1/11/17, "How Obama Spread the Mideast Fires," Consortium News, Daniel Lazare
"With President Obama down to less than two weeks in office, everyone
is busy assessing his legacy. So let’s begin with the Arab world. Not
since the Vietnam War, we can safely say, has an administration left a
region in ruins the way Obama has left the Middle East (although it’s
true that George W. Bush contributed mightily to the mess).
But Obama has expanded the chaos outward from Bush’s legacy wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan, now including Libya, Syria and Yemen with ripple
effects from the refugee flows extending into Turkey and even into
Europe. Terrorism is exploding, entire nations have been reduced to war
zones, while religious sectarianism is raging out of control.
Of course, not all of it is Obama’s fault. After all, he didn’t start
the Sunni-Shia conflict, which dates back to the mid-Seventh Century,
nor is he responsible for Arab-Persian ethnic tensions in general, which
go back even farther. But he breathed new life into such forces and
enabled them to achieve a new kind of prominence, with consequences that
are little short of breathtaking.
How did someone so charming and seemingly so progressive wreak such
havoc? The answer is through a combination of weakness, complacency, and
taking the easy way out. Obama is the sort of cool and laid-back
individual who adapts effortlessly to whatever institution he finds
himself in, whether it’s the Harvard Law Review, the Illinois state
legislature, the U.S. Senate or the White House.
The writer Edward L. Fox argues that, during his childhood in Indonesia, he soaked up the Javanese doctrine of halus
in which a king “does not conquer opposing political forces, but
absorbs them all under himself.” Instead of meeting conflict head on,
the king floats serenely above it. The idea is to “let your opponent
yell and scream, listen politely, and then, when your adversary has
exhausted himself, somehow end up winning.”
Whereas someone a little less afraid of getting his hair mussed might have confronted “the Blob,”
as Washington’s pro-war foreign-policy establishment is known, Obama
decided to name Hillary Clinton, one of its chief standard-bearers, as
Secretary of State, and keep Robert Gates, another pillar of the
national security establishment, as Secretary of Defense.
Rather than fighting what President Dwight Eisenhower dubbed the
“military-industrial complex,” Obama’s idea was to disarm it by bringing
some of its chief advocates into his inner circle and perhaps give his
own standing a boost as well. But what it chiefly did was to provide the
War Party with a new lease on life.
More Conflict, Not Less
The upshot was more conflict rather than less. John Kerry, Clinton’s
no-less-bellicose successor, made this clear in his much-ballyhooed Dec.
28 speech about the breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Although the address has been hailed in certain quarters
as an attempt to put peace back on track, a careful reading reveals
something very different: the epic two-state talks between Israel and
Palestine were not about peace, but about tamping down conflict in one
corner of the Middle East so that the U.S. could pursue various imperial
misadventures in others. Kerry revealed as much by declaring that all
of America’s allies have “common interests in countering Iran’s
The 2002 Saudi Initiative, which served as the basis for the latest
failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, not only called for an
Israeli-Palestinian accord, but for a regional defense agreement aimed
at keeping the Persians out.
The framework, Kerry went on, “envisages Israel being a partner in
those efforts when peace [with the Palestinians] is made. This is the
area where Israel and the Arab world are looking at perhaps the greatest
moment of potential transformation in the Middle East since Israel’s
creation in 1948. The Arab world faces its own set of security
challenges. With Israeli-Palestinian peace, Israel, the United States,
Jordan, Egypt – together with the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council]
countries – would be ready and willing to define a new security
partnership for the region that would be absolutely groundbreaking.”
This was the old goal of a “GCC + 2” security umbrella in which
Israel and the Palestinians would forget their differences and join with
Egypt, Jordan, and the six members of the GCC – Saudi Arabia, Qatar,
Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman – to form a united
front against a non-Arab intruder, Iran.
The alliance thus had an ethnic dimension right from the start. But
it also had a religious dimension since all eight Arab nations are Sunni
or Sunni-controlled with the minor exception of Oman. So, GCC + 2 would
only pave the way for a growing sectarian conflict between Wahhabism,
the stringent form of Sunni orthodoxy that is the official state
ideology in Saudi Arabia, the dominant member of the GCC, and Iranian
But since Shi‘ism is not confined to a single nation but is actually
the majority religion throughout the Persian Gulf area, it was a formula
for something even worse, an all-out regional struggle between the
Sunni states led by Riyadh on one hand and, on the other, an
Iranian-dominated “Shi‘ite crescent” stretching from Lebanon and Syria
to Bahrain, Yemen, and the Saudis’ own Eastern Province, the center of
both its oil industry and its 15 percent Shi‘ite minority.
The Worst Passions
It was a strategy guaranteed to excite the worst passions on both
sides of the divide. It was a recipe not only for war but for religious
war, which is the worst kind. Not surprisingly, violence exploded, and
more than a million refugees were sent fleeing toward Europe, a human
inundation that is now roiling the political waters from Paris to
Obama – with his Javanese penchant for reconciling opposites – has
shown a strange combination of vision and blindness throughout the
debacle. He spoke up in favor of human rights. But at his first meeting
with Saudi King Abdullah, he bowed deeply and apparently kissed his hand,
a curious gesture for a young progressive encountering one of the
world’s greatest despots but it was a sign of hypocrisies to come. Obama
protested loudly when Bashar al-Assad’s cracked down on Sunni-led Arab
Spring protests in Syria, but Obama remained silent when Saudi Arabia
dispatched troops to crack down on Shi‘ite-led Arab Spring protests in
Welcoming Abdullah’s equally tyrannical neighbor, Qatar’s Hamad bin
Khalifa al-Thani, in April 2011, Obama uttered the usual diplomatic
boilerplate, expressing appreciation for “the leadership that the emir
has shown when it comes to democracy in the Middle East.” But he was
franker in private.
