It would be naive to think that the priorities of the current US administration are congruent with the worries of the people of the Middle East. However, realism dictates that regional states must accept that left to their own devices they are unable to change the mindset of an administration that seems to have already decided what its regional priorities are.
During the good old days we used to be innocent. We believed Washington’s slogans about freedom, and Moscow and Beijing’s slogans about the peoples’ right to self-determination. We also used to believe that when senior officials from the great powers visited the Middle East, this was part of “fact-finding” missions, as we were frequently told, in order to hope for and expect the best. However, after we matured we realized that minute details of our history as well as our present actions, even in the inner sanctuary of our homes, are kept in national archives in Western capitals.
During the Cold War period we were also led to believe the famous expression, “maintaining the strategic balance” between Israel and the Arab states. But this expression evaporated as soon as the Cold War ended and the US assumed the position of the sole “global superpower” following the collapse of the USSR, being replaced by the more truthful “maintaining Israel’s strategic supremacy.”
Today we are passing through an extremely sensitive period in Arab–Western relations, centering on the “fight against terrorism.” Incidentally, the political meaning of the term “terrorism” was first adopted by major western powers, namely the US, which was the first country to differentiate between “terrorism” meaning violence used by its enemies against it and “fighting for freedom” when similar violence is used by its allies against its enemies. Based on this premise, the US State Department made a habit of publishing an annual list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism,” usually including unfriendly countries like Iran.
The September 11 attacks on the US gave this premise an added dimension during the presidency of George W Bush; as Washington decided to launch its pre-emptive war on terrorism, globally targeting its sponsors and potential supporters. Dividing the world between those “with us” and those “against us,” Bush declared war on Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and pursued Al-Qaeda all over the world.
Barack Obama, who succeeded Bush in the White House, made “change” the battle cry of his election campaign. He made a commitment to his voters to end Bush’s belligerent strategy, concentrate on handling the acute economic crisis, return American troops back home, and seek peaceful settlements for international conflicts.
Most likely Obama’s intentions were honorable when he regarded Bush and his neocons’ “aggressive” policies as being harmful to America’s international standing. He may have had his heart in the right place when he embarked on world tours intended to help him understand better local and regional intricacies that his predecessor dealt with from a hawkish conservative ideological standpoint that is totally rejected by Obama, American liberals and progressives. But Obama, taking over the presidency while espousing utopian broad stances, soon found himself confronting unsavory realities.
To begin with, he discovered he was unable to prevent Israel’s right-wing from continuing its policy of settlements expansion, which not only undermined the credibility of moderate Palestinian leadership but also weakened moderation and strengthened extremism in Arab and Muslim countries.
Later on, Washington’s “academic” understanding of democracy let down its handling of the “Arab Spring,” especially with regards to the advances made by “political Islam.” Washington also failed to see the relationship between the creeping influence of sectarian-imbued Shi’ite Iran in the Arab world and the sectarian counter-reaction in the Sunni-dominated Arab and Muslim countries.
Following Obama’s inaction despite the atrocities committed by Bashar Al-Assad against the Syrian popular uprising over a period of three years, and using Russian and Chinese vetoes in the UN Security Council as an excuse for doing nothing even following Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Moscow realized it was dealing with a US administration keen to avoid becoming embroiled in any conflict whatsoever. This was all that Vladimir Putin needed to carry a big stick, as the proverb goes, in the Ukraine and annex Crimea.
Today we are witnessing an unprecedented US action promised by Obama as reaction to atrocities committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq. Washington is now busy building a broad coalition to confront ISIS, and expects Arab and Muslim governments to take an active part in fighting this extremist takfirist group.
Such a policy is correct in light of what ISIS is perpetrating, and what its foreign fighters may do if and when they return to their countries of origin from Iraq and Syria. I expect Washington to succeed in its endeavors, particularly as it is viewed as a real global superpower. I also expect Washington to be able to win the support of both Moscow and Tehran—both of whom raised the alarm about the takfirist threat while they were simultaneously attempting to cover up Assad’s brutal crimes against his own people. The Russians and Iranians have had their respective problems with Sunni “political Islam” in their own territories: Russia fighting its followers in Chechnya, and Iran regarding it as an enemy of its velayat-e faqih-inspired expansionist policies.
In his approach to the war against ISIS, President Obama has been keen that this is not depicted as a defense of the pro-Tehran regimes of Iraq and Syria. Indeed, he openly declared that “Assad is not and cannot be a partner” in the proposed war. Following this, Washington put pressure to bear on new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi not to give hawkish Shi’ite militia leader Hadi Al-Ameri any security portfolio in his cabinet. This came after Washington accused Abadi’s predecessor, Nuri Al-Maliki, of putting forward sectarian policies that alienated the Sunnis and created a suitable atmosphere for ISIS and other extremist Sunni groups to gain ground and sympathizers.
However, what is needed most today is for Washington to underline its negative stances towards Assad, Maliki and Ameri by adopting a practical and responsible strategy against the regional power that supports, controls and commands these figures, not forgetting its tentacles in Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere in the region.
Confronting ISIS must be built on removing the cause of, or the excuse for, its existence. This means confronting Iran’s hegemonic regional strategy that has been playing the “alliance of minorities” card. Tehran is claiming to want to protect these minorities out of some kind of sense of altruism, rather than for Tehran to secure its place as Washington’s new regional ally.