Have now plowed through the two latest pieces that are supposed to bring one up-to-speed on our problems in the Middle East: (i) The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright, and (ii) “What ISIS Really Wants,” by Graeme Wood in the March 2015 issue of The Atlantic. The former, hawked by talk show host Hugh Hewitt as a conservative must-read, is a clumsily-written history of everything (mainly, U.S. mistakes) that led to the 9/11 attacks. The latter, promoted by a lot of conservatives who indicate surprise over having found something readable in The Atlantic, is, alas, a bit of a Trojan horse, an engrossing, well-written presentation of what is emerging as President Obama’s Middle-Eastern strategy – the kind of statement that the President probably wishes could have been more-effectively summarized by the two earnest spokeswomen who recently botched an attempt to explain the President’s ISIS/ISIL strategy.
The Wright book, which is primarily a history of the development of 20th century terrorism in the Middle East, provides significant insight into the mentality and personalities of the terrorists, especially the often-feckless bin Laden. No surprise that the Al-Qaeda leaders and followers are not normal people, but the abnormalities are surprising. Also surprising is the detail on how 9/11 was eminently preventable, had it not been for the virtual Tong Wars between the Ivy League Protestants at CIA and the Italian and Irish Catholics at the FBI, which prevented the sharing of intelligence between the warring agencies. A critical takeaway from the Wright book is that religion (in this case, Islam) is at the root of virtually everything that has happened in the Middle East, at least since WW I. The key is to figure out who and where the Sunnis are, vs. who and where the Shiites are. Line up the players and you can grasp the strategery. The primary Shiite country in the Middle East is Iran, though Shiites are also in control of the government in Iraq. The primary Sunni country is Saudi Arabia. Most of the other Middle East countries are also predominantly Sunni. Al Qaeda is Sunni, primarily of the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect; ISIS is also Sunni, but these folks are way more radical than even Al Qaeda. That leaves Israel, which is, alas, Jewish. The Shia hate the Sunnis, the Sunnis hate the Shia, and they both hate Israel all the time and America much of the time. (Though Wright observes that the Middle-Eastern hatred and scapegoating against the Jews and Israel did not reach a fever pitch until the Israeli victory in the 1967 “Six Day War.”) America is perpetually engaged in trying to figure out how to take sides in all of this.
The Atlantic piece focuses on ISIS (or ISIL, if you want to show you went to Harvard). ISIS considers its radical, fundamentalist, extreme version of Sunni Islam to be the only authentic version. ISIS tolerates the non-ISIS Sunnis and other relatively fundamentalist Muslims, for now, but hates everyone else – particularly Shiites, Christians, Jews, and Americans. ISIS practices a fundamentalist interpretation of the literal, original, 7th century version of Islam, right down to its injunction to set up a “caliphate” – a political-religious state that is complete with a literal piece of controlled land and a “caliph” to run the state. (They now have both a territory and a caliph.) For ISIS, every apostate – every person on earth who does not practice the ISIS version of Islam – must be killed or reduced to slavery, and they figure the more gruesome the execution, the bigger the PR benefit for them: more enlistments, more fear-inducing terror, ergo less resistance to their further military actions. Like Al Qaeda but more so, these people are nuts.
And then we get to the punch line. The U.S., through videos of the beheadings and human immolations and through direct threats to America, is being taunted, virtually dared to intervene. But Mr. Wood recommends that we abstain from invading and attacking ISIS, from putting boots on the ground. “Add the incompetence of our previous efforts as occupiers, and we have reason for reluctance.” [Got that, Bush-haters?] “The rise of ISIS, after all, happened only because our previous occupation created space for Zarqawi and his followers . . .” [in case you missed it the first time.] “Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it, through air strikes and proxy warfare, appears the best of bad military options. . . .” [again, don’t invade and occupy, because we stink at that.] “The humanitarian cost of the Islamic State’s existence is high. But its threat to the United States is smaller than its all too frequent conflation with al-Qaeda would suggest . . . It sees enemies everywhere around it, and while its leadership wishes ill on the United States, the application of Sharia in the caliphate and its expansion to contiguous lands are paramount. . . . “ [Note: the Wood piece went to press in early February, but that latter assertion has already been thrown into question by the numerous public threats made to the U.S. by ISIS since then.] So, there you have it – the Obama Middle East Doctrine! Marie Harf and Jen Psaki could not have put it any better. (They tried, but, whatever.)
Mr. Wood observes that the ISIS folks are hard to defeat because they do not fear death; they seek death for themselves and everyone else – literally, the end of the world. (Yes, these people are nuts.) The good news is, they are not chess players or strategists, they are like a computer program with zero adaptability: they will continue to follow their course, regardless of difficulty, but if they are thrown off course at any point, everything grinds to a halt. If they ever get bogged down in their intended conquests, or lose control of their conquered territory, the movement is likely to disintegrate. This makes them predictable, containable – they telegraph their moves, and they can be stopped if you take the trouble to understand the moves and deal with them. Per Mr. Wood, the goal should not be to defeat them militarily, but to achieve a strategic stalemate and dissipate their momentum and growth. The additional good news: ISIS does not appear to be going after the Saudis; they view the Iranian and Syrian Shia as their primary enemy. In short, America’s longtime enemy in the Middle East, Iran, is the enemy of America’s new enemy, ISIS. Should President Obama decide that this is the time when the enemy of our enemy should be treated as our friend?
Could Shiite Iran end up acting as our friend in helping us deal with Sunni ISIS? Could Shiite Iran likewise end up acting as our friend in helping us deal with Sunni Al-Qaeda? Is that at the heart of the Obama Middle East policy – to buy Iran’s assistance or cooperation by making an otherwise indefensible nuclear deal with Iran? Is Mr. Obama prepared to allow Iran to become a nuclear power, and to sacrifice Israel in the process, in order to get Iran to do our dirty work in neutralizing ISIS and helping us put the brakes on Al Qaeda? Has the President determined that our domestic energy resources are potentially sufficient, despite his restrictive energy-policies, to relieve us of the 20th century burden of having to work around the energy politics of the Middle East? Has he decided that we no longer have to align with those crude, nouveau-riche Saudis and can pick the more culturally-advanced Iranians as our best buddies in the region? Are these factors the real story behind the President’s outrage over the Netanyahu address to the American Congress? Is it that simple, that cynical?