Security Studies Program Seminar
The Middle East in the Wake of Iraq: Taking a Strategic Look
Advisor, National Bureau of Asian Research
October 3, 2007
- We need to look at Middle East beyond the radicalized 1%: focus instead on the 99% solution, the Muslim world at large (1.4 bn Muslims who can't be generalized as terrorists). Similarly, as Tom Friedman wrote last week in NYT, we need to move beyond 9/11 and adopt a 9/12 mentality.
- Key point: Middle East will be critical for American national security for next 5-10 years. U.S. has been engaged in the region for over 200 years, not just since March 2003.
- Strategic interests for U.S.: preserve regional security; maintain state of Israel; access to oil at reasonable prices; regional stability/keeping it out of “nasty hands”. In recent years, we've seen a tremendous gap between these strategic goals and the U.S. approach.
- Five critical issues: Iraq, Shia/Sunni sectarian violence, Islamization and continued authoritarianism, resurgent Iran, Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Issue 1: Iraq
- Despite occupation/expense/casualties, the occupation has been unable to establish a functioning, democratic, pluralistic polity that would guarantee security for Iraqis and make Iraq a model for region to emulate. U.S. military presence increasingly irrelevant to domestic security, regardless of surge.
- This suggests primary responsibility for Iraqi security and future—either as unified, viable state or dismembered, failed state—rests primarily on Iraqis and secondarily on neighbors.
- Original plans to bring liberal, democratic, inclusive government now irrelevant; replaced by concerns of security. “Security now trumps democracy.”
- Violence/instability will continue, and Iraqis increasingly blame U.S. (viewed as another flawed colonial experiment like Britain's and Napoleon's Egypt —see Juan Cole book)
- Over 2 million refugees: mostly well-to-do, secular, professional, Sunni, committed to viability of Iraq as a whole. Thus what's left behind is poorer, less professional, younger, less educated, and more sectarian.
- Argument that leaving Iraq precipitously will result in more sectarian violence isn't relevant: Iraq already mired in violence whether U.S. stays or goes. The longer the U.S. stays, the bigger the target for terrorism.
Issue 2: Sectarian Violence
- True throughout the region (see book Shia Revival). Sunni regimes are now feeling threatened by "Shiafication" (Shia proselytization) in their communities, resulting in more sectarianism throughout region ( Iraq, Egypt, Saudi, Abu Dhabi, Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc.); statements of concern by Sunni leaders. Leading to internecine conflict. Hasn't been analyzed strategically.
- Favoring one sect over the other, as Britain and Napoleon did, could serve our short-term interests, but a divide-and-rule policy would not be good for long-term U.S. national security.
- U.S. sponsored regimes (Maliki, Musharraf, Karzai, Abbas, etc.) not a long-term panacea—hitching ourselves to failing leaders (“axis of the weak”)
Issue 3: Islamization of Middle East politics
- This shift is strategic, not tactical. Their legislative behavior trumps their ideology. Islamic parties have participated in multiple elections now, lost some, won others.
- U.S. strategic interest dictates we must seriously engage these Islamic parties, which we don't.
- New trend: “secular Islamic politics”. A good development; empowers centrism.
- Emerged after electoral success of Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, despite military warning population prior to election not to vote for AKP.
- AKP head said he would protect secularism in Turkey, defining it in an Anglo-American rather than French way: separation of church and state, vs. old Turkish way (rejection of religion, laicism).
- Similar phenomenon (with less success so far) in Morocco, etc.
- Deepening rift between Arab and non-Arab Islam—how will that affect engagement of Muslim parties? Open question.
- Continued entrenched authoritarianism in certain countries, which have seen the electoral victories in Palestine, Lebanon, Turkey, Morocco, Malaysia, Indonesia as a threat to them. Do we want to continue to hitch our wagons to the axis of the weak/authoritarians, or to these growing parties?
Issue 4: Resurgent Iran
- Need not threaten U.S. We used (1950s/1960s) to consider Iran center of U.S. security in Persian Gulf arena. A folly to ignore its role in Gulf security: major power, a vibrant society, the guarantor of Persian Gulf security. The regime change didn't negate its importance.
- Invasion of Iraq and 2006 war in Lebanon have strengthened Iran .
- Argument that Iran is meddling in Iraq—it's a conflictive rather than constructive approach; Iran has been involved there for centuries! Southern Iraq has always been of serious interest to Iran. (See Baker-Hamilton ISG report and discussion of engaging Iran.)
- Iran shares several critical interests: unified Iraq, keeping a lid on terrorism (espy Sunni terrorism), regional stability, stability in Afghanistan. Ahmedinejad shouldn't be the focus, the state of Iran should be.
- Nuclear program: Iran 's nuclear program is an indication mainly of failure of our non-proliferation regime—we need to look at that and come up with a different counter-proliferation regime. The states that haven't gone nuclear have done so by choice: any state that wants to go nuclear can! Issue goes beyond any one state (Iran/Pakistan/India/NK/etc.).
Issue 5: Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
- Continues to drive anti-American sentiment in the region. Resolving this won't eliminate terrorism, but it will pull the rug from under a lot of terrorists and weaken their paradigm. Bin Laden uses it as a convenient excuse.
- America has long at least been seen as an honest broker—until two to three years ago, and now Pew/Gallup polling shows we've lost even that role.
The Way Forward
- Addressing Iraq conundrum and Israeli-Palestinian conflict is critical to undercutting the message of radicals and terrorists.
- Twenty years ago we had a good standing in the region: it's not our values that have changed, but our policies. Creative diplomacy and policy can reverse this trend.
- Next administration should build a new international consensus for regional stability anchored in public diplomacy and other diplomacy, rather than conquest, fear, and force (a lesson learned from colonialism).
- Effects on region? Iraq even under brutal dictator was a secular state. Emergence of sectarianism will change region by creating surprising new alignments (espy. in name of Sunni solidarity): e.g.., rising alignment between Saudi Arabia, Israel, United States, and conservative Sunnis against Shiites—even to the point of supporting conservative Sunni groups in Lebanon.
- Where are the secular nationalist elites? Since 1970s, latched themselves to regime, which have become more discredited, thus discrediting the elites. They also have no program to offer; by contrast, Islamic parties offer indigenously-driven agendas, not Islamist/Sharia in nature.
- Strategy for a new administration? We need to get out of population centers immediately: disengage, go to the borders, and then from there, get out. (Six months to borders, six months out.) “Precipitous” withdrawal means a year for purely logistical reasons anyway! We have become part of the problem rather than the solution, so cut losses and get out. Engage through public diplomacy (reach out to the right people with the right people; agents of influence, like clerics and high-school teachers); empower mainstream centrist groups (eg., by meeting with them).
- Other honest brokers for Israeli-Palestinian dispute? Despite U.S. getting low rankings, most Arabs and Muslims agree the U.S. is the key player in bringing this together.
- So few radicals? Six levels of radicalization: personal, family, social, regime, confrontation with regime, terrorism. There is some support for some radicalization within the majority.
Rapporteur: Jacob Russell
back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Fall 2007