Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment, 3 Oct 2014

What’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

CP Cafavy, (prominent modern Greek poet, 1863-1933)

There is a debate taking place in America as to whether President Obama’s foreign policy may be situated as one of ‘realistic restraint’, or whether it lies within the more recent current of ‘liberal hegemony’.  Barry Posen at MIT is the proponent of Obama as a realistic ‘restrainer’, but others point out that far from having prepared the American public (a necessary and prior condition for any return) to America’s historic ‘non-interventionist’ posture, the President’s emphasis (at West Point) on American ‘exceptionalism’ and ‘indispensability’, and his readiness later to ‘blacken’ President Putin as a clear and present threat to Europe and the accepted Global Order, suggest that his rhetoric, at least, has been more that of a ‘liberal interventionist’, than ‘restrainer’.

This debate however, seems to miss the point: Obama’s new Middle East venture (against ISIS) falls within neither aforementioned currents of US thinking:  It is neither ‘realism’ nor a pure liberal hegemonic ‘re-make’ of the Middle East.  It seems to be a strategy-less 'war', structured to fail. Indeed, it is already in difficulties, having hardly begun.  What is happening here?

Richard Norton-Taylor is right to highlight that bombing ISIS is ‘futile’. ISIS went to ground well before the bombing began; the group has adopted a flat, horizontal structure (that is, ISIS does not have big ‘headquarters’, battalion ‘depots’, ‘command and control’ centers, or out-in-the-open targets), but operates as a rhizome-like organism.  Read the daily air-strike reports: they refer to a couple of Humvees destroyed here, or an armoured car, which has been rocketed there.  Neither is it the case that airstrikes have immobilised and shut down ISIS:  ISIS is not being rolled-back, but is extending its control (it has just seized two towns in western Iraq, overrun an Iraqi military base containing ‘hundreds’ of Iraqi soldiers, and continues its advance on the city of Kobani in Syria).

More significantly, it is likely that the Coalition is quickly running through its target bank: typically targets get used up in the first days of a major air campaign (as happened for Israel in the 2006 war in Lebanon).  And it is beyond the capacity of any intelligence service to serve up hundreds of new ones every day.  It is a laborious and time-consuming exercise identifying, and then validating, targets.

But after the air campaign: What next? ‘Boots on the ground’; but whose? This sheer void of strategy is puzzling everyone (and giving rise to theories that there must be some “other plan, behind the plan”, as Turkey and Israel are seen visibly to be pushing their own agendas within the strategic void). What will the upper Euphrates valley (which ISIS now controls) - and which has always been deeply Sunni - look like, after the war; what will be the politics of this broad valley, and to whom will it belong?  We do not have any notion.

The puzzle of the US pursuing a strategy-less ‘war’ perhaps cannot be answered in terms of the present categories of debate circulating in Washington; nor perhaps even from the searching for a chimaeric “plan behind the plan”.  Rather its explanation lies elsewhere. It has to do with structural denial.

The consensus in Washington – grudgingly acknowledged even by independent thinkers such as Jim Lobe – is that the US cannot do anything to counter ISIS, without the indispensible assistance of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.  Here lies the primordial problem:  It seems that Washington – after such a long dalliance - simply cannot conceive of ‘packing bags’ on its relationship; but the reality of going along with its Saudi ally is that the US faces a choice: either to disengage as gracefully as it can from this ‘war’ – and de facto come to terms with an Islamic State; or to do the job of defeating ISIS itself, by using its own ‘boots on the ground’.

Saudi Arabia has 'facilitated' many western foreign policy objectives over the last six decades.  It is credited (albeit erroneously) with a major role in defeating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan – and therefore inter alia helping America ‘win’ the Cold War; but its mode of operation – Saudi Arabia’s ‘forces’ in each and every one of these projects - has always been, time after time, the firing-up of Sunni radicalism and the spreading of militant Salafism (of which Wahhabism is its Saudi orientation).

The West has now been twice badly burned by this methodology of firing up Sunni radicals (whilst happily making use of it – and concomitantly showing a blind eye to the installation of Wahhabism as the predominant orientation in Islam).   The first major ‘firing-up’ was in the ‘80s in Afghanistan.  The consequence of it was bombs in New York; bombs in London and Paris – and lest we forget, via the Chechens: bombs in Moscow, too.  Both Afghanistan and Pakistan since have undergone a Salafist metamorphosis - and radicalization.

Now the West and the Middle East has been badly burned yet a second time (ISIS and Jabat An-Nusra), as Vice-President Biden has explicitly explained.  We wrote in 2012 that this second major firing-up of radical Sunni Islam – ignited in order to help overthrow President Assad - would entail yet more profound consequences for the West – more dangerous even than those that arose out from Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Simon Henderson, from the leading American neo-con think-tank, WINEP, noted recently: “today, the Saudis deny any support for terrorists and, indeed, have made it a criminal offense for its citizens to fight in Syria or to provide support for opposition fighters. But this is at odds with decades of Saudi practice, sending religious youth to fight in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, and elsewhere [emphasis added]. It is also not the way Bandar spoke of his instructions from King Abdullah when he was appointed intelligence chief: he stated that he was charged with getting rid of Bashar al Assad, containing Hezbollah in Lebanon, and cutting off the head of the snake (Iran). For emphasis of Saudi sincerity of purpose in Syria, he said that he would follow his monarch's instructions, even if it meant hiring "every SOB jihadist" he could find”.

