Saudi Arabia in Search of Allies.

Saudi Arabia is preoccupied with the danger from Shi’ite Iran.[1]   Government spokesmen continually portray Iran as “expansionist and interventionist.”  Moreover, the basic values espoused by Shi’ite Iran clash with those that under-pin Sunni Saudi Arabia.  As one Saudi Shi’ite put it, “What we are asking for, we ask for everyone in Saudi Arabia…: We are against corruption, and we are for women’s rights, for elections, against sectarianism.”  The 2011 “Arab Spring” sparked widespread protests in the Shi’ite areas of eastern Saudi Arabia.  The government saw these as an Iranian effort to sow disorder.  A heavy repression (mass arrests, executions of leading dissidents) fell on the Shi’ites.  This has driven dissent underground.

Saudi Arabia pursued an equally vigorous course abroad.  In 2015, it intervened in Yemen’s civil war to prevent pro-Iranian Houthis from taking complete control of the country on Saudi Arabia’s southwestern border.[2]  Assisted by the Egyptian navy, the Saudis imposed a blockade of Yemen’s ports.  The Saudis also unleashed a devastating bombing campaign.

The struggle against Iran has sent Saudi Arabia in search of allies.  Egypt’s military government–in power since General Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, overthrew the Mohammed Morsi-led Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013—sees political Islam as the country’s chief danger.  This, in turn, means that the “moderate” Sunni rebels in Syria—with an ideological affinity for the Muslim Brotherhood—pose a greater danger than does the Assad government.  Then there is the even greater danger from the Islamic State.  Until 2015, Saudi Arabia also opposed the Brotherhood.  After the coup, Saudi Arabia poured in financial aid to the Sisi government.

Turkish president Recep Tayyib Erdogan is an exponent of political Islam who feels threatened by a military coup.[3]  An anti-Islamist military coup in Egypt might put ideas in the head of more secular Turkish generals.  So Turkey opposed the overthrow of Morsi.  Also, Turkey favored the Sunni “moderates” in Syria.  This created a divide between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.  In 2015, however, the succession to the Saudi throne of King Salman changed the Saudi position on the Muslim Brotherhood.  This opened the road to cooperation with Turkey.

Back in Summer 2016, Saudi Arabia had two chief allies in the struggle against Shi’ite Iran: Turkey and Egypt.  Turkey joined Saudi Arabia in supporting the Sunni rebels against Bashar al Assad in Syria.  Egypt played a valuable role in the struggle against the Houthi rebels in Yemen.  Owing to their different stances on the Muslim Brotherhood, however, those two allies were estranged from one another.

For the moment, Russian intervention has tipped the balance in favor of the Shi’ites.  The Russian alliance with Iran and Iraq to support the Assad government of Syria against the “moderate” rebels appears on the verge of winning the day in that struggle.  Turkey, which refused to break diplomatic relations with Iran after mobs ransacked the Saudi embassy to protest the execution of a Shi’ite imam, seems to be making its peace with Russia and its Shi’ite allies.  Meanwhile the economically costly Yemen war drags on as Saudi Arabia imposes austerity policies on its coddled subjects.  It’s trite to say, but alliances are complicated things.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Feuding Friends Frustrate Saudi Efforts on Iran,” WSJ, 1 July 2016; Yaroslav Trofimov, “Saudis See Time on Their side in Yemen,” WSJ, 23 July 2016; Yaroslav Trofimov, “Saudis Contain Shiite Unrest at Home,” WSJ, 2 September 2016.  Yes, I’m just cleaning out my files over Christmas break.

[2] Whether this posed an actual danger given the many problems of Yemen is open to question.  See:

[3] Also, he’s one of those guys with a sunburned personality who goes “Ouch” at every perceived slight.

On the Obama Doctrine.

The New York Times recently summarized some of President Obama’s thought as revealed in an important article in the Atlantic.[1]

President Obama believes that Asia and Latin America are far more important for America’s future than is the Middle East.  He believes that some of America’s allies try to draw the United States into Middle Eastern conflicts that have little relation to American national interests.  Then they don’t do anything to pull their share of the weight.  He believes that Saudi Arabia “need[s] to find an effective way share the neighborhood [its arch-enemy Iran] and institute some sort of cold peace.”  He sees parts of the Middle East as plagued by “the malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity.”  He recognizes that Ukraine matters more to Russia than it does to the West, especially the United States.  The same will be true if it comes to a military confrontation.

