by Curtis Jones
America’s vital interests in the Middle East—notably oil, comity, and peace—are at risk.
Oil is over $60 a barrel.
Anti-Americanism is at an all-time high. Over there, our primary adversary is threatening to break into our elite nuclear club. Over here, we are bracing for the next Islamist attack.
Since World War II, the region has undergone eleven insurrections, three civil wars, seven inter-state wars, six invasions, and one preemptive air strike. The glamorized Oslo Agreement has been exposed as a fraud. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has entered its seventh decade. In Iraq, the asymmetric war between Americans and Iraqis, and the underground conflict between Sunni and Shiite death squads, may degenerate into civil war.
As a card-carrying dove, I have to place a major share of the blame on the hawks: the Republican triumphalists. Led by Vice President Cheney and Secretary Rumsfeld who saw Iraq as the ideal base for including the Middle East in the campaign for world domination laid out in the “National Security Strategy” of 2002, and the bipartisan millennialists. Led by President Bush, Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz, Senators Clinton and Lieberman, and others who saw Saddam as the proximate obstacle to fulfillment of Israel’s apocalyptic destiny.
Oil? By my reading, oil has been overplayed as an American motive—by Arabs, even by Kevin Phillips. Oil doesn’t explain our base complex in central Asia, or our diarchy with Israel or “The National Security Strategy of the United States.” If oil is Washington’s goal, it was a pretty bad business plan to spend 500 billion dollars on invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Dominating the world for the sake of oil would be overkill.
Three years of rising resistance to the American occupation of Iraq shattered the hawks’ mythology and empowered a third camp, the pragmatists. Led by Messrs. Card and Rove, who don’t seem much to care what happens in Iraq as long as American troop deployments can be drawn down fast enough to insure a Republican win in this fall’s elections.
The primary miscalculations in Iraq were complacency and ignorance: complacency about the reception given American intervention and ignorance of the disruptive force of communalism. In a region where central government has always been ineffective, partisan, and brutal, people look for protection to tribe, sect or language group. The Islamic conquest in the seventh century has been described as one giant tribal raid. Tribalism still sways the region, but it is trumped by sectarianism. In reading the politics of the nineteen states in the contemporary Middle East, we have to start with their sectarian makeup: nine (plus Palestine) have Sunni Muslim majorities; five—Shia Muslim majorities; three—Christian; one—’Ibadi Muslim; and one—Jewish.
Five Middle East states have been ruled by members of a minority sect. In Iraq, the Bush administration claims to have ousted despotism to make room for democracy. In reality, the only accomplishment was to create a political black hole. We learned lately that Iraq’s defense against American invasion was compromised by Saddam’s fear of another Shiite uprising. Saddam’s minority Sunni power structure was brushed away, but the Shiite clerics, who can bring a million demonstrators into the street, have no experience in government, let alone in democracy. Iraq’s so-called “democratic elections” were more accurately described by Juan Cole as ethnic censuses. When Secretary Rice blames sectarian tensions on outside instigators, she misreads the situation in Iraq.
Language is the greatest divider of all. Iraq has three: Arabic (Semitic), Kurdish (Indo-European), and Turkmen (Altaic). In trying to take over in Baghdad, the Shiite Arab leadership has to contend with the Turkmens’ link with Turkey and the Kurds’ link with Israel. From the Arab point of view, the Kurds have never been good citizens of Iraq. They fought on the Ottoman side in World War I, the Iranian side in the 1980’s, and the Israeli-American side in the Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003.
An unexpected consequence of the two Gulf Wars was the emergence of a de facto Kurdish state in northern Iraq. The Kurdish-Shiite alliance of convenience may break down over the issue of Kurdish autonomy. Kurdish secession from Iraq is presently inhibited by the threat of invasion from Turkey, whose military is paranoid about Kurdish nationalism. Iraqi Kurds were infuriated by the recent visit to Turkey of Iraq’s Shiite prime minister. Kurdish secession is also inhibited by indigence. Their claim to Kirkuk (“the Kurdish Jerusalem”) is largely motivated by its central location in Iraq’s northern oil fields.
Job One for American Ambassador Khalilzad is to herd four fragmented communities into an operative government. A close vote has elected Prime Minister Ibrahim al Ja’fari, who is backed by Muqtada Sadr, whose political standing skyrocketed when his militia engaged the American forces in 2004. As The Nationput it, the invasion of Iraq was the original sin. It made the Americans responsible for everything that has gone wrong on their watch—the sorry state of the infrastructure, the bloody breakdown of security, and the destruction of the Golden Dome. Washington has spent billions on the construction of huge military complexes in Iraq. After all the failures of American planning, we still hear of an intention to retain four permanent bases—four Middle Eastern Guantanamos. In an independent Iraq, I suspect an American military base would have the life expectancy of a snowman in July.
We’ll be fortunate if we can leave Iraq with an operative government. The effort to build one out of chaos, as the University of North Carolina’s Charles Kurzman has noted, is being sabotaged by the resistance. It is also being jeopardized by disputes between the advocates of centralized government (Sadr and participating Sunnis) and those of federation (mainstream Shia and the Kurds). If the various rival militias start staking out territory, that will be the indicator that unrest has degenerated into civil war, a contingency American troops could not handle. Washington would do well to get the troops out of Iraq this year.
In Iraq, American imperialism has been transparent. In Palestine, it is indirect—Pavlovian support for Israeli strategy, whatever that happens to be. There we have another impasse between linguistic communities Hebrew and Arabic, two Semitic cousins. Israel and Washington have been paying lip service to a two-state solution, but the “Road Map” leads to a dead end. Palestine is a geopolitical entity. As long as Israel is committed to being a Jewish island in a Muslim sea, admission of any rival sovereignty west of the Jordan River would be a political anomaly and a strategic blunder. The Zionists appreciate the strategic aspect. What they tragically miss is the immutability of geopolitical law, which invalidates their long-term strategy of hanging tough until the Arabs give in. Israel plans to maintain hegemony over all of Palestine, while fencing off holding pens in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank for the awkward residue of four million stateless Palestinians. The Separation Barrier serves Israel’s resistance to any suggestion of a unitary Arab-Jewish state, and it is a unilateral substitute for the defunct Oslo Accord. Hanging tough, however, is a prescription for permanent violence.
By betting against Oslo and the Palestinian Vichy it produced, Hamas achieved its surprise victory over Fatah. That victory has spotlighted the hypocrisy in America’s Middle East policy—its fair-weather support for democracy, its dismissal of its ultimate responsibility for the Palestinians’ plight, and its current attempt to starve out Hamas for practicing terrorism. Hamas’ tactics are indeed illegal, but so were the pre-independence tactics of the Zionists, Israel’s operations in the territories, and many American actions, including supplying Saddam the names of Iraqi Communists for elimination, selling Iraq chemicals for use against Iran, bombing a Hizballah conclave in Beirut, attacking hostile chiefs of state, kidnapping random suspects for “extraordinary rendition,” and invading Iraq in violation of the UN Charter. The charge of terrorism is insufficient justification for ostracism—least of all when we practice it ourselves.
Since 9/11, Israel has tried to jump on America’s anti-terrorist bandwagon, thereby blurring the distinctions among Islamist strategies. The Palestinian Islamists (Hamas and Islamic Jihad) are operating against Israel, not the United States. The issue is land.
Al Qa’idah’s primary enemy is the United States. The issue is Middle East hegemony. Al Qa’idah is one aspect of the long Middle Eastern battle for liberation from Western imperialism. It is a battle the West in my view will ultimately lose. Israel is prepared to live in a constant state of war; the United States is not and should not.
Over the past sixty years, the policies of the United States and Israel have increasingly interlocked. The claim of identity of interest is a fallacy. Because the United States is a democracy and Israel a communalist state, their policies are bound to clash. Policy centered on the interests of Israel damages the interests of the United States. There are two theoretical options to correct the situation. Disengagement from Israel would be politically infeasible. The only alternative is long-term support for Israeli supporters of democratization. One problem is that American Zionists tend to be more inflexible than the Israelis themselves.
The major champions of Middle Eastern liberation are the secularist Arab Nationalists—now in eclipse—and the Islamists—now ascendant. The Islamists are divided between Sunnis (Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al Qa’idah) and Shiites (the Lebanese Hizballah and the theocracy in Iran). Iran’s campaign to unite Shiites and Sunnis in a Pan-Islamic front has been frustrated by their ancient enmity. For Sunnis at the fanatical end of the spectrum, Shiites are not even Muslims.
In 1978, President Carter went to Tehran and hailed Iran as a bastion of stability. One year later the Shah was expelled, Supreme Leader Khomeini denounced Israel; Iran became our enemy. In 2006, crisis threatens over the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. Under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968, for security reasons the five nuclear powers tried to organize themselves into an exclusive club that no other state could join. This effort to perpetuate a double standard and freeze technological advance was a failure. Israel got help from France and the United States. India seems to have gone nuclear on its own. Pakistan got help from Western Europe. North Korea got help from Pakistan. Iran has gotten help from Russia and possibly Pakistan.
When the United States invaded Iraq, which did not have nuclear weapons, while keeping its distance from North Korea, which did, it probably reinforced Iran’s resolve to go nuclear. Secretary Rice warns that Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons would magnify the Iranian danger. I question that contention. The rulers of Iran are not suicidal. Unstable Pakistan looks like a more serious threat. In any case, America and Israel are muttering about preemption, and The Washington Post reports the CIA has asked for logistic support from Turkey, which has a common frontier with Iran.
Preemption against Iran would really be asking for it. Iran’s nuclear installations are well fortified and widely dispersed. It has the capability to make things worse in Iraq and to obstruct the Strait of Hormuz, which handles twenty percent of the world’s oil production. Coming on the heels of the disastrous invasion of Iraq, a U. S. attack on Iran or an attack by Israel, or both, would reinforce the global image of the United States as a rogue superpower.
Washington has simultaneously challenged Iran and done it a big favor by ousting Saddam. By elevating the Iraqi Kurds, Washington has antagonized our Turkish allies. By elevating the Iraqi Shia, it upset the Sunni majority in the Arab world. There must be a better way to guard American interests.
Curt Jones, a member of this journal’s Board of Directors, has contributed frequent commentaries to American Diplomacy. He retired from the Foreign Service in 1975 after more than thirty years of service, including assignments to seven posts abroad.