Mideast tensions are straining U.S.-Saudi ‘special  relationship’

To say that no one is very happy about American involvement in the sectarian political cauldron of the Middle East is to exaggerate very little. The public wants the United States to extricate itself from the Sunni vs. Shiite wars that plague the region and reliable allies are not plentiful as long-term alliances shift with the escalating chaos.

Take for instance America’s decades-old “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia. The alliance was first sealed when President Roosevelt met the first Saudi king, Abdul Aziz, in 1945 aboard the cruiser USS Quincy in the Suez Canal. They cut a simple deal: America would bring the Saudis under its security umbrella and the Saudis would supply oil.

For decades, the Saudi-American relationship largely worked well for both parties. After all, the Saudis were the world’s largest oil producer and sat on better than one-fifth of the world’s proven oil reserves, giving it great influence over global oil prices.

The U.S.-Saudi alliance may be an old one, but since the Arab Spring in 2011, the relationship has deteriorated. The latest fissure was sparked by the Saudi’s recent execution of a prominent Shiite Muslim cleric, which prompted condemnation throughout the Middle East.

There are several reasons why the Saudis are upset with America. They bitterly opposed Washington’s support of pro-democracy protestors in Egypt during the Arab Spring and urged President Obama to use force to preserve President Hosni Mubrarak’s dictatorship. America’s accommodation with the Muslim Brotherhood during their brief reign in Egypt further angered the Saudi monarchy.

Then Washington was critical of the military coup responsible for displacing Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood President Muhammad Morsi, while Saudi Arabia pledged billions to the new Egyptian government. After this experience, the Saudis became paranoid that America would sell them up the river as they had Mubrarak.

As the Syrian civil war worsened in 2013, President Obama backed off his threat of military force against President Bashar al-Assad, who allegedly used chemical weapons against his own people while concurrently announcing a rhetorical pivot to Asia. The Saudis and other longtime American allies felt abandoned.

Since the overthrow of the Shah during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Saudi Arabia and Iran have what could mildly be described as a tense relationship. While the two Islamic countries are separated by only a few miles of Persian Gulf, the religious and political gap is much wider. Underlying Saudi concerns is the schism between Sunnis and Shias, who have been at each other’s throats for more than a millennium. Iran is mostly Shia Muslim and, like most of the countries in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is majority Sunni.

The two are currently engaged in proxy wars in Yemen and Syria that exemplify the Sunni/Shia divide. The Saudis were horrified when the U.S. recently entered into a nuclear deal with Iran. They consider the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran intolerable.

Finally, the United States’ continuing support for beleaguered Israel remains a point of contention. Joint opposition to the emergence of ISIS is the only recent development that reinforces the mutual interests of Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Despite the growing list of grievances, the two countries need each other. The U.S. retains a strong military presence in the Persian Gulf and cannot soon be replaced as the ultimate guarantor of Saudi security. In the midst of regional turmoil and with the ever-present threat of jihadist terrorism, the U.S. still relies heavily on the Saudis to help police the neighborhood.

Still further, the Saudis are a major buyer of U.S. weapons, having spent more than $46 billion on American arms since President Obama took office. The kingdom is also the largest producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries that controls about 40 percent of the world’s oil.

Since sectarian wars in the Middle East are likely to get worse before they get better, the relationship calls to mind the old English proverb: “With friends like this who needs enemies?”

originally published: January 23, 2016

Middle East violence is a reminder of the Thirty Years War

Mark Twain’s reputed quip that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme” reminds us that historical analogies can sometimes provide a useful perspective on current events and even inform the future. The sectarian violence and bloodletting raging all over the Middle East have given rise to several historical comparisons, not least the hellish Thirty Years’ War that ravaged Europe in the first half of the 17th century.

With apologies to Dickens, it was the worst of times in Europe. This conflict among the Catholics, Calvinists, Lutherans, and Huguenots, involving multiple great powers, became a bloody, protracted struggle over the continent’s political and religious order.

Across the modern Middle East, Western foreign policy blunders have largely, though not entirely, contributed to a growing sense of instability. Many argue that the turmoil currently engulfing the region was born out of the catastrophic American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its failure to reconstitute an Iraqi state.6

The turmoil is fueled by the hatred between the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam that has existed for centuries. Toppling Saddam Hussein unleashed the Shia in Iraq and strengthened Iran’s bid to be the region’s most important actor.

Just as with the Thirty Years’ War, the religious conflict is overlaid by a great rivalry between Iran, leading a Shiite coalition, and Saudi Arabia, which is Sunni central. Add to that the presence of the United States and Russia, which are fighting proxy wars in the region, and you have a precarious and highly flammable mix.