It’s hard to quarrel with any of that as general principles.  The interest of the United States in the Middle East stems from Cold War efforts to keep the Soviet Union from expanding into a key area from which Europe drew its oil and which provided an important link in world communications and transportation.  An ill-considered, but still understandable American commitment to Israel got layered-on after the Six Days War of 1967.  Today, Middle Eastern oil is far less important; the Soviet Union is dead; and Israel does not face any formidable coalition of enemies.  ISIS poses no existential threat to the United States as did Nazi Germany or Communist Russia.  However, decades of engagement created of powerful traditions and institutions dedicated to dealing with the Middle East.  Inertia, rather than thought, carries on.

More troubling are some of the president’s specific reflections.

In the wake of the recent pair of articles in the New York Times on the overthrow of the Libyan government in 2011, President Obama acknowledged that the intervention had been a “mistake.”  However, that mistake had been motivated in part by his belief that Britain and France would shoulder much of the burden.  “Free riders aggravate me.”  Well, they should.  However, it is up to the President and his senior officials to define what each country will do beforehand.  The president is a lawyer.  This should be second-nature to him.

British Prime Minister David Cameron became “distracted by other issues,” in the words of the New York Times, during the Libyan operation.  What were those other issues?  In August 2011, race relations boiled over as massive rioting swept across several major British cities, including London.  In early 2012 the Scottish nationalists won approval for a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom.  These may have been distractions, but neither was a petty matter.

President Obama is “openly contemptuous of Washington’s foreign policy establishment,” which always ends up favoring “militarized responses.”  That may be true in some cases, but in the case of Libya, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and the leaders of the intelligence agencies all were—apparently—opposed to intervention.  In the case of Egypt, all these and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were cautious about tossing overboard the dictator Hosni Mubarak.  Those initiatives were on the president.  What of Syria?  Was it the “foreign policy establishment” that persuaded the president to insist that Bashar al-Assad had to go as the part of any solution?  Then, the Russian intervention has shown that there is a “military solution” to the civil war.  It just isn’t the one that President Obama wanted.  As has been so often the case for the president.

[1] Mark Landler, “Obama Criticizes the ‘Free Riders’ Among America’s Allies, NYT, 10 March 2016.

A Road to Aleppo Experience.

We’re at a dicey point in Syria.[1] When Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels made gains against the Assad government in Summer 2015, the Russkies greatly increased their support for Assad in September 2015. The Obama administration predicted that this would turn into an Afghanistan-like “quagmire” for the Russkies. It still may, but that isn’t what has been happening recently. Instead, the Russian-backed offensive[2] by the Assad government has cut the major supply routes from Turkey to the northern anti-Assad groups. It may go on to crush its opponents in Western Syria and bring that part of the war to an end.

Alternatively, other powers like Turkey and Saudi Arabia could pile on so that the effort to unseat Assad continues. Intervention by Saudi Arabia and Turkey would not be just for spite. The Sunni-Shi’a civil war within Islam provides the context for this decision.[3] To see Assad survive in control of western Syria would mean that a client-state of Iran had tightened its grip. The Wall Street Journal‘s Yarolslav Trofimov reports that such an outcome would be regarded as a “catastrophe” in the minds of Turkish and Saudi leaders. “Can we accept Russia and the Iranians calling the tune in the region?” asked one Turkish diplomat. Many Sunni observers appear to believe that Russian intervention will trigger greater intervention by the Sunni powers.

How? For one thing, the primary supply line into Syria appears to run through Turkey. If that line is cut, will the Saudis try to open (or expand an existing one) through Jordan? For another thing, the key element in the Russian effort has been air power. Would Turkey or Saudi Arabia commit their own air forces against the Russians? Well Turkey did in November 2015, when it shot down a Russian strike jet that had invaded Turkish airspace on a bombing run. The Turks have been quaking in their boots ever since.

There are many questions, great and small.

The ground-based air-defense systems (anti-aircraft missiles) of Turkey and Saudi Arabia come from the United States. Would the US sign-off on transferring these to Syrian opponents of the Assad government?

Even if the Russkies were to back away, would Iran and Iraq? They are front-line states in the Muslim civil war. The outcome in Syria is just as important to them as it is to Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Would Turkey (and possibly Saudi Arabia) launch a conventional ground-force intervention? The Turkish military has been under attack by the Erdogan government. Their price for agreeing might be high. The Saudis haven’t been in a real war for many decades.