Not realizing that he was speaking into an open mike, he told
donors at a Democratic fundraiser in Chicago later that evening that
Al-Thani was a “pretty influential guy. He is a big booster, big
promoter of democracy all throughout the Middle East. Reform, reform,
reform – you’re seeing it on Al Jazeera. Now, he himself is not
reforming significantly. There’s no big move towards democracy in
Qatar. But you know part of the reason is that the per capita income of
Qatar is $145,000 a year. That will dampen a lot of conflict.”
In fact, Al-Thani is a lawless autocrat who, according to Obama’s own State Department,
prohibits organized political parties, restricts civil liberties
“including freedoms of speech, press, and assembly and access to a fair
trial,” and countenances human trafficking “primarily in the domestic
worker and labor sectors.” But since he has oodles of oil and natural
gas and is friendly to the U.S. besides, he gets a free pass.
Double your standards, double your fun. A month later, Obama gave a major address
in which he called for “freedom of religion, equality for men and women
under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders –
whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa, or Tehran.” But he
remained studiously silent about Saudi Arabia, America’s chief ally in
the region, where the rule of law is nonexistent and the status of women
is probably the worst in the world.
While urging freedom for Egypt’s Christian minority, he said nothing about how the Saudis routinely arrest Christians for the “crime” of attending underground services, close down Shia mosques, or tolerate dangerous sectarian rhetoric
in which Sunni routinely clerics accuse “evil Shias” of “set[ting]
traps for monotheism and for the Sunnis” and seeking to “skin Sunnis and
boil them in water.”
Enlisting the Autocracies
But not only did Obama shield the other oil autocracies from
criticism, but, on the theory that only Arabs can solve Arab problems,
he encouraged them to become more active abroad. The results were
uniformly disastrous. Despite Al-Thani’s well-established record as a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and similar forces,
Hillary Clinton spent much of late March 2011 persuading him to take
part in the U.S.-led military effort to overthrow Libyan strongman
Muammar Gaddafi, according to an internal State Department memo. When he said yes, the Obama administration was overjoyed.
But Al-Thani took advantage of the deal to distribute some $400 million to Salafist rebels in the form of machine guns, automatic rifles, and ammunition
so that they could do to Libya what an earlier generation of
U.S.-backed jihadis had done to Afghanistan, i.e. reduce it to chaos.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Sunni-run states responded the same way
when the U.S. invited them to fund the uprising against Syria’s leader
Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite, a branch of Shi’a Islam. These “friends of
Syria” channeled billions of dollars in aid to Salafist rebels determined to impose Saudi-style fundamentalism.
In August 2012, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency warned
that Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Al Qaeda were “the major
forces driving the insurgency,” that rebels were seeking to establish a
“Salafist principality in eastern Syria,” and that “western countries,
the gulf states, and Turkey are supporting these efforts” in order to
counter the Shi‘ite threat.
In September 2014, Clinton wrote
in an email that Saudi Arabia and Qatar were “providing clandestine
financial and logistic support to ISIL [ISIS] and other radical Sunni groups”
while Vice President Joe Biden admitted the same thing a month later at a
talk at Harvard’s Kennedy School:
“Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria …the
Saudis, the emirates, etc. what were they doing? They were so determined
to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what
did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of
thousands of tons of military weapons into anyone who would fight
against Assad except the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra
and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other
parts of the world.” [Quote starts at 53:25.]
A Spreading Fire
Yet President Obama did nothing to stop this pouring of gasoline on
this regional sectarian war. Rather than tamping down the sectarianism,
the U.S. facilitated its spread. Chatting with Australian Prime Minister
Malcolm Turnbull, Obama remarked how the easy-going Indonesia he
remembered as a child was coming under the sway of the harsh and
unforgiving Wahhabism taught in Saudi-funded madrassas.
“Aren’t the Saudis your friends?” Turnbull asked. To which Obama could only smile and say: “It’s complicated.” This is Obama-speak for: “I reconcile opposites, but please don’t ask me to explain how.”
Once sectarianism is out of the bag, it’s very hard to put it back
in. In Turkey, which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned into a
transit hub for Syria-bound Salafist fighters at U.S. behest, the
country’s 20 percent Alevi minority, which practices a form of Shi‘ism, is hunkering down in anticipation of attacks
by Erdogan’s Sunni supporters, ISIS, or both. \ Since March 2015,
Shi‘ite Houthis in Yemen have been fending off an air assault by Saudis
convinced that the Houthi fighters are part of some occult Iranian
conspiracy aimed at taking over that country as well.
Members of the Saudi ruling elite “see the hand of Iran everywhere
and take seriously the declarations in the Iranian press bragging about
how Iran now controls four Arab capitals – Baghdad, Sanaa, Beirut, and
Damascus,” a Riyadh-based diplomat told the French journalist Alain Gresh. “They are obsessed with Iran,” said another.
The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the Saudis, backed
by the U.S., attack Shi‘ite forces before they can attack them, thereby
generating yet another round of conflict and recrimination.
Obama adapted to such paranoia all too gracefully and easily. Instead
of fighting it, he accepted it as a given and tried to work with it,
which only made it worse. The consequence was to tip the entire region
into the abyss. Rarely has coolness led to more uncool results."
"Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace)."
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