Let us recall this quote from the film classic, Lawrence of Arabia:
“So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be
a little people, a silly people - greedy, barbarous, and cruel …”
Arabs or Americans ... sometimes I wonder which of the two are the little people, the silly people. If anything, Americans are a meddlesome people - provincial, opinionated, arrogant, yet exceptionally ignorant of Middle Eastern culture and history.
How many Americans recall the coup that overthrew Mohammed Moseddegh, the first democratically elected leader of Iran? In 1953, our own CIA aided and abetted the British in toppling a nascent democracy over access to Persian oil. “A cruel and imperialistic country” stealing from a “needy and naked people” were the words spoken by Mosaddegh at the International Court of Justice in the Hague. These words have informed Middle Eastern attitudes for more than half a century.
Does terrorism represent the face of Islam? Not according to the highest religious authority of Saudi Arabia, who said: “Extremist and militant ideas and terrorism which spread decay on Earth, destroying human civilisation, are not in any way part of Islam, but are enemy number one of Islam, and Muslims are their first victims” (The Grand Mufti Sheik Abdulaziz Al al-Sheik).
Not according to the highest religious authority of Egypt, who said: “An extremist and bloody group such as this poses a danger to Islam and Muslims, tarnishing its image as well as shedding blood and spreading corruption” (The Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam).
Not according to the Egyptian military, which overthrew the government of Mohamed Morsi and banned the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. Nor the monarchy of Saudi Arabia, which purged and banished al-Qaeda - whose affiliated groups now operate in remote regions of Yemen and North Africa. Yet, how many Americans pay attention?
Consider the impact of successive Western interventions in the Middle East over time - over oil. European colonialism is partly to blame. As colonial empires crumbled in the aftermath of WWI, European powers gave little thought to the historical schism between the Shiite and Sunni branches of Islam. Britain drew borders around rival ethnic enclaves and formed the modern nation state of Iraq - thus creating a recipe for future volatility.
Failing to take these historical antecedents into account, America blundered into an occupation of Iraq that worsened an already unstable situation. In short order, the American regency of Paul Bremer swept away a long established order. Regime change brought in a new Shiite government that promptly disenfranchised the formerly dominant Sunnis. Thus began a cycle of sectarian conflict and civil war – rife with insurgencies, ethnic militias, car bombings, kidnappings, massacres, and more. Thus, the American misadventure started a sequence of events leading directly to the rise of ISIS.
We broke it. Now our defense and diplomatic establishments exhort us to fix it. How ironic! Ethnic and religious divisions of the Middle East mirror our partisan divisions at home, as the current state of the debate in Washington demonstrates:
A war-weary American public says: “No boots on the ground.” Neo-Cons in Congress demand military action.
Iraqi President al-Maliki disenfranchises the Sunnis and creates a window of opportunity for ISIS. The Cringe Fringe blames the crisis on the president.
Al-Malady refuses to sign a Residual Force Agreement; The Cringe Fringe blames the president.
Our military says ISIS cannot be defeated without a Syrian incursion. Last year, Congress failed to reach agreement on a similar authorization.Follow the trail of duplicity amongst our allies in the region: ISIS trades Syrian oil for money and arms in Turkey, our NATO ally. Our military maintains vital strategic strike capabilities at al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, Ali al Salem Air Base in Kuwait, and al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates even as the wealthy citizens of Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE underwrite radical jihadi groups throughout the Middle East – from al-Qaeda to ISIS.
How can the enemy of your enemy be your friend when you can no longer distinguish enemies from friends?
Meanwhile, partisans in Congress criticize the President over an honest admission: “We don't have a strategy yet” for dealing with the "existential threat" of ISIS. Perhaps the time is long overdue to rethink the complexities, duplicities and past failures - to avoid yet another national repetition compulsion - before we leap again into the Middle Eastern abyss.