September 2014 Archives

A Coalition of the Unwilling

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        Rod Normand reports from Kabul in the New York Times, that in his farewell speech, Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan stated that "America does not want peace in Afghanistan, because it had its own agendas and goals here." Karzai continued "I have always said this: that if America and Pakistan want peace, it is possible to bring peace to Afghanistan."

           In a previous story in the Times, Thomas Erdbrink ("For Many Iranians, the 'Evidence' Is Clear: ISIS Is an American Invention," Sept 10, 2014) reported from Tehran that "Iranians are as obsessed as Americans these days with the black-clad gangs roaming Iraq and Syria and killing Shiites and other 'infidels' in the name of Sunni Islam. At the supermarket, in a shared taxi or at a family gathering, conversations often turn to the mysterious group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and how it came to be. And for most Iranians, the answer is obvious: the United States."


          In the Boston Globe, Brian Bender reports ("Stolen US-made equipment a key focus in ISIS fight") that "Over the past six weeks, US warplanes destroyed at least three dozen US-made Humvees that were by stolen by the Islamic State. Earlier this week, Islamic State forces used Humvees to overrun an Iraqi army post."  Bender further reported that "The Islamic State's reliance on American-made equipment has highlighted concerns about plans to supply $500 million in high-tech weapons to the rebels known as the Free Syrian Army. Congress approved the plan but the majority of the Massachusetts delegation opposed it, with some basing their opposition partly on concerns about where the arms may end up."

        The hallucinations of President Karzai, those of many Iranians, and the U.S.'s inadvertent arming of ISIS depict the magnitude of the challenge that this country and its tax-payers have permitted President Obama to commit us to, without informed discussion or debate.  If history is any kind of a guide, the president's attempts to cobble together an alliance that would somehow bring peace and order to a disorderly part of the world will prove to be naive and unlikely to succeed. 

        The  Arab allies upon whom president Obama must depend - Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the U.A.E., Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq as well as the non-Arab Turks - are riven by conflicting tribal loyalties, increasing hostilities between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and festering grievances against the West and its secular democracies that date back centuries.  Among the historic grievances that many Muslims and jihadists often invoke are the Crusades and the sacking of Jerusalem in 1099, the expulsion of the Moors from Spain in 1492, the battle of Lepanto in 1571, the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699, and the colonization of the Levant, Palestine, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco by the French and British in the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries.

         Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the rise of autocratic governments, pervasive economic backwardness, illiteracy and intense anger spawned by the emergence of the State of Israel - exacerbated by Israel's mistreatment of its own Arab citizens and the Palestinian population in its occupied territories - have created an unstable region in which the grudging acceptance of other religious faitrhs has all but disappeared. With the demise of the Ottoman Caliphate, during the past seventy years the Middle East has become virtually depopulated of Catholic, Orthodox and Nestorian Christians, while the few who remain endure constant discrimination and persecution. Sadly, the Middle East - which was the birthplace of Christianity - has become hostile to the adherents of a major religion whose presence there predated Islam by more than six centuries.

         Today in the Middle East the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, fueled by fanatics as exemplified by ISIS, has made the Middle East even more unstable. Islam's insistence that it alone has an exclusive claim to the Truth - a Truth is derived entirely from the Qur'an which is accepted as the unmediated word of the living God - has made the instability even more intractable. 

         Islam does not present a challenge to the Western world as a political philosophy. Rather, it represents a challenge posed by a set of religious dogmas that have been hijacked by Wahhabis and other fundamentalists whom Saudi Arabia's theocrats have continued to support through their funding of madrassas throughout the Muslim world. 

        The religious extremists who have been brain-washed by the madrassas insist upon interpreting the Qur'an as a rigid and unforgiving set of religious commands. Their fanaticism has widened the chasm that separates Western secular democracies from much of the Muslim world, imposed insuperable obstacles that impede the development of civil societies and their institutions, and constrained critical economic development.Their demand that truly observant Muslims must focus upon the next life rather than the present condemns millions of Muslims to lives of penury and misery, and left many with only rage and a false sense of victimization to sustain them.

         Absent the equivalent of the Protestant Reformation - or the Thirty Years War followed by an edict of toleration such as in the Peace of Westphalia - Muslims throughout the Middle East are not likely to embrace the idea of toleration, as a central social concept, anytime soon.Until a new generation of Arab leaders emerge who are willing endorse the idea of religious toleration unequivocally and to also acknowledge the importance of other Western notions - e.g.  - that social change can best be achieved through political discussion, through the emergence of new ideas, and by the evolution of policies - the chasm between the West and Islam will remain wide and deep, and the Middle East will continue to be consumed by internecine conflicts.

      If ISIS and the multitude of other Muslim extremists are to be defeated, the Arab countries themselves - and not the U.S. or the other Western democracies - must rise to the challenge since they are the entities that are directly threatened. Their soldiers and theirs alone should provide any "boots on the ground" since the presence of Western "infidel" soldiers only serves to reinforce the false narrative of Muslim victimization by Crusaders. 

        For their part, the United States and the other Western democracies should show infinite patience, and they might consider collectively adopting a policy of containment and quarantine, coupled with limited, targeted strikes where and when needed. The expansion of the scope of air strikes against ISIS into Syria and the siren calls for more ground involvement by U.S. troops are counter-productive and inimical to this country's best interests.

        In the long run, overreaction, bluster and jingoism, a President who is too fearful to say no, a craven Congress, a supplicant media, and a profoundly uninformed public serve only to engorge the ever- expanding security-surveillance-military-industrial-welfare-through-warfare state and its beneficiaries to the detriment of urgent, unmet domestic needs.

     The United States has little capacity or credibility to create stability in a geographic region of the world where we are viewed as unwanted intruders by a majority of the Arab population. President Obama needs to be reminded that power brings with it the responsibility to exercise it wisely and appropriately, and that sometimes restraint is the most effective and prudent foreign policy.