The U.S. government, along with mainstream commentators Left and Right, debate how to meet what they deem to be the growing threat to America posed by the Sunni fighters who last month declared themselves to be “the Islamic State” and their leader, one Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, as the caliph—secular and religious leader—of all Muslims. This reaction mirrors the group’s ignorant evaluation of its own importance. In fact, jumping the gun on the caliphate is likely to diminish its standing within the Muslim world, never mind vis a vis the West.
Important as it is to keep in mind that sectarian socio-religious hate is what drives the vast bulk of the people engaged in today’s Muslim-world war, understanding that war requires taking into account those who provide the contending forces’ military organization. On all sides, this has less to do with religion than with secular considerations, including by highly placed atheists, of how to promote their own power.
Sunni fighters from around the Muslim world, having failed to conquer all of Syria from the Assad regime’s Alewites (a branch of Shia Islam) have been pushed eastward into majority-Sunni areas. These extend from east-central Syria into north-central Iraq. A wholly artificial border divides them. In recent days, they have established control over Sunni-majority areas of Iraq, from Fallujah and Mosul to the edges of Tikrit and Samarra. Our foreign policy establishment’s illusion that world events are principally about the United States, and its reflexive commitment to existing international borders, has led it to misunderstand that the region’s wars have been about re-drawing the unnatural borders imposed by the Wilsonians who subdivided the Ottoman Empire in 1919.
Our establishment, having neither ideas nor means for stopping this re-drawing, has reacted by hand-wringing (e.g. “the fall of Mosul” WSJ 6/11). Herewith, some suggestions for understanding these events’ implications for U.S. interests.
As the Muslim world’s Sunni and Shia confessions tear at each other’s vitals along the Fertile Crescent from Mesopotamia through Syria and into Lebanon, some Americans’ regrets that we are not involved are based on the premise that this war is between moderates and extremists, and that our interest is to ensure the moderates’ victory. In fact however “moderation,” “extremism” and “al Qaeda” are categories that fit American prejudices better than they do than local realities. The war is about complex social, racial and religious hatreds accumulated over centuries.
Obama is making sure that nothing will stand in the way of Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Veiling that with a transparently insincere claim to be “freezing” Iran’s quest, and leaving in the lurch governments and peoples that had counted on his promises, he dishonors America. Thus does he guarantee that many more governments will acquire such weapons, and consigns to history the very ideal of nuclear non-proliferation.
But let us look on the bright side: There is value in leaving no doubt about reality.
Who wins and loses in Syria’s civil war is not in our interest and is beyond our control. Because that has been obvious since that war started two years ago, the American people’s consensus has been that the US government should steer clear of it. Now the Obama Administration seems to have decided to help the rebels, conveying its decision to the public indirectly and framing it in generalities: ending the slaughter and asserting America’s role in the region. But since its intervention cannot decide the struggle, it can only diminish America’s influence.