countries, indeed better than these nations had with each other.”
Instead we have created even a bigger mess that will deteriorate regional stability even more, further eroding U.S. global influence and prestige that seems to be in freefall since Donald Trump’s inauguration. Such folly will, at best, take decades to undo… if such policies can be reversed at all. The Trump-Comey credibility battles pale by comparison.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the biggest winner from these Trump foolhardy and ignorant diplomatic efforts is…. Vladimir Putin!!!!