Entangled in Sunni-Shiite Wars

Early U.S. presidents warned against “entangling” foreign alliances, but they never suspected America might be drawn into squabbles between Sunnis and Shiites dating back to the Seventh Century succession of Prophet Muhammad. But that now seems to be the case, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar describes.

By Paul R. Pillar

Sometimes it seems that a major part of the U.S. role in the world is to assuage the anxieties, fears, and hurt feelings of other nations. Parents do this with children, and clinical psychologists do this with patients; should the world’s superpower be expected to do this with foreign states? Evidently it is.

This month, for example, there will be a summit meeting at Camp David with Gulf Arab states, and the purpose is summed up in the headline of a newspaper article about preparations for the meeting: the gathering is intended to “ease fears” of Arabs in connection with the agreement on limiting Iran’s nuclear program. Such U.S. hand-holding with putative allies in the Middle East is not limited to matters related to the Iranian nuclear deal, and such salving of feelings is not limited to the Middle East.

President Obama and King Salman Arabia stand at attention during the U.S. national anthem as the First Lady stands in the background with other officials on Jan. 27, 2015, at the start of Obama’s State Visit to Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza). (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Obama and King Salman Arabia stand at attention during the U.S. national anthem as the First Lady stands in the background with other officials on Jan. 27, 2015, at the start of Obama’s State Visit to Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza). (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The question arises: why should we care about someone else’s apparent angst? And why should the United States devote any resources, including the scarce resource of its leaders’ time and attention, to doing something about it?

There are a couple of legitimate reasons it might make sense for the United States to be responsive to such foreign anxiety. One is that, if the foreign emotions are being expressed in the context of interests shared with the United States, such expression might be a useful indicator that something about the course of U.S. policy warrants rethinking.

Such rethinking is certainly better than the sort of dismissive unilateralism that has helped to get the United States in trouble in the past. But shared interest is not the context for much of the angst being expressed toward the United States, including the current feelings of the Gulf Arabs related to Iran. Those “fears”, as well as similar expressions from Israel, have to do mainly with intra-regional contests for influence, often with a sectarian or ethnic coloration, that do not involve interests the United States shares.

Another possible reason to be responsive is that unassuaged anxiety might lead the anxious foreign state to do something damaging to our own interests. A classic worry of this type is that an ally of ours might become so disaffected that it decides to become an ally of someone else instead. This type of worrying is not necessarily good for international peace and stability, as some pre-World War I history demonstrated.

Anyway, that’s not the kind of situation we have in the Middle East today. Those who say they are fearful of Iran are not going to become allies of Iran (although if they move toward tension-reducing rapprochement with Tehran, so much the better for peace and stability in the Persian Gulf region)

Or maybe a fear-ridden state might lash out, like a threatened animal, and do something more damaging and destructive than merely switching alliances. Amid those fears being voiced in the Middle East today, probably the most destructive such reaction one can think of would be Israel starting a war with Iran.

But the prospective nuclear agreement that supposedly is the basis of the fears would make such an attack less, not more, likely, because the attack would be all the more blatantly a destructive and unnecessary action.

Expressions of fear and anxiety will continue, and so will the presumed need for the United States to respond to them, for two basic reasons. One is that ostensibly fearful states have every reason to milk those emotions for all the arms sales, security guarantees, economic aid, and superpower attention they can get. Why wouldn’t they, regardless of how sincere or insincere the emotions may be?

The other reason is that displeased allies constitute a convenient theme that domestic opponents can use to criticize foreign policy. Never mind that such criticism may be inconsistent, with some of the same folks wringing hands over professed nervousness among Gulf Arabs or Israel apparently not caring about what America’s major European allies, who actually have been party to the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear agreement, feel about it. (Some of the same people dismissed the views of Old Europe at the time the Iraq War was launched.)

Foreign nations often have genuine and well-founded fears, and it behooves us to try hard to understand those fears. Such understanding does not come easily to Americans, whose situation of power and geographic separation is quite different from the more vulnerable circumstances that most nations have faced. But understanding of this type is much different from catering to whatever anxieties someone claims to have, and makes a claim on the United States to relieve.

Sometimes the best U.S. response would be a diplomatic version of, “Tough. Not our problem.”

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

6 comments for “Entangled in Sunni-Shiite Wars

  1. May 8, 2015 at 16:31

    @ “Amid those fears being voiced in the Middle East today, probably the most destructive such reaction one can think of would be Israel starting a war with Iran.”

    Amp up those fears. Reportedly, Israeli defense minister Moshe Yaalon just threatened to nuke Iran. Google for “Israeli defense minister promises to kill more civilians and threatens to nuke Iran”.

  2. Anthony Shaker
    May 7, 2015 at 15:00

    Paul, thank you for this plea against further US involvement in Saudi attempts to ignite a regional sectarian war. What we are doing, with Syria at the center of this ongoing calamity, is destroying our own last roots of civilized existence. But please remember that this is not a religious conflict.

    Saudi Arabia is the only country, besides racist Israel, to use “religion” to get what it wants. But this reflects its present decadent state and imminent collapse as an artificial, British-installed regime. Anyway, it takes two to tango. Iran is absolutely not interested in using the “dirty bomb” of so-called Sunni-Shi’i sectarianism. Why should it? It has lots of “Sunni” friends. As a Middle East/Islam specialist, I can assure you that the “religious differences” we keep harping about, that are supposed to date from the 7th century are not “religious” or about beliefs at all, but relate to matters of jurisprudence.

