With the possibility of redeploying United States troops in Iraq — this time to fight the Islamic State — it is time for a national discussion about policy, the failure of policy, and an emerging situation — a gathering storm — that could keep the Near East in flames for generations to come.
The surest sign of a failed policy is a situation where no good options remain. Such is the situation in what once was Iraq. A sure sign that a policy is in disarray is when a nation finds itself on both sides of a conflict, and when an enemy’s enemy is equally an enemy (and when applying this standard, keep in mind that the United States sided with Josef Stalin in WWII). Such is the situation we find ourselves in, with regard to Syria and the Islamic State. The surest sign that a long-term regional policy has been catastrophic is when current military actions are attempts to remedy circumstances and combat enemies that grew Hydra-like out of previous policies. Consider that the rise of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and now ISIS are all in part the results of failed U.S. and Western policies in the Near East, as is the descent of Iraq and Libya into failed and fractured states, the radicalization of Iran more than a generation ago, and now its rise as a regional (and soon-to-be nuclear) hegemon.
Sensitive observers of the international scene have noticed a drift over the past few decades toward what is increasingly beginning to look like a kind of open-ended cultural world war between the globalized West and the Islamic Crescent (in fact, the “postindustrial” West does not take kindly to any state or region that does not fall in line with the neoliberal program, as our actions against Hussein’s Iraq, Gaddafi’s Libya, Iran, and even Russia suggest).1 Some of this is the inevitable blowback to what traditional peoples of the Near East see as a quasi-imperialist policy of economic exploitation and the foisting of modernity onto them.
Conversely, much of the ongoing human migration from North Africa and the Near East to Europe is the result of the population bomb and the poverty that attends it, and in a more immediate sense, the result of wars, political instability, and brain drain, the effects of neoliberal economic and cultural imperialism under the banner of globalization. Recent estimates put the number of refugees world wide to be around 60 million — or about one fifth of the entire population of the United States.2 The current refuge crisis in the Mediterranean finds its proximate cause in the chaos that followed in the wake of the “humanitarian intervention” of the NATO air campaign championed by then Special Assistant to the President, Samantha Power. Such "humanitarianism" is reminiscent of the bumper sticker asking "Who would Jesus bomb?"
But the escalating “West versus Islam” conflict is arguably not even the most significant consequence of the general post-World War II policy failure in the region; this distinction may belong to the emerging Pan-Islamic civil war of the Sunni against the Shiite. To be fair, this divide is a long standing feature of the Near East and not the result of any Western policy, but the ill-conceived — arguably insane — whipping up of such latent passions between them in recent years largely is. Let us not forget that the much vaunted Surge of 2007 in Iraq was a policy calculated to exploit this rift by pragmatically playing off enemy against enemy (in fact it disenfranchised many former Baathists, who now comprise a significant portion of ISIS). Increasingly we are reaping the fruit of that short-sighted strategy.
The corporate media will occasionally reference the Sunni-Shiite split as a bare fact of cultural and geopolitical life in the Near East. But the focus of coverage in recent months has tended to be nervous and foreboding appraisals of whether or not ISIS is winning in Iraq, if the Islamic State poses a threat to Americans in “the homeland,” and the occasional story about how another American or European — a “lone wolf” — has attempted to join the ranks of Islamic State fighters, and was subsequently killed in combat or has attacked other Westerners. In fact the Shiite-Sunni Split is more than a religious backdrop, historical flavor, or complicating factor. It is the real story — a fault line that now threatens a multi-generational and multi-regional conflict that will continue to destabilize the Near East and beyond for the indefinite future. It will also be a continuing threat to the security of the United States and Europe, another tributary of the “new normal.”
The immediate consequences of the Sunni-Shiite conflict are ironies, confusion, and contradictions that include our siding with brutal Iraqi Shiite militias (and even Iranian forces), while opposing the pro-Shiite Assad Regime. Similarly, in September 2014, Congress took the issue of war against Syria seriously enough to put it to a vote, and President Obama has announced that 450 U.S. troops will soon be on the ground to train Iraqi forces to fight Syria’s enemy, ISIS.
Perhaps the most unsettling revelation brought about by the rise of ISIS is the continuing fickleness of American foreign policy and the people who make it. Two years ago a majority of Americans polled were against putting ground troops back into Iraq. But after the horrific images of journalists and others being beheaded by masked ISIS terrorists, a majority of American public opinion pivoted 180 degrees on this question and along with it, the regional policy of the most powerful nation on earth.