One of the key long-term purposes of both the NATO and Warsaw Pact alliances was to rein-in the foreign policy independence of the client states of the United States and the Soviet Union.[4] Has the ending of the Cold War unleashed the client states to do any damn-fool thing that seems to be a good idea at the moment?

The 2003 invasion of Iraq looks worse and worse all the time. If that is possible.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Russian Victories Mark Turning Point in Syria,” WSJ, 12 February 2016.

[2] I suppose you can think of it as “inhumanitarian aid.” However, what is more “humanitarian” in this context: to end the war now or let it drag on along the same awful lines of the last five years?

[3] In the early days of the Iraq occupation, the Bush II Administration refused to call what was happening an “insurgency,” although it plainly was an insurgency. Now, the Obama administration seems reluctant to recognize that this civil war has created difficult problems for their Middle Eastern policy. Back in the day, the historian Henry Adams had great fun showing how the administration of Thomas Jefferson had been driven to adopt many of the policies of the previous John Adams administration—which Jefferson had bitterly criticized during the campaign. HA! Is joke.

[4] See John Lewis Gaddis, The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War (1987).

Arabian Knights.

For a long time, Saudi Arabia has been a gerontocracy. Ibn Saud chased out the Hashemites in the 1920s[1], and set up the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. His many sons then took turns inheriting the throne. In early 2015, a new king took the throne in Saudi Arabia. King Salman, is 80 years old. He appointed his own son. Mohammed bin Salman al Saud as defense minister and deputy crown prince. The king also gave the prince authority over economic and oil policy. Basically, Prince Mohammed is the heir-designate. He’s 30 years old; a homey rather than a “Westerner”; and a hard-case.

It’s easy to see why the Saudis rulers might be sweating through the old burnoose. Like many other developing countries, they have a huge youth population. Just over half of the population is 25 years old or younger. Unlike other developing countries, Saudi Arabia has little chance of providing them with work. Saudi Arabia earns most of its income from oil. It has used that revenue to buy off domestic dissent and to sponsor the world-wide evangelism of Wahhabist Islam. Basically, 18 million Saudis do no work, while 9 million immigrants do all the real work. Most Saudis who “work” are in a laughable public sector.[2] Saudis get free health care and education.[3] Recently, the price of oil has gone through the floor (from $115/barrel to $35/barrel) and will drop some more when Iran comes back on-line. That has been driving down Saudi income—and the buying-off of dissent and the evangelism of Wahhabism. Its great cross-Gulf rival,[4] Iran, has escaped from economic sanctions by cutting an Emmental deal with the West on nuclear weapons. Its chief ally, the United States, isn’t in much of a mood to fight anyone for the moment, especially in the Middle East. WTF to do?

Well, one answer would be to go into a defensive crouch.[5] Saudi Arabia certainly has done that.[6] On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is also punching back hard against the “Iranian threat.” Money for weapons and other supplies has poured in to support anti-Assad forces in Syria. The Saudis have deployed (American supplied) air power against Houthis in Yemen. Thus, it is possible to see the prince as favoring a forward policy in the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war now underway. The opposition to Assad certainly falls in that category, but Yemen offers an example of Saudi Arabia deploying its own forces, rather than merely providing support.[7]

Another answer would be to reform the system. Crown Prince Mohammed has promised “market-based” reforms. The crown prince has promised an insurance-based health-care system (“MohammedCare”) and a partial privatization of education. In short, the Saudis will have to start working. That rule may be applied to the living-large royal family as well. None of that is likely to go over well with people who are used to not working for a living. Saudi Arabia is the next ticking time-bomb in American foreign policy.

[1] The Hashemites ended up with Iraq and Jordan as consolation prizes. Then the king of Iraq got overthrown and murdered by revolutionaries who included Saddam Hussein. So, the king of Jordan hated the ruler of Iraq and the ruler of Saudi Arabia. However, the ruler of Iraq also hated the king of Saudi Arabia. So, that’s concerning.

[2] Even so, about one-fifth of people are “poor.” By Saudi Arabian standards. Like most of the 9/11 suicide bombers.

[3] Bernie Sanders take note. The goose doesn’t always lay golden eggs.

[4] The rivalry is more intense than Ohio State-Michigan. Still, there might be something to be said for making Urban Meyer or Jim Harbaugh a Field Marshall. Although Lou Saban would be the safe bet.

[5] Corporate public relations people generally advise against this. Saudi Arabia has a Tylenol problem, but isn’t acting as Tylenol did. Probably a funny movie in this idea.

