Saturday, September 13, 2014

Escape the Middle East Vortex

When Arab nations really want to get rid of the Islamic State, they can give the U.S. a call



By Sarwar Kashmeri

During the winter of 1990, just weeks before the start of the first Gulf War, my wife traveled to India on a holiday. In the U.S., media headlines had been roaring for months about how then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was evil incarnate, and Americans were ready to support the war against Iraq to slay this dragon. American opinion was, the media intoned, the voice of the international community.

Imagine my wife’s considerable surprise then when she landed in Bombay and found most of the porters at the airport proudly wearing Saddam Hussein T-shirts! Somehow, the consensus of the international community as transmitted by the U.S. media had passed these porters by. I flew into Bombay a few days later and found that the same love for Hussein extended to a large swathe of Indians, Muslim and Hindu, who were transfixed by an Arab leader who was about to challenge the mighty United States of America on the field of battle.
What was true then is true now: The so-called international community outside the West is mainly comprised of the middle-class, educated elite — a thin veneer in much of the East and Middle East. The United States is about to discover that support for the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) is much deeper than the president’s advisers assume, and Arab support for this, the latest in a 13-year American effort at nation-building in the Middle East, is a mirage.

That is why in his speech to the nation this week, President Barack Obama was unable to name a single Arab country that had offered to put its troops on the ground to fight the Islamic State. The situation remains the same two days after Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to meet America’s Arab allies to ask for their military support. Even Turkey, a NATO member, has offered little beyond rhetoric.

There is an important reason no Arab country has hopped on the American battle-wagon. They recognize that, in that part of the world, today’s terrorist may well become tomorrow’s statesman. Think Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Israel’s Menechem Begin, who both led movements that believed in killing opponents to support their cause, but after attaining their objectives morphed into statesmen, and then ably led their countries.

The Arabs know the Islamic State is already a functioning, self-supporting state spread out over an area the size of Indiana, with close to 8 million people within its borders. The Middle East’s wealthy layers of society and its autocratic monarchs may despise that, but they know that a swathe of their oppressed majority populations are probably rooting for Islamic State warriors who are taking the fight to U.S.-supported autocracies in the Middle East, and winning.
The Islamic State's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, appears to be cut from a far more ruthless and despicable cloth, but in the Middle East, can one really be sure he will not one day be a political force with which to be reckoned?

So why is America so worked up about the Islamic State? For humanitarian reasons? As that formidable engine of realpolitik, Henry Kissinger, warned, “For the United States, a doctrine of general humanitarian intervention in the Middle East … will prove unsustainable unless linked to a concept of American national security.” And there is no such link, as an article in the New York Times points out: “Despite the attention [the Islamic State] has received, when American counterterrorism officials review the threats to the United States each day, the terror group in not a top concern ... [The Islamic State] has no ability to attack inside the United States … and it is not clear to intelligence officials that the group even wants to.”

Perhaps the president wants to satisfy those who want retribution for the bloody beheading of two American journalists. Here too the United States is on shaky territory, as the Washington Post wrote this week of Kerry’s effort to charm the leaders of Saudi Arabia: “Saudi Arabia is conspicuous in being the sole country to regularly carry out beheadings; last year, a reported shortage of trained swordsmen led to some hope that the practice could wane, but recent evidence suggests otherwise. It's an uncomfortable irony given that the United States' current military mobilization was triggered after the Islamic State beheaded two American journalists.”

The United States is being sucked back into the Middle East’s bloody vortex. It is time to leave the region to its inhabitants and mind American business at home. When the Arabs set up a coalition to fight the Islamic State, they have America’s telephone number.

Sarwar Kashmeri is a fellow of the Foreign Policy Association and an adjunct professor at Norwich University. His most recent book was “NATO 2.0; Reboot or Delete?”

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