The fact that Shiites and Sunnis are willing to blow up each other’s places of worship and kill civilians indiscriminately not only underscores the depth and breadth of this division, but also gives us pause as outsiders, occupiers, and “infidels” to realistically size up the prospects of our success in the region. If the odds of converting a Sunni to a Shiite perspective or vise-versa are one-in-a-thousand, then what are the odds of converting either of them to the perspective of an outsider? Certainly they will not forget our attempts to do so; whatever we may say about the Near East, it is a region with a long cultural memory and an appreciation for history. Some who live there are still angry about the Crusades.
In a broader sense, the implications of this conflict are ominous. Even as hints emerge that the United States is willing to deal with Iran in a more mature and evenhanded way — the nuclear deal, for example — some of our Sunni allies are getting nervous (as indicated by the snubbing of President Obama by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz during his visit to the U.S. in May). Even with the nuclear agreement in place, Iran will probably have a nuclear bomb one day, and while it makes sense to ease relations with them on one level, such newfound closeness to the world’s dominant Shiite nation, regional hegemon, and possible nuclear power would not only alienate our Sunni allies, but also possibly set off a regional nuclear arms race. Although some pundits have expressed doubt over the possibility of a Sunni atomic bomb in the near future, it would seem that wagering against nuclear proliferation among nations with disposable wealth and a religious desire to acquire such weapons is a sucker’s bet.3
What would a pan-Islamic civil war look like? Every regional and historical situation is unique of course, but the closest precedent for the situation unfolding in the Near East might be the conflicts in the Balkans from the 1870s through the 1990s: people with historical grievances and seething hatreds that were being manipulated and exacerbated by competing world powers. The results for this precedent were disastrous and fed into trends that led to the World Wars and beyond, and were some of the most vicious ethnic wars in history. As with the Balkans, a Sunni-Shiite war in the heart of the Near East could easily spread via the remote and regional meddling of the United States, Russia, Iran, and Israel.
Civil wars, by their very nature, are often the most brutal kinds of peoples’ wars. We think of them as pertaining to domestic affairs, but they can also be between diverse sets of peoples within a single border (as with the Balkans Wars). They can occur between sects or divisions within a single political institution or belief system and may sweep an entire region, as was the case with the Thirty Years War between Catholic and Protestant powers and is now the case concerning the Sunni and Shiite. However, while the seemingly dominant paradigm of inter-sect conflict may apply to the case of the Sunni-Shiite split, ethnic tension dominates the clash between the Arabs and the Kurds. Thus it is difficult to say what course a Pan-Islamic civil war would take or what its nature would be — the chief characteristic of war beyond its brutality is its unpredictability. In terms of duration and zeal, it could easily become a latter-day Thirty Years War.
Largely unspoken in the American press is the fact that "our policies in Iraq and Afghanistan have destabilized an already combustible region and have done us great harm both internationally and domestically – trillions of dollars that could have been better spent or at least saved have been wasted. The continued arrogance and self-congratulatory attitude of those responsible for such thoroughly harmful policies is and should be infuriating to more people. I cannot help but wonder if such continued misjudgment isn’t evidence underlying irrationality: ‘He whom the gods wish to destroy they first render insane.’"4
It would seem that the insanity reference in this quote is neither incidental nor a hyperbole. With the dangerous escalation of tensions between Ukraine and Russia, including the positioning of U.S. heavy weapons in Eastern Europe, the ongoing “West versus Islam” conflict, and now the inflaming of the Sunni-Shiite divide, the only question is: which of these preventable situations will blow up first? All of these circumstances would seem to mark a failure of neo-liberal policy via neoconservative means.
Informal references to history’s great conflicts are often reductions to the haunting generalities of pronouns. To a generation, the First World War was simply the “Great War.” Likewise, people who lived through the American Civil War and World War II came to refer to these conflicts as simply, “The War”. To Archie Bunker, the Second World War was “The Big One”. It is difficult to know what future generations will call the emerging Pan-Islamic conflict, but as of now, it looks like it might be the Next Big One.
- China is an obvious partial exception to this rule, and our economic codependence with them limits how we can respond to their defiance. Consequently, President Obama’s stated foreign policy “pivot” to the Pacific and Far East has, to date, been little more than bluster.
- See Somini Sengupta, “60 Million People Fleeing Chaotic Lands, U.N. Says,” The New York Times, June 18, 2015.
- Fareed Zakaria, “Saudi Arabia’s Bluff” The Washington Post, June 14, 2015, A23.
- David Isenbergh