What role does the United States play in the spread of sectarianism in the Middle East? As a proviso, we need emphasize that the US is not the progenitor of sectarianism in the Middle East. However, it has engaged in the sin of “pouring oil on the fire.” Unfortunately, a large number of US foreign policy decisions in the Middle East have worked to promote sectarian identities. Sectarianism is thus not a "hermetically sealed" political phenomenon, but one that is fueled and nourished both within the nation-states of the region and by forces beyond it.
A history lesson is in order. George Santayana noted many years ago that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Despite the “presentism” of many US foreign policy analysts (see my "10 Conceptual Sins in Analyzing Middle East Politics http://new-middle-east.blogspot.com/2009/01/10-conceptual-sins-in-analyzing-middle.html), history is not “water under the bridge,” but rather a corrective to current policy by avoiding the repetition of prior mistakes. Those who don’t think history matters should remember the saying: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
|Shah Mohammed Pahlavi|
A history lesson is important here. A key source of the current sectarianism being promoted by a variety of political forces in the Middle East today is the long-term US support for the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. After the Shah abdicated due to nationalist pressure in 1951, the US staged a coup d’état that returned him to power in 1953.
From 1953 until his overthrow in late 1978, the Shah built a regime in which torture was the modus operandi of his rule. Peasants were forced off their land in the name of “land reform” and the “palace elite” prospered while most of the country did not.
When Iranians rose up against in 1978, it was not to substitute another authoritarian regime, now based in pseudo-religious garb, for the Shah’s rule but to establish a democratic government that took the populace’s social needs seriously. Apart from the Kennedy administration’s brief effort to have the Shah introduce social reforms as part of its “Alliance for Progress” campaign, the US allowed the Shah to go his merry repressive way.
Imagine what would have happened had the US put major pressure on the Shah, who was totally dependent on US military aid and on Western investments for Iran’s economic growth, to implement democratic and social reforms. What would the Middle East look like today had Ayatollah Khomeini and his repressive clique of clerics and Revolutionary Guards not been able to gain power and establish the so-called Islamic Republic of Iran?
|Saddam Husayn at the front during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War|
First, Saddam Husayn’s Ba’thist regime would have never invaded Iran in September 1980 because it would never have dared challenge the Shah’s armed forces, particular its US F-14 Tomcat fighter aircraft. Second, there would have been no incentive for Saddam’s secular regime to begin mobilizing support among Islamists in the 1980s to offset the anti-imperialist aura of Khomeini's Islamic Republic regime, a policy that ultimately backfired.
Third, there would have been no Gulf War in January 1991 or March 1991 uprising (Intifada) by the Shi’a in south central and southern Iraq (and the Kurds in the northeast) against Saddam’s regime. While the troops that surprised the uprising in the south were largely Shi’a, events following the Gulf War undermined Iraqi nationalism.
|Izzat al-Duri-leader of the Faith Campaign|
A combination of the socially and economically destructive UN sanctions regime, and Saddam’s policies, pushed Iraqis to increasingly think in terms of identities that were local and tied to sect or ethnicity.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 made no effort to recruit a new Iraqi political leadership that had remained in Iraq under the Ba’thist regime. Instead, it relied upon what accurately have been referred by Tareq Ismael and others as “carpetbaggers,” whose narrow interests made promoting sectarianism the politics du jour.
When the Iraqi political elite saw that sectarian politics was the new post-Saddam normal, they pursued it with a vengeance, again with the US largely standing passively by.
