The Obama administration's entangling alliances in the Middle East

by Drew Christiansen

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As he stepped down as president, George Washington warned the republic against entangling alliances with foreign states. The Farewell Address warned against both long-term hostilities and extended friendly relationships. On both counts, he showed foresight.

After 15 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq and 54 years of hostility with Cuba, the United States seems to be learning the former lesson. But in the rush to mollify critics of the Iran nuclear deal, the Obama administration seems to have ignored Washington's caution about the dangers of friendly alliances. It has rushed to pledge to increase military aid to Arab allies and escalate resistance to non-nuclear Iranian activities across the region.

With the Iranian nuclear disarmament agreement behind him, Obama now faces his most serious foreign policy challenge: the Islamic State group. The U.S. bombing strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has had limited effectiveness, and the U.S.-Sunni alliance has failed to produce progress on the ground.

Turkey has only reluctantly entered the fray, and the serious ground troops belong to the Kurdish Peshmerga and, ironically for the United States, the Iranian-backed and often Iranian-led Shiite militia.

Before it can achieve long-term success against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's caliphate, the Obama administration has to take a hard look at the tangle of problems that is today's Middle East. Allowing itself to be drawn into the struggle for religious and regional dominance between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran is not calculated to promote peace in the Middle East.

Until now, the memory of the 1979 U.S. embassy takeover in Tehran and the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut have blinded American decision-makers to the very serious faults of the Saudis. They need to look at the Iranians more objectively and give the Saudis much greater scrutiny.

For as Thomas L. Friedman wrote last week in his New York Times column, "The Saudi leadership's ruling bargain is toxic ... The al-Saud tribe gets to rule and in return the Saudi Wahhabi religious establishment gets billions of dollars to transform the face of Sunni Islam from an open and modernizing faith to a puritanical, anti-woman, anti-Shiite, anti-pluralistic one. The Saudis have lost control of this puritanical-Salafist transformation of Islam, and it has mutated into the ideology that inspired the 9/11 hijackers ... and the Islamic State."

The Saudis already possess significant firepower. In Yemen, however, their superior arsenals have proved ineffective in subduing the Houthi rebels, and their excessive bombardment of civilians has been immoral. These should be reason enough to reconsider offering them further support for a widened conflict.

Iranian actions, like the country's modest support for the Houthis, grow out of the centuries-old Shiite-Sunni divide and Saudi initiatives to dominate the Muslim world. Here are a few examples.

Persecution of Shiites

Shiites are persecuted and Shiite mosques are attacked all over the Muslim world by Sunni extremists educated and funded out of the Arabian Peninsula. Pakistan has been a particularly egregious field for such sectarian persecution.

Subjugation of Bahrain's majority Shiites

The rights-denying Sunni monarchy in Bahrain has been supported by the House of Saud not just because they are adherents of the same Islamic sect, but because Saudis regard Bahrain's Shiite majority as heretics meriting subjugation.

Missionary war against the Houthi

The Houthi rebellion in Yemen is partly motivated by opposition to missionary efforts by their Saudi neighbors to impose their Wahhabi version of Islam on them and Yemen's northern tribes.

The Houthis belong to the small Zaidi sect. It is has some common roots with Shiism, but differs with it on several issues of doctrine, and its recent devotions owe something to revivalists from the mystical Sufi sect. To the Saudis, however, all that makes the Houthis kafirs, infidels to be punished.

Much more is involved in Yemen, therefore, than territorial meddling by Iran. Zaidi religious freedom is under threat. By siding with the Saudis in Yemen and elsewhere, the United States is taking sides in a regional religious war where the stakes concern what one should believe and how one should practice Islam.

The Obama administration won't even raise its voice to defend Middle Eastern Christians, how can it double down on one side of an intra-Muslim conflict?

The Iraqi quagmire

In Iraq, there is ample fault to be found on both sides. For generations, Sunnis ruled that country and discriminated against the majority Shiite population. Now, through two successive U.S.-supported, Shiite-dominated governments, Sunnis have been the victims. Many have come to regard the Islamic State as a tolerable alternative to further Shiite dominance.

Weighing down the Iraqi see-saw by giving support to Saudi Arabia and its Sunni co-religionists is no solution. It will bring neither justice nor stability. In the absence of a new grand compact for the region, the better course of action is: "Do no harm."

The Syrian quandary

Under secular Baathist rule of the Assads, Syrian Sunnis bristled at their exclusion from ruling circles by the minority Alawite sect and their Shiite allies, but religious minorities, including various Christian churches, were protected.

When the Islamic State is defeated and the Assad regime has collapsed, Syria will be a shattered state. If the Saudis and their Sunni allies are allowed to prevail there, they will offer neither hospitality nor freedom to religious and ethnic minorities, as the Assads, father and son, did even with all their sins. The proper option is to deny the Saudis and their Arab allies further arms, just as we deny them to the new government in Nigeria because of its poor human-rights record.

Peace in the Middle East will be a long time coming. What should the United States do?

First, we should abide by the maxim "Do no harm" and keep from making things worse. Since the international community has failed to prevent war on innocents or punish the offenders, following our obligations under the Responsibility to Protect, we should at a minimum work with others to fully fund support for the region's refugees.

Second, we should value President Obama's strategic patience and play the long game. Building on the nuclear agreement with Iran, we should now support efforts to establish a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone for the Middle East, a project the administration turned its back on this spring after supporting it for the last five years.

Third, policymakers should begin to explore the requisites for a regional compact that will acknowledge the just claims of the major parties and defend the rights of religious and ethnic minorities. Perhaps the Norwegians or Swiss, who have sponsored Sunni-Shiite dialogues, can show us the way.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics at Georgetown University.]

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