Sunday, July 20, 2014

U.S. has interest in stopping Mideast violence

By Tom Maertens

Tom Maertens served as National Security Council director for nonproliferation and homeland defense under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and as deputy coordinator for counterterrorism in the State Department during and after 9/11.

— Samuel Huntington’s famous essay on the “Clash of Civilizations” predicted that the new ideological conflict, after the Cold War, would be over cultural and religious identity.

We are seeing that in the Middle East today, witnessing a resurgence of such clashes, some dating to ancient feuds.

The antipathy between Muslims and Jews, for example, began when the Jews of Medina refused to follow Muhammad, largely on the grounds that non-Jews can’t be prophets. Muslim reaction is apparent from the hadith (sayings) attributed to Muhammad: “The Hour (of Judgment) will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them.”

It is common today among even mainstream Islamic clergy to refer to Jews as “the enemies of Allah, the descendants of apes and pigs.” For their part, Israeli Jews began stealing Palestinian land even before the founding of Israel and continue the process today using “settlements.” Extremists on both sides cite endless grievances to justify rocket attacks and suicide bombers on the Palestinian side, and air strikes and systematic apartheid on Israel’s side.

The Sunni/Shia split is almost as old, and dates to a tribal struggle over Muhammed’s successor as Caliph between his Quraysh tribe and the Umayyads. The resulting civil war ended with the battle of Karbala in 680 which established a hereditary succession by Sunnis.

Some minor theological differences have developed between the sects (and their offshoots) over the centuries, but true believers are prepared to fight over the smallest of differences. Many Sunnis still believe that Shiites are not true Muslims at all, but rather dangerous heretics and apostates. ISIS, which has declared a (Sunni) Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, recently carried out summary executions of thousands of unarmed Shiites.

Shiites have usually responded in kind; the term “assassin”, for example, derives from a 12th and 13th century Shiite suicide cult that targeted Sunni oppressors.

The third major blood feud began when Islamic armies invaded the Christian world, reaching northwest France in the 8th century and remaining at the gates of Vienna until 1683. The Christian response was a centuries-long campaign of bloodletting against Muslims, Jews, heretics, and even Orthodox Christians, of which the Crusades, the religious wars, and the Inquisition were all part.

Wisdom dictates caution about intervening in such conflicts. The U.S. has a standing interventionist lobby, however, led by the chest-thumping Neoconservatives, whose advice resulted in Bush’s epic, geo-strategic “own goal” in Iraq. Bush didn’t even know there was a difference between Sunnis and Shia before he invaded, or that Saddam and the Sunnis — 20 percent of the population — dominated a population that was 60 percent Shia.

The parody version of a Neocon is John McCain, who has advocated U.S. military involvement in Nigeria, Ukraine, Syria, Mali, North Korea, Iran, Libya, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Sudan and Iraq (multiple times), according to Dana Milbank in the Washington Post.

Our track record in “fixing” countries is not reassuring. We drove Iraq out of Kuwait, but what about Somalia? Iraq? Syria? Libya? Afghanistan?

There are nonetheless people who always demand that we “do something,” even if there is little prospect of improving things. McCain and the Neocons are urging Obama to support al-Maliki (Shiite), against The (Sunni) Islamic State; at the same time, they advocate supporting Sunni rebels against Assad (Alawite/Shia) in Syria, although Assad is fighting The Islamic State alongside al-Maliki. They also oppose dealing with Shia Iran, which provides critical support to al-Maliki in Iraq. In other words, they want to take both sides of the fight.

A major unknown is how dangerous The Islamic State might be to the U.S. and its allies. A second concern is the growing number of American Muslims who return home radicalized after participating in Middle Eastern “jihad.” FBI Director Comey told reporters that one of his biggest day-to-day concerns is the prospect that they’ll return home to strike the U.S.

The current fighting in Gaza is one more episode in a longtime blood feud. In this case, however, Israeli attacks make Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, who has disavowed violence, look powerless, compared to Hamas, which is promoting violence.

Moreover, Israel’s airstrikes against civilians as punishment for Hamas’s actions looks like an Israeli “own-goal” which is alienating world opinion and could lead to a third intifada.

It is in our (and Israel’s) interest to stop the violence. We have had some diplomatic successes recently, persuading Syria to eliminate its chemical weapons program and striking an electoral compromise in Afghanistan.

Halting the Gaza blood feud will require a concerted multilateral effort, however.

Also published in The Free Press, Mankato, MN, July 20, 2014.

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