Conflicts Within Islam Complicate U.S. Foreign Policy
The unforeseen consequences of American Middle Eastern policy since the Second World War are now making themselves apparent. In the beginning, American policy was to control the principal oil-producing Muslim states. Negotiations between Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia aboard the American cruiser USS Quincy, following FDR’s participation in the wartime Yalta conference, ended in an agreement by which the U.S. developed Saudi oil production and guaranteed Saudi Arabia’s security.
A similar agreement between Britain and Iran was inherited by the United States after the CIA joined British intelligence in a coup d’etat that overthrew a democratically elected government, which had nationalized Iranian oil, and restored the young shah to the Iranian throne. He remained as absolute ruler until the Islamic fundamentalist revolution of 1979.
The defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 had produced the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate — and hence of religious government — succeeded by the secular Turkish republic established by Mustapha Kemal Ataturk (today seriously challenged by renascent Muslim religious forces). Formerly Ottoman Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon became French or British mandated (by the League of Nations) colonies or monarchies. Egypt remained a monarchy effectively controlled by Britain, as did the Gulf states, whose oil resources were then largely unknown, as were those of Iran and Iraq. The region thus was more firmly structured, politically, than it had been before 1918.
The rise of two new political forces, the secular Ba’ath Party in Iraq and Syria, and after the Second World War, the Egyptian Revolution and the Arab Socialism promoted by Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser, did not alter the state structure of the region. The U.N. did that by partitioning Palestine and creating Israel, followed by Israel’s alliance with the United States, and America’s successful destruction of Iraq as an independent Arab power, accomplished in 2003.
The old political order of the Muslim Middle East is now destroyed, with political anarchy and religious war taking its place — the most important and consequential war having been that by the United States, employing shock and awe interventions, and now errant drones, to attack traditional Islamic societies. But to what intelligible purpose? Islam will not surrender to the United States.
The destruction of secular Iraq, secular monarchy in Iran and secular socialism in Egypt, along with the rise of fundamentalist Muslim movements, has now fundamentally changed the region. Now a radicalized and fundamentalist Sunni version of Islam is supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and several of the Gulf monarchies, in a religio-political struggle inside Syria, Tunisia and Egypt, opposing Shiite movements supported by Iran and by spontaneous populist forces elsewhere, notably Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria.
This bears a superficial resemblance to the “war between civilizations” forecast by Samuel Huntington in 1993, but differs in one profound respect. While Huntington described the coming conflict as essentially cultural, he held the notion that the Arab Muslim world would find a new centralized structure of some kind which would allow it to wage a modern centralized war with weapons that (in his forecast) would be supplied by China. The enemy would be some NATO-like alliance of the United States, Israel and some or all of the European powers — “the West,” as he continued to see it. Instead, there is a plague of anarchy.
The issue of this new struggle is a conflict over whether Islamic believers should be governed by the strict application of the precepts found in the Quran and in uncompromising Shariah religious law. The American dilemma is that it offers only its form of democracy in decline. Its principal Arab allies, the Saudi monarchy, its neighboring Bahrain principality’s rulers and the Qatar monarchy, are fundamentalist (or Integrist) believers, as are the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood forces that governed Egypt for a year, until the military intervention two weeks ago. They continue with difficulty to govern Tunisia and threaten the existing governments of Iraq and Afghanistan. They are politically active and dynamic throughout Mediterranean and Saharan Muslim communities, as well as among Muslim immigrants in France, Britain, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany. Washington has no idea what to do.
The United States, basically indifferent to these wars among Muslims, has pursued the irrelevant course of intermittent military as well as political intervention for the purpose of controlling the outcome of successive discrete events, to little avail. It clings to the undemonstrated and untrue notion that the ideologically contested regions of the world seek Western political institutions, at whatever cost to their religious and moral convictions. This is the driving conception of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Being untrue, it is of no practical value.
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.
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