Exclusive: When columnist Thomas L. Friedman suggests the U.S. should arm ISIS thus joining the Saudi-Israeli regional war on Iran and the Shiites it seems time to question the sanity of U.S. opinion- and policy-makers. But that is where the muddled U.S. post-9/11 strategy has led, explains Daniel Lazare.
By Daniel Lazare
“The enemy of your enemy is your enemy,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Congress earlier this month. But it’s not so simple. In today’s Middle East, a country can be another country’s enemy one day, its friend the next, and both simultaneously on the third.
Netanyahu is as good an example as any. His come-from-behind triumph in Tuesday’s election places him at the head of a grand anti-Iranian coalition that includes the Republicans on Capitol Hill, the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, and ISIS militants battling Iranian-backed forces in Syria and Iraq. But Netanyahu clinched his victory by rejecting Palestinian statehood and issuing racist warnings that Israeli Arabs were going to the polls “in droves” to vote to unseat his Likud government all examples of the pugnacious nationalism that has made him persona non grata in Sunni capitals that otherwise approve of his pro-Iranian stance.
So is Netanyahu a friend of the Sunnis, an enemy, neither, or both?
Or take Saudi Arabia. It has reportedly told Israel that it will allow its warplanes to fly over its territory to save fuel while attacking Iranian nuclear sites provided that is, Israel makes progress in its negotiations with the Palestinians. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Saudis Said to Aid Israeli Plan to Bomb Iran.”]
But now that negotiations appear to be kaput, will the Saudis withdraw their offer or decide that bombing Iran trumps solidarity with Sunnis in Gaza and the West Bank?
The Saudis are also participating in the U.S.-led bombing campaign against ISIS, yet are increasingly nervous now that pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias are taking the lead in the fight to dislodge ISIS from Tikrit in Iraq. “The situation in Tikrit is a prime example of what we are worried about,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. “Iran is taking over the country.” [Reuters, March 5, 2015]
So does Saudi Arabia favor an Iraqi victory, which will no doubt redound in favor of Iran, or is it thinking of switching sides and backing ISIS? Whom does it despise more the Shi’ites or the Sunni jihadists of the Islamic State?
And then there is the U.S., the most confused of them all. Has Obama given neocons control of the State Department and Defense because he wishes to appease hardliners or because he wants them where he can keep a close eye on them? Whatever the answer, the results half-liberal and half-neocon are a study in incoherence.
In Baghdad, the administration helped force out Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last year because he was alienating Iraq’s 35-percent Sunni minority and brought in Haider al-Abadi in the hope that he would be more inclusive. Yet Al-Abadi has proved even more one-sided in his reliance on sectarian Shi’ite militias such as the Badr Brigade, the Iranian-controlled Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, or Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army (now known as the Peace Brigades). [“Militias Flock to Tikrit Ahead of Final Phase,” Stratfor, March 18, 2015.]
The U.S. says it wants Iraq to battle ISIS. But now that Iraq is doing just that in Tikrit, the U.S. is sitting on its hands because it doesn’t like the forces it has mobilized.
“We want nothing to be done that further inflames sectarian tensions in the country,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, stressed. [The Wall Street Journal, March 2, 2015]
Yet Saudi Arabia, America’s oldest ally in the Middle East, has been a source of non-stop sectarian tension since its inception. It has funded Sunnis in Lebanon; channeled millions of dollars to Sunni mujahideen in Syria, according to no less an authority than Vice President Joe Biden; crushed a Shi’ite-led democratic movement in Bahrain; suppressed Shi’ite protests in its own Eastern Province; and, according to a confidential State Department memo made public by Wikileaks, has exported “radical Sunni Salafism” into Yemen, thereby fueling Shi’ite paranoia.
If Shi’ites are on the offensive, it’s because the Sunnis went on the offensive first. So why does the U.S. call on al-Abadi to reduce sectarian tensions while saying nothing when the Saudis ramp them up?
The Obama administration is meanwhile talking with Teheran, but not with Damascus although Syria continues to battle ISIS on a daily basis. The U.S. refuses to sit down with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad although Secretary of State John Kerry recently admitted that the U.S. will “have to negotiate in the end.” [CNN, Mar. 16, 2015]
The administration is increasingly bellicose toward Moscow even though it is clear that Russia, a close ally of both Syria and Iran, will necessarily play a key role if a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East is ever to take place. Even though the U.S. says it opposes ISIS, the U.S. is hostile to nations that are fighting the Islamic State while maintaining close ties with countries that have supported it.