Now, this ‘decades of practice’ of firing-up religious youth has metamorphosed (not so surprisingly) into a neo–Wahhabist movement (ISIS), which explicitly and assertively stands outside the Saudi Sphere of influence - unlike Osama bin Laden, who though kept at arms length by the King and Court, nonetheless never severed from a certain mainstream within the Kingdom. In short, Saudi Arabia can do nothing to help America in this war.  Its main concern will be to preserve its own youth from ISIS contagion.

Turki al-Hamad, a Saudi liberal, puts it succinctly: writing in the London-based Al-Arab newspaper recently, he wrote: “How can [our scholars] respond [to] ISIS … and all the other parasites which have sprung up on the margin of Islam, when its germs grew among us and within our homes and it was us who nurtured its thought and rhetoric until it grew?”  He could have added (but did not), that ISIS might well have once been nurtured by Saudi Arabia but that does not imply that her ‘child’ will be amenable, obedient – or even grateful.

In one sense the ‘war’ in the Middle East has evolved into a war between Wahhabisms (and other orientations of Salafism, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, (whom Saudis now seek to blame for the emergence of ISIS): It is a war of Sunni on Sunni: of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia versus Wahhabi Qatar; of Wahhabi Jabat An-Nusra against ISIS; of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and certain of its allies against the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is a grand mess. If America wants this sorted, it will have to do it itself.  It can expect no help from its ‘indispensible’ ally.  Saudi Arabia is more intent on its own agenda: distorting Obama’s ‘war’ in order, as Simon Henderson notes, to “deliver a strategic setback to Iran by overthrowing the regime in Damascus. From a Saudi point of view, the move of ISIS forces into Iraq [was a positive factor, contributing to] the removal of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad, who they regarded as a stooge of Tehran. Despite official support by Riyadh for the new Baghdad government, many Saudis who despise Shiites probably regard IS as doing God's work”.

So, has official America simply fallen into the trap of believing Gulf expressions of good intentions?  Even Simon Henderson predicts that “Saudi Arabia's view of self-preservation … will probably involve policy hypocrisy toward Washington … there is exasperation with the caution of President Obama: [at best] the Saudis are going to be reticent in their cooperation. At worst, they will define their self-interest narrowly and not care if it undermines the U.S.”.

If this be the attitude of their ally, why then is the entire US strategy for dealing with ISIS constructed around Saudi Arabia and the Gulf?  Recall that the ISIS beheading videos were almost certainly made with the intention to bring American ‘boots’ on the ground. A ‘non-strategy’ that is grounded on the supposedly good intentions of Gulf participants in supporting the coalition, seems likely to lead to just the point at which the President does not want to arrive – and into which ISIS wishes to entice him (boots on the ground).  If Washington does not see this, then it is in a mode of denial that needs to be addressed.

Edward Luce, writing in the FT, opines that it would be naïve to think that this denial can be addressed (this how things in the Middle East have been done for so long). But nonetheless, Luce then goes on to recite a compelling account of how each US-led initiative in the Middle East, pursued in close alliance with Saudi Arabia, has simply sowed the seeds of worse problems and radicalism to come.  He hints that this inexorable escalation is heading towards towards an explosive outcome.

But to address this denial, would be to open for the US a completely different window onto the Islamic world: For there is another aspect to this alliance, which to a large extent has passed largely unrecognised and unacknowledged: that the West has so absorbed the Saudi narrative of victimhood and usurpation, that many American and European commentators refuse to acknowledge (let alone understand) that there may other ‘truths’ to the region in addition to the Saudi-Gulf ‘truth’.

The Saudi/Gulf ‘truth’ is that they are perpetual victims of Iran and the Shi’i, and that their standing in the region has been steadily usurped by a resurgent Iran. But another ‘truth’ is that the post-Ottoman Arab (largely Sunni) elites (who largely remained in place after WW2) never really recovered their prestige from the disaster of the 1967 war.  Their ‘slide’ started then, and has accelerated since.

The West’s unreflective embrace of this Wahhabist narrative (i.e. the ‘axis of evil’) – and silently underpinned by (the founder of Wahhabism) Mohammad abd-al Wahhab’s absolute disdain and hatred for the Shi’i – bears direct responsibility for the recent polarisation that we have seen in the Middle East.  It seemed that President Obama understood something of adverse consequences to this lopsidedness when he spoke of the need to re-equilibrate between Sunni and Shi’i, adding that this alone would not serve to solve all the region’s problems, but it might drain away some of the poison.  However there now will be a price for Obama in getting together his Arab coalition umbrella: and that price is likely to be ‘no rapprochement with Iran’.

Perhaps those around the President understand the dilemma. Certainly, some commentators in the region suggest that the US airstrikes seem strangely lacklustre and ineffective. Perhaps Obama is less convinced that ISIS can – and will – be destroyed than the official rhetoric suggests. The President, in other words, will make the gesture, but will not go to war with ISIS. Perhaps officials understand, and sympathise too, with Saudi Arabia’s dire vulnerability: they do not want to push the Saudi King beyond his limits. But was this not the story with the Shah?  An unwillingness by American officials to push beyond the perspectives, and the limitations of a close ally -- we all know how that ended.  And perhaps this is how this episode will end too.

If so, perhaps the ‘barbarians’ - (ISIS) - will somehow end up by becoming “a kind of solution” (cf Cafavy’s poem) for Saudi Arabia and the Sunni world. That after all, is because all major points of inflection in history are brought into, and out of, creation from a place of destruction that no civilisation, in itself, is ever able to apprehend.

 (Apologies for late posting of this commentary).