In 16th and 17th century Europe, the Protestant Reformation opened a Pandora’s Box of international and civil conflict culminating in the Thirty Years’ War, the greatest of the so-called wars of religion. Although the struggles that led to it erupted many years earlier, the war is conventionally held to start in 1618. It lasted through 1648, a seemingly endless and devastating conflict in which millions of

Europeans were killed, a scale unimaginable during the medieval era. It is estimated that more than 25 to 40 percent of the German population perished during the war.

The roots of both the Middle Eastern and European conflicts stretched back centuries and centered on unresolved questions of religious freedom and power politics. Not unlike the geopolitical and religious contest of will between Sunni and Shia, the Thirty Years’ war began as a conflict between Protestant nobles in Germany fighting to preserve their autonomy and faith against the Catholic Hapsburg Dynasty (the Holy Roman Empire).

On the political side, the Hapsburg Dynasty wanted to preserve its European hegemony. This triggered a conflict among a conga line of great powers such as France, Denmark and Sweden that was not unlike the modern power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The Thirty Years’ War ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, referred to by contemporaries as the Peace of Exhaustion. It established a new political order that irrevocably changed the map of Europe. The Netherlands gained independence from Spain, Sweden gained control of the Baltic, the German Protestant nobles were able to determine the religion of their lands, France was acknowledged as the preeminent Western power ,  the Holy Roman Empire continued as an empty shell until it was dissolved 150  years later and the principle of state sovereignty emerged, creating the basis for the modern system of nation states.                  ·                                              ·

In the long run, mitigating the Middle East’s sectarian and geopolitical conflicts may partially center on implementing the Westphalian nation state concept. Some semblance of stability in the Middle East may be restored with the reestablishment of a state-based order. For starters, that may mean a three-state arrangement, redrawing the existing national boundaries to accommodate separate states for the Sunnis, the Shias, and Kurds.

But history teaches us that the West must best be prepared to wait a very long time for the latest conflict in the Middle East to subside and for anything that approaches a solution to take hold.

originally published: January 19, 2016

Political rhetoric and the jihadists

Every terrorist attack on a Western target presents the self-styled saints in Washington and other western capitals with an opportunity to engage in perfectly staged grandiose rhetoric. Employing borrowed words, identical sound bites, and first-cousin cliches designed to curate their images, conceal their ignorance and ignore realities on the ground, world leaders’ pontificate about destroying ISIS.

But there is precious little explanation of what defeating ISIS really means or how it will be accomplished.

Our leaders’ mandarin rhetoric is reminiscent of Queen Gertrude’s admonition to Polonius in Hamlet: “More matter with less art.” In contemporary parlance, this is translated as more substance with less style. More content without the rhetorical ornamentation and digressions. The political classes in God’s menagerie talk until their mouths bleed and reassure the public that they will defeat the terrorists without a hitch like an Ocean’s Eleven heist.

Best to recall the truth of George Orwell’s comment that “…if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought” blurring the boundaries between the fake and the real. It is a reminder that the moment to be wariest of political rhetoric is precisely when elite opinion is lined up on one side of the boat.

Those politicians talk about destroying ISIS, but what about other radical Islamic terrorist groups such as al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, Jabhat al-Nustra, and Boko Haram, that have proliferated all over the globe partially facilitated by the information revolution?

Does victory over ISIS mean taking the fight to their doorstep in Iraq and Syria? If it means beating them militarily, that is a silly question. If the American public has the stomach to support boots on the ground with the collateral damage to civilians, the world’s mightiest military could go through ISIS in Syria and Iraq to take a phrase from General Patton, “like excrement through a goose.” But the American people will not touch this approach with a barge pole.

The U.S. military did not start bombing ISIS’ oil infrastructure and their fleet of tanker trucks because the Obama administration was worried about civilian casualties and environmental damage. You have to wonder whether the allies would have won World War II if they had to submit their bombing targets to the White House for approval.

Is defeating ISIS militarily, stopping its propaganda machine, blocking its revenue sources sufficient to eliminate radical Islamic terrorism? ISIS and other jihadists ‘ initial goal is to create a caliphate in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen, Libya and the Palestinian territories. After that, they want to recreate the caliphate of old and then spread Islam over the entire planet. A global caliphate achieved through a global war. Other than that, they have modest ambitions.

Does it mean making their ideas go away? Does a grand strategy have to deal with the challenge of overthrowing a religion, a belief system? Even if we defeat the extremist militarily, we are still going to be dealing with the sons and daughters of jihadists 20 years from now. The fight against terrorism could become like the endless war on crime, or poverty or cancer.

To reduce and manage the terrorist threat, mainstream Muslims themselves must come out forcefully against the jihadis who are trying to hijack their religion. Political rhetoric comes with the speed of light, while developing and executing a successful strategy to deal with the scourge of radical Islamic terrorism comes with that of sound.

originally published: January 2, 2016