“Islamist or Wahhabi monarchies in the gulf like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain, they seek to model the Syrian regime after their own,” Alexey Pushkov, chairman of the State Duma’s Committee on International Affairs, declared recently, while the jihadis they fund “are the same kind of people who blow up American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.” [Al-Monitor, Feb. 18, 2015]
Quite right yet the U.S. sides with the Arab gulf states regardless. Pushkov might also have mentioned Libya where gulf money continues to flow to Sunni mujahideen who are tearing the country apart. Although Qatar is apparently the chief source, Saudi intelligence has done its bit by teaming up with a Saudi scholar named Rabi’ al-Mudkhali to smash Ottoman religious monuments, strip local mosques of their decorations, and otherwise impose Wahhabist doctrinal austerity on a reluctant population. [The New York Review of Books, Feb. 19, 2015.]
Policies like these terrify ordinary Libyans while encouraging the most extreme Islamist elements, yet once again the U.S. says nothing. Obama battles Wahhabis in one venue, backs them in another, and then wonders why his Middle East policy is such a shambles.
Netanyahu’s election triumph is meanwhile raising such contradictions to the breaking point. His statement that a Palestinian state — any Palestinian state — will serve as a platform for “radical Islamist attacks against Israel”€finally puts to rest twenty-five years of farcical peace negotiations in which the Palestinians have had to swallow one compromise after another while Israeli settlement construction continues unabated.
Netanyahu claims to oppose Sunni jihadism, but he welcomes it as a counter-force against the Shi’ites in Lebanon, Syria and Iran and uses it as an excuse to tighten up control over the Occupied Territories. Liberals in the U.S. and Europe are losing patience with such antics.
But as long as America’s antiquated constitutional system gives conservatives added clout on Capitol Hill the 47 senators who signed the March 9 letter to Iran represent less than 40 percent of the American people Netanyahu couldn’t care less. Americans have rarely been more war weary. Yet neocons like Joshua Muravchik are using their leverage to steer the country toward war regardless, and the Obama administration is increasingly helpless to stop them.
The Palestinian national movement is helpless as well. Even more thoroughly outmaneuvered then Obama, it is at the end of its rope. Violence will do no good against an Israeli military that receives $3 billion in U.S. aid per year, but peaceful protest will do no good either given deepening Israeli intransigence.
The movement will no doubt continue to push its feel-good boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign. But any effort to isolate Israel will only add to a Masada mentality that plays right into Netanyahu’s hands.
The Saudis, on the other hand, do have a few options at this point. Giving up on the Palestinians, they could ally themselves all the more firmly with Israel and do what they can to assist in an attack on Iran an attack that would be directed nearly as much against Obama as against the Shi’ites across the Strait of Hormuz.
But the real game-changer would involve a non-aggression pact with ISIS. The more prominent the Iranian military presence in Iraq grows, the more Saudis will ask themselves why they agreed to fight ISIS in the first place.
To be sure, they turned against the Islamic State only after it began threatening “the Land of the Two Holy Mosques.” But a truce that allows a resumption of Saudi aid would benefit both sides by allowing ISIS to go back on the offensive in Tikrit and strengthening Saudi rule in Riyadh. For a Wahhabi regime ringed by fire from Lebanon to Yemen, it would be the first step toward breaking what it sees as a growing Shi’ite siege.
New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman is as muddleheaded as anyone in Washington, but he caught the mood perfectly when he asked: “Should we be arming ISIS?” Though claiming that “I despise ISIS as much as anyone,” he explained:
“In 2002, we destroyed Iran’s main Sunni foe in Afghanistan (the Taliban regime). In 2003, we destroyed Iran’s main Sunni foe in the Arab world (Saddam Hussein). But because we failed to erect a self-sustaining pluralistic order, which could have been a durable counterbalance to Iran, we created a vacuum in both Iraq and the wider Sunni Arab world. That is why Tehran’s proxies now indirectly dominate four Arab capitals: Beirut, Damascus, Sana, and Baghdad.”
Friedman was speaking half in jest, I suppose, but he couldn’t have laid the issue out more clearly. The more Iran takes charge in Iraq, the more sentiment will shift from opposing ISIS to employing it as a tool against the “Shi’ite crescent.” This will effectively put the U.S. on the same side as the people who brought us 9/11. But what are 3,000 civilian deaths among friends?
When empires weaken, they don’t merely withdraw. Rather, they leave behind a trail of broken promises and confusion. When American power was at its height, the U.S. provided blanket assurances to everyone and his brother. It assured Israel that it would guarantee its security, it assured the Palestinians that they would finally get a state, it assured the American people that it would “rid the world of the evil-doers” by rooting out terrorism, and it assured the Saudis that it would protect them against Iran.
But now that it is clear that it can do none of these things because it is vastly over-extended, a vacuum has opened up that all sorts of discordant force are rushing to fill. The upshot is likely to be even more chaos than we’ve already seen.
Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace).