After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the United States came increasingly aligned with the Sunni Arab states. A few years previous, Egypt had switched its alliances from the Soviet bloc to the United States. Baathist Iraq and Syria remained in the Soviet bloc until the latter’s collapse.
But the invasion of Iraq—something I must continue to harp on as the strategic blunder of the century, and it was only made in 2003—redrew the map, by, among other things, turning Iraq into a Shi’a governed state (Iraq is majority Shi’a).
Oil politics required that we maintain decent relations with the Sunni Gulf states (many of which have substantial Shi’a populations, including Saudi Arabia in the part of it that has the oil) once Iran became anathema. When the Saudi government was threatened and the Kuwaiti government was ousted by Saddam, we ran to their defense. This was smart from an oil point of view.
But so much of that money goes to fund the very branch of Islam that attacked us on 9/11 and is in the process of creating a refugee crisis that is destabilizing Europe: salafism. Wherever you turn where there are Muslims, there are Saudi-funded salafi centers. Even in places like Ashland, Oregon.
Our stalwart ally in the region, Israel, now seems to feel more threatened by the radical Iranian regime than by the sunni regimes. This is fair enough since it’s Iran that funds Hezbollah to their north and Hamas in Gaza. But the salafi supremacists have no love for Israel. If they are allowed to succeed in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and now even Afghanistan, it will not improve Israel’s security.
This is not to suggest that we change alignment to the Shi’a. It is to suggest that we keep our distance from both and allow this centuries’ old conflict play out on its own without our being in the middle. This has the added advantage of ceasing to act like a desperate suitor with respect to the Sunni Arabs and let them try to increase their bidding for a change, something Dennis Ross astutely argues that we have done too much of in his recent work Doomed to Succeed. (In his work he argues that distancing ourselves from Israel has never impressed the Arab regimes.)
Just look at the two sides at war in Yemen at the moment. The Houthis, who are presented in our media as the bad guys, are Yazidi Shi’a—different than the Twelver Shi’a of Iraq and Iran, but nevertheless allied with Iraq. They have been in conflict with the Sunnis to their south for centuries. Their allies include Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Hizbollah. Yuck. But look at the other side! Saudi Arabia. ISIS. Al Qaeda. They are fighting each other! Great, let them. Can we arm both sides?
We did this in the Iran-Iraq war (with no follow-up in our relationship with Iran thanks to the scandal it generated), and the British did this successfully during the pax britannia between Napoleon and World War I.
Hezbollah is fighting ISIS in Syria, too. We don’t need to hope for one side winning or the other. We don’t need to decide either are our friend. Just let them beat the shit out of each other for now.
If this works, if we can finally warm up just a little with Iran, and play them off the Sunni Arabs a little bit, it might even improve Israel’s lot by giving us more leverage, should we choose to use it to boost Israel.
The money for ISIS is coming from somewhere. It’s likely Saudi Arabia. Someone is paying Afghani fighters $700 per month (!) according to Frontline to switch from the Taliban to ISIS. Where is this money coming from? Our great ally, Saudi Arabia.
It’s time to be a little more coy in the Middle East.
What about the idea we should back up our allies? A lot of the thinkers on this issue note that we don’t give the impression of being in it for the long haul. This is true, but I’m not entirely sure why it should be different. As a democracy, we are constitutionally required to be able to change course from time to time. If “moderate muslims” need a 50-year commitment from the US, then I don’t think they’re serious about improving their lot. Plus, our perfidy is overstated. We have stood by many of our allies for a very, very long time, even in the Middle East, such as Israel when both our values and our interests align.
The Hawkish Neo-Con Gates Institute seems to have something similar to say, but in the context of a few years ago. This didn’t stop them from hating the JCPOA.
In the New York Times, something from 2007 from Noah Feldman of the CFR, who, I must say fatuously states that Shi’a and Sunni have mostly lived side-by-side peacefully.
Here’s a Cato Institute guy arguing, I think, mostly to not be seen as taking sides.
Note: reading through a lot of articles on this topic, you see a lot of people trying to sound like hard-headed realists who can’t seem to get over their butthurt at Iran.
A 2014 New York Times article, sorta of the “man bites dog” variety about how Iran and US have shared interests in the Middle East. Think of the scene where the Israeli and the Arab smile and shake hands to unite against the alien/zombie apocalypse.
A long rambling blog with some mention of the situation in Yemen at HuffPo.
Of course, here’s something from a Hoover Institute guy playing the “Obama is naive” tune in the WSJ, warning against a Shi’a alliance. A lot of binary thinking on this issue.
Here’s a headline in something called The Fiscal Times saying we can’t support both, but nothing in the article really says why or follows up on that headline.
Andrew Sullivan, someone I seem to think like to just argue with people he doesn’t like instead of sticking to his guns, says no point in picking a side.