A Middle Eastern NATO
Two articles from very different sources argue that the United States has to create a new system of alliances in the Middle East. The first, by Youssef Ibrahim, argues that the much-feared Sunni-Shi'ite clash is the wrong prism through which to analyze the situation. The fundamental unit of identity in the region, he argues is tribal not sectarian. Consequently, or so the argument goes, America should engage the states sponsoring ... oops, caught myself there ... states behind the scenes in order to create stability.
Muslims think of themselves first in terms of tribes, clans, and families. ... On a broader level in the Arab world, a Muslim, whenever asked, will identify with Islam, not one sect. A Muslim will not answer that he or she is Sunni or Shiite. The answer is: "I am Muslim."
The sectarian divide is a politicized intrusion. "This is coming from the top down, not the other way around," reports a Sunni friend, a man ranked as one of Kuwait's top technocrats ... The two strange bedfellows, Sunni/Alawite Syria and Shiite Iran, are a perfect illustration of the political nature of sectarianism. Both are backing a Shiite Hezbollah movement in Lebanon and a Sunni Hamas organization in the Palestinian Arab territories, regardless of religious affiliations. Their objective is to create an anti-American anti-Israeli front, not a Shiite or Sunni one. In this alliance, as with others, the sectarian divide between Iran and Syria does not count at all, nor does it for the Palestinian Arabs and Hezbollah they support.
The other certainty for American policy experts to stay focused on as we enter talks is that clergies in the Middle East are creatures of their governments and the ruling dynasties. They will do what they are told. When, some time ago, the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia warned their populations that the "Shiites are coming," they were really saying, "The Iranians are at the gates of the Arab world and we need to stop them."
The second is from a remarkable blog called the Moor Next Door which makes a very sophisticated argument that, religious rhetoric notwithstanding, the nations of the Middle East are primarily normal countries, with national interests, which can therefore be engaged. The Moor Next Door advocates creating a Middle Eastern NATO which would provide a security umbrella, anchored on America, under which the region could remain stable before the Persian threat.
Iran is a rational actor. Its foreign policy is not driven by ideology, as Saxton asserts. Iran’s closest relationship within the region is with Syria, a Baathist regime whose ideology of state is secular and cannot be called anything else but hostile, even racist with respect to Iran. The conduct of Iranian policy suggests an interests driven approach that has been carefully and ingeniously hidden beneath a mask of Islamic revolutionary banter and anti-Semitic proclamations. Its use of terrorism to pursue its national interests shows a weakness; that it is a nation desperate for recognition. The establishment and recognition of the legitimacy of the Islamic republic among regional and international actors is a central point of Iranian grand strategy, and such recognition from the United States is the most important component therein. There potentially gives the United States a great advantage diplomatically; if the Americans can make a switch in mindset. ...
The United States must recognize that Iran has “arrived”, and that it cannot be excluded from the regional order of things any longer. Bolstering American diplomatic efforts would be a strong Arabo-American defense infrastructure that would span the breath of American alliance, not just the Gulf. Egypt, Turkey, and Jordan (and perhaps over time Israel) too should be included in the American effort to counter the growth of Iranian influence, militarily if need be. Giving the Arab states a sense of agency would counter their very real fears of Persian potency. It would also help to make American threats more credible. An Near East Security Initiative would create a web around the Islamic Republic, which would function much like NATO did for Western Europe during the Cold War. ...
The United States has to deal with Iran’s rise through a two pronged strategy. First, it should attempt to build confidence among its Arab allies, by establishing a security network, linking them to one another, Turkey, and the United States. Secondly it should offer Iran diplomatic recognition, and a path towards normalization. Conditional negotiations are no longer applicable. Secretary Rice’s offer to participate in multilateral meetings with the Iranians so long as it stopped enriching uranium failed just as miserably as the strategy of non-recognition has. While containment in its present form, essentially denying that the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy, has not been over the long term successful, a revised containment strategy might be able to do the job better. By establishing a strong wall around Tehran of regimes friendly to the United States that is capable of beating back Iranian aggression, Washington would be able to put itself on solid footing when it makes its eventual way to the negotiating table with Iran. Neither strategy can be effective on its own, nor will either improve America’s international standing in isolation.
There are moments when I am tempted to believe that Operation Iraqi Freedom achieved what diplomats have failed to accomplish for nearly 60 years: remove Israel as the prime source of conflict in the Middle East. Sometimes fancy takes me further, and it seems possible that the invasion of Iraq has so absorbed the region by bringing to the surface their latent rivalries that America and the West have receded as targets. The sects -- or tribes if you prefer -- are so intent on killing each other that Americans are often attacked when they get in the way of the murderous rampages. The overall capability of the Jihad to strike the West seems to have declined precipitously since September 11 and what attacks have been mounted have principally been in Europe. The question occurs: why?
As Youssef Ibrahim and the Moor Next Door argue, America must serry the ranks of Egypt, Turkey and Jordan and maybe -- gasp -- Israel, to face the Iranians banging at the gates of the Arab world. Form them into a Middle Eastern NATO in fact. Both articles advocate negotiating unconditionally with the Persians and yet neither of the two authors seems to believe that the Arabs alone, or the Arabs in concert with the Europeans could sustain an initiative. America must be their friend -- that's the word -- and no one else will do. While neither of these proposals is absurd, and indeed both sound perfectly reasonable on their face, the interesting fact is that both solutions are designed to address a new situation that came about after Operation Iraqi Freedom. It would have been absurd to speak of this Middle Eastern NATO before it. On reflection, it's not entirely clear whether the world would be better off going back to the status quo ante, when both the Iranians and the Arabs could safely export their violence on the West while studiously ignoring each other. With the contradictions between them brought into sharp relief by the American invasion of Iraq along the very fault line of Arab and Persian, Sunni and Shi'ite, the governments of the region now have better things to worry about than supporting clerics whose ideas include flying airliners into buildings in New York City. Samuel Johnson once remarked, in the saddest commentary on human folly, that nothing focused the mind as much as the prospect of being hanged the next day. And nothing reminds a person of his friends more than the sight of his enemies.