The decommissioning of the conscript Iraqi army in May 2003, one of the first acts of the US occupation Coalition Provisional Authority, abolished an army that possessed an ethnically, confessionally and battle-hardened officer corps. While some officers were supportive of Saddam, most segments of the conscript army hated the regime for its condescending attitude towards it, infrequent pay and sub-standard equipment, especially in comparison to elite units such as the Republican and Special Republican Guards.
|Former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki|
The selection of the unknown and untested Nuri al-Maliki to become prime minister in 2006 was more an act of Bush administration desperation to replace then Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja’fari who was seen as ineffectual. While Maliki did suppress the Mahdi Army in 2008, it quickly became apparent that he was sectarian to the core. Despite advice from his advisers to withdraw US support, George Bush insisted on continuing to back him as prime minister
When the secular Shi’i politician, Ayad Allawi, won the March 2010 national elections, the Obama administration refused to support him. Fearing that Allawi's strong secular nationalism (precisely why he received so many votes!) would anger Iran, and lead it to cause more mischief in Iraq, Obama concocted a face-saving measure in which Allawi was to become head of a new Council of National Security Affairs and control the Interior and Defense ministries.
The US was never serious about implementing this plan. Maliki agreed to it but immediately ditched it once he had secured a second term as prime minister. Meanwhile, the Obama administration never mentioned it again.
If the Bush administration facilitated the rise of sectarian politicians after the 2003 invasion, such as the Hakims – the leaders of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIIRI) which later became the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) – Maliki, Ahmad Chalabi and Masoud Barzani and clan - the Obama administration compounded this destructive policy. When Maliki began selling positions within the officer corps, thousands of soldiers were forced to give portions of their salaries to their officers, and the (largely Shi’i) Iraqi troops in Mosul were given the green light to fleece the local population at street crossing throughout the city, sectarianism was on a roll.
|Da'sh forces celebrating the capture of Mosul in June 2014|
|Young victims of Syrian Army chemical weapons attack 2013|
No effort was made by the Obama administration to mobilize an international coalition to take on the Asad regime before the civil war turned into what it is today – a “war of all against all” with power in the hands of hardened sectarian forces on both sides of the battle lines.
|Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi and Parliament Speaker Salim al-Juburi|
A constant flow of media attention on the need to forge national unity and supersede sectarian identities, and the selection of a Special UN Rapporteur for Iraq, whose job it would be to keep up pressure on those politicians, like Maliki and his clique, who seek to undermine Prime Minister al-Abadi and pressure the political elite to adopt national policies, has not occurred.
|US air strikes on Kobane on Syria-Turkey border January 2015|
Sectarianism is not a “primordial” quality of Middle Easterners. People do not emerge from the womb as “sectarians.” What is actually occurring is the spread of socially and politically constructed identities by sectarian entrepreneurs who capitalize on fear, economic marginalization, and displacement to politicize ethnically social identities based in ethnicity and/or confession.
In this manner, these elites promote a lack of trust among ethnic and confessional groups that supports their goals of increased power and economic wealth. As Rosner, Quilan and Greenberg national polls demonstrated in 2010 and 2014, sectarianism ranked low (11% in 2010; 22% in 2014) among the concerns of ordinary Iraqis. Physical security and jobs and unemployment ranking far beyond all other concerns(56%/36% in 2010; 52%/45% 2014).
No one should be so naïve as to think that the US can make Iraq, or Syria, whole again. Nevertheless, there is a need for a new US policy that brings together a large coalition of regional and non-regional partners who seek to prevent the spread of terrorism. This coalition should include antagonists to see if common ground can be found to crush the Da’sh before it makes more headway in the Middle East (and Africa).
As the US largely stays in the shadows, other powers in the region are acting. Saudi Arabia and Turkey, with support from Qatar, are arming new Islamist forces, such as the Islamic Army (Jaysh al-Islami http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/jaish-al-islam-piece-918366283). Iran's "Islamic Republic" supports the Asad regime and competes with Saudi Arabia, which is creating another failed state and promoting sectarian identities in Yemen, as both regimes seek to "out sectarian" the other.
Does the US, its regional allies (beyond Saudi Arabia and Turkey), and the West want to see a radical Islamist regime take power in Syria? The Obama administration must step up to the plate. Tamping down sectarian identities should be a top administration priority with new thinking about the region at its core. Obama remains a spectator at the US and the region’s peril.