Contradictory Choices in the Middle East [Part I]
The Islamic State and the West's National Unity Fetish
Introduction and Historical Retrospective
Western policymakers and media talking-heads like to believe that the answer to the wider Middle East’s problems lies in a single, coherent regional strategy. In other words, a sufficient balance of military force and support for the proper state players will yield lasting calm and neutralize emerging ideological threats. Not only does this view starkly contrast with the approach taken to regional problems of the past, it also places those searching for solutions in a strategic straitjacket. Why should such a diverse region be viewed from a macro, rather than a micro, perspective? Richelieu and Bismarck never confronted the problems plaguing Europe in their eras this way, nor did the British, French or Portuguese in their overseas empires or spheres of influence.
Contrast the formation of what became South Africa in 1910 with Transjordan in 1921 by the British. Although both proto (and eventual) states were created a mere decade apart, the assumptions underlying their establishment could not be more different.
South Africa grew out of a series of sectarian conflicts fought by Britain against black and white tribes in its quest for imperial continuity and resource aggrandizement. Although the administration of the Union of South Africa was left largely to the white Boers (defeated less than a decade earlier in the Second Boer War), it would be a fair statement to say that the new rulers never actually sought to rule what they were ruling. On the contrary, the core of Boer culture, language and historical identity as a people was cemented in the Great Trek away from British rule in Cape Colony into the South African interior. A hundreds of Boers set out in the 1830s and 40s to put as much distance between them and the British as possible, which led to the emergence of two independent republics. These same Boers negotiated treaties with local black tribes, which themselves controlled swaths of territory in Natal and southern parts of the territory. British ambition upended the regional order, destroyed the independent hopes of these groups and forged a nation which nobody wanted. Instead of restoring the area to its status quo ex-ante (for example, by giving the Boers back their republics, the black tribes their kingdoms and the Anglo colonists a state along the Cape) the British fused a unified state from a hodgepodge of communities together and left the dazed residents to pick up the pieces.
Now compare South Africa with Transjordan, which Britain formed ad hoc in violation of its obligations as a mandatory power to the League of Nations following World War I. As wittily described by The Economist in a brief article, the substance of the country’s creation (and that of its Syrian and Iraqi neighbors) was a desire by the Western powers to install reliable tribal puppets and cut down on administrative expenses in controlling the remnants of the vanquished Ottoman Empire. One could almost call the establishment of Hashemite rule in Transjordan (which continues to this day) as an accident of casting (i.e., a brother wanted Syria, was not deemed acceptable and sent to Iraq, and the other brother got Transjordan as a consolation prize). There was no attempt to forge a national identity or any decades-long campaign to snuff out independent entities which existed in the area. Rather, the British went to the most prominent and seemingly well established tribe they could find and put it in charge of three-quarters of Britain’s mandated territory notwithstanding that the overwhelming majority of the population of the new country had a different tribal allegiance and was not too pleased with the new regime.
The lesson of South Africa and Transjordan is that one size does not fit all when it comes to creating regional order or achieving long-term strategic objectives. Sometimes a great power has to show flexibility and treat even proximate security threats as if they have nothing to do with each other and orbit in different galaxies. Consider the Islamic State and the Twilight Zone of modern Iraq.
The Islamic State – the West’s National Unity Fetish
The West is obsessed with maintaining a unified Iraq. I recently called into a national radio show to discuss the rise and expansion of the Islamic State (and possible responses in the aftermath of the massacre of American journalist James Foley and hundreds of Syrian army prisoners). The guest, described as a foreign policy expert with a military background, repeatedly called for regional Arab powers to intervene in Iraq so as to “assist” the Iraqis in their struggle to oust the Islamic State in those parts of central and southern Iraq it now controls. This appears to be the prevailing wisdom in London and Washington, as expressed in President Obama’s recent statements regarding the necessity of a regional coalition and inclusive government in Baghdad under Prime Minister Abadi to sway local Sunnis away from the Islamic State and into the arms of (fill in the blank) to bring the Islamists under control. Interestingly enough, it was probably Iran’s endorsement of Abadi that sealed ex-Prime Minister Maliki’s fate and peeled away the last bastion of Shiite support for his sectarian government. How Abadi will repay Tehran’s endorsement (and how this will impact Washington’s calculus) can be examined in another post. For now, it is important to note just how confused Obama’s rhetoric of inclusiveness and national unity in the Iraqi context is when reduced to its substance.
While Turkey has for years engaged in side transactions and negotiations with the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq and Iran has maintained close ties with Maliki’s government, the United States and the western establishment persisted in their goal of a multicultural Iraqi nation-state akin to something between South Africa and the former Yugoslavia. Attempts by local tribes to make separate arrangements with Washington have been ignored or rejected, be they attempts by Iraqi Kurds to sell oil extracted from their autonomous territory to western ports or possibly declare unilateral independence (something Washington seems to especially fear) or grumblings by Sunni tribes to get political protection from the Shiite forces in Baghdad.
Although it would appear strange to imagine a reality where “moderate” Sunni forces (mostly former Saddam loyalists and rural clans protected by his regime) would be content with an Iranian-endorsed “moderate” Shiite government in Baghdad on a long-term (possibly perpetual) basis, that is precisely what Washington is pushing them to accept. Some particularly prominent tribal leaders, including Sheikh Ali al-Hatem of the sprawling Dulaim tribe, went so far as to call on followers to wage war on Iraq’s Shiite militias with the same ferocity they are using against the Islamic State. Add to this the more radical sectarian factions such as those beholden to Shiite cleric Sadr and you have something which makes no political sense. A unified and harmonious Iraq is, in other words, as fictional as Neverland. Most importantly, this exercise in futility underscores the danger of misusing the word “moderate” outside of its geographical limitations. Tribes bound by clan loyalties care about clan identification, not political persuasion, when deciding who to support.
Instead of waiting for a white knight to turn Baghdad into Chicago, western leaders should embrace the benefits of an Iraq splintered along tribal lines. Rather than push former Ba’athists and quasi-Islamist Sunni tribes to work with an Iranian client regime and Kurds with one eye on independence, perhaps Washington should make tactical deals with individual Sunni tribal leaders (as Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have done to varying degrees) as a prelude to establishing a reality of autonomous clan-controlled zones on the ground in much of Anbar and Sunni-majority Iraq. The Shiites can keep a rump state in the east and the Kurds should receive support for self-determination in the north. This was an approach rejected in Afghanistan when, again, Washington preferred to prop up a corrupt and illegitimate kleptocrat while letting three-quarters of the land functionally fall to the Taliban.
As previously noted on these pages, the Islamic State is an unruly instrument of the Gulf States and Turkey which veered from script during the height of the Syrian Civil War. In that previous post I underscored how much of the Islamic State’s (then called ISIS) military success came because of tactical pacts with local Sunni leaders exasperated with Washington’s backing of the Maliki government and reluctance to countenance any side deals. Now the same choice (albeit achievable with greater cost in lives and treasure) confronts the United States – keep forcing the square peg of tribalism into the round hole of a unified Iraq or accept that Iraq is functionally extinct and forge a multi-tribal strategy which interfaces with sub-national leaders while sidestepping Baghdad. One only hopes the medicine on the table will be taken and correct decisions made before the farce of the present degenerates into a calamitous future.