    Until only recently, with the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Wahhabism, all Muslims shared in an unparelleled civilization, exploring the same areas of worldy, spiritual and human interest. Ahl al-Sunna and Ahl al-Shi’a are only the legal-practical crust of an unimaginably rich core civilization that stretched from the Iberian Peninsual to China and the Pacific islands. Cross-fertilization continued uninterruptedly until the rise and domination of the Western powers (i.e., UK, France and US), a short period of supremacy that has lasted roughly around 1.5 centuries, all told.

    Today, Muslim countries deal with each other on many levels, including cultural, economic and political exchanges, exactly as they have since the beginning. After all, they share more than 1,400 years of history as the civilization that laid the foundations of the modern world and everything we value about modernity, despite the present Western relapse into barbaric policies and sponsorship of barbarians as terrorist proxies.

    Name any science or basic product today and you will find the stamp of Islamic civilization, which incidentally was multi-confessional and formally recognized granted autonomy to the Eastern Christian Churches, Judaism, etc.). The list is very long: algebra, trigonometry, the field of algorithm (a deformation of the famous mathematicisn al-Khwarizmi) on which computer science is based, chemistry, medicine, astronomy, calculation of the earth’s curvature and distance to the sun, hydrolycs, architecture, systematic philosophy, innovative concepts of art, theology, paper (originally a Chinese invention but mass produced for publishing only in Islamicate civilization), body and tooth hygiene, soap, the tooth brush.

    So, please everyone, a little respect! Let us try to keep our hands off before the whole world turns into a living hell. Islam will not go away; only the cancerous, foreign-sponsored Wahhabi sect will. Let us concentrate on this one evil and keep a lucid mind.

  3. Consortiumnews.com
    May 7, 2015 at 11:32

    Posted for Peter Loeb:


    The machinations of the US Senate and comments of Iran’s Supreme Leader have just about closed the door to any “agreement” whatsoever. (See amendments on the floor of the US Senate, entirely predictable given Israel’s goal to defeat any so-called “agreement” and a knowledge of how the US Senate does and does not function.

    In the analysis above, it should be made perfectly clear that there is absolutely nothing wrong with Iran giving support to any other nation or group. The US gives support to its allies (such as Israel but there are others as well) on a vast scale in words as well as billions in weapons sales. The US never asks the UN for permission to support its allies in this way. Instead it operates outside the requirements of UN and international law. Or, more accurately, the US applies international law only insofar as it benefits US (and Israeli) goals. It opposes all international involvement with Israel as in the the decisions of the UN General Assembly on recommendations of the GA’s Disarmament Commission. These recommendations were overwhelmingly supported by other UN Members.(Occasionally the US and Israel could count on the support of Canada and Micronesia.)

    In defiance of the call by the UN Security Council to help Syria fight “foreigners” and “terrorists” (S Res/2139) 2014, point 14, passed UNANIMOUSLY by the Council, the US was “snookered’ (trapped) into doing just the opposite.

    There is no clear evidence at this time as to what Iran will do. It will meet with Moscow and Beijing in Terahn very soon. That meeting may or may not provide clues.

    Other contributions of Mr. Pillar’s article are more than welcome additions to our insight.

    —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  4. Stefan
    May 6, 2015 at 14:46

    Unlike USA though, parents and psychologists rarely set their children or patients up for some trap or false flag inorder to beat them to death and abuse them for decades.

  5. May 6, 2015 at 14:00

    Now they are reinforcing the lies, by stating historic ‘discoveries’ which not even the MSM can hide anymore. They are working hard to cement the lies.

    Every astute observer knows that ISIS, AL Qaeda et al were created by the Washington / CIA / NATO / state Department. Even Hillary admitted publicly that they created Al Qaeda.

    As the true news – that all the “terror organizations” are in fact funded and created by the US – is becoming increasingly afloat, those committed to American “Exceptionalism” write something that enforces the lie that the US is actually entangled in a sectarian war in the Middle East. That’s of course a load of BS – and Mr. Pillar knows it.

    ‘Once CIA always CIA’. This is what they commit themselves to, when they enter the organization. Once the Corps has wrenched the humanity out of a recruit’s soul they install a case-hardened, steel jacketed simulacrum, and affix a seal so that it can never be changed or replaced again. They do the same thing with the brain.

    I tend to agree with Peter Koenig to the letter here: http://www.veteransnewsnow.com/2015/05/05/517984chaos-not-victory-is-empires-name-of-the-game/


    • Stefab
      May 6, 2015 at 14:55

      I agree with you, under his breath, I believe Mr Pillar knows very well what is going on, and it has almost all to do with decades of US nefarious geopolitics in the region, especially after 1948/50s – specifically with nursing, feeding, arming and sewing the global network of “Al Qaeda” terror, to divide and conquer.

      It looks like Mr Pillar would like to create a narrative for us of the good USA is throwing her into a fight, not belonging to her, and unselfishly tries to separate two criminals from killing eachother. USA is depicted as being ready to sacrifice herself inorder to save the two rivals, and she does that in the name of righteousness.

      Total hogwash

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