[6][6] A blogger urged liberalization and tolerance. He got flogged. His lawyers didn’t get flogged, but they did get jail for defending him. His wife tweeted about his arrest and she got jailed, although she didn’t get flogged.

[7] Alison Smale, “Germany Rebukes Its Own Agency for Criticizing Saudi Policy,” NYT, 4 December 2015.

The heat is on.

Diplomatic historians will be familiar with the idea of “two table games.” That is, governments deal with both other states and with domestic constituencies. This analytical approach arose in part as a result of the domestic problems that led Wilhelmine Germany to court the danger of war in 1914. By the early Twentieth Century, the fake-parliamentary government of the Second Reich faced a serious challenge from the rapidly expanding Social Democratic Party, with the powerful labor unions at its back. Middle-class parties were also growing restive with a government dominated by big business and the reactionary “Junker” land-owners of Prussia. To rally support for the established order, Germany pursued an aggressive foreign policy. Either Germany would achieve some diplomatic triumph that would redound to the credit of conservative leadership or the country would face a diplomatic crisis that led all parties to rally ‘round the flag. In the end, however, this policy brought on the First World War.[1]

According to one well-informed analysis, something like the same thing is contributing to the current Iran-Saudi conflict.[2] On the one hand, supporting the spread of the Wahhabist message of conservative Islam has been one way for the Saudis to fend off unrest. Such conservatives have seen Iran as a revolutionary and anti-Saudi force since the Iranian Revolution began (1979). They have quietly criticized the Saudi government for inertia in the early stages of the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war. That criticism may have helped spark the Saudi intervention in Yemen—and Saudi non-intervention in the struggle against ISIS.

On the other hand, handing out free stuff has been another way of fending off discontent.[3] The slump in world oil prices brought about by the American “fracking” revolution forced Saudi Arabia to choose between reducing production to push earnings back up or accepting lower earnings to maintain their share of the market. Saudi Arabia opted for the latter course because they recognized that if they lost customers, they would never get them back. However, lower income meant that the Saudi public budget had to be cut. Recently, Saudi Arabia announced a 14 percent cut in its budget, leading to reduced subsidies for all sorts of things.

For their part, Iranian conservatives are unhappy with the deal over Iran’s nuclear program and the suspected openness to “liberalization” on the part of younger people. New elections loom in February 2016. What to do? Anything that revived revolutionary fervor and rallied people to the defense of the Islamic Republic would be welcome.

Adding to the grounds for complaint by Saudis about various aspects of government policy is the problem of radical Sunnis. What to do? In October 2014, a Saudi court convicted a Shi’ite cleric named Nemer al-Nemer of sedition and sentenced him to death.[4] On 2 January 2016, Saudi Arabia executed him—along with 47 Sunnis linked to al Qaeda. In Iran, crowds stormed and burned down the Saudi embassy.[5] Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic ties with Iran. Other Sunni-ruled Arab states followed suit.

In 1914 German leaders misjudged where their policy could lead them. People had great confidence in rationality. There isn’t much rationality in “playing chicken.”

[1] See, for example, Volker Berghahn, Germany and the Approach of War in 1914 (New York: St. Martin’s, 1977).

[2] Jaroslav Trofimov, “Mideast Internal Politics Fuel Rift,” WSJ, 5 January 2016.

[3] It’s the mirror-image of “taxation without representation is tyranny.” No taxes = no right to representation.

[4] In both Iraq and in Saudi Arabia, Iran has long used Shi’ites as instruments of Tehran’s policy.

[5] It is difficult to believe that the government of Iran did not understand the implications of one more embassy invasion, especially since the seizure of the American embassy figures as the Iranian “Boston Tea Party.” Perhaps that’s why the police failed to prevent it.

Ending the Syrian Civil War.

Preliminary peace talks for the Syrian civil war got underway in November 2015. Neither the Assad government nor its opponents have been represented so far, just the other powers for whom they serve as proxies. The peace process seems likely to occupy a good deal of news attention in 2016. What do the major participants want?[1]

Iran supports the Assad regime in Syria. Assad is a fellow Shi’ite and his opponents are Sunnis in the midst of a larger Sunni-Shi’ite civil war. Syria borders on Lebanon, where Iran supports the Shi’ite Hezbollah movement. Iranian troops have been fighting in Syria, as have large numbers of Hezbollah fighters. So Iran will want at least an Alawite post-Syrian successor state in the western parts of the country. The Shi’ite government of Iraq seems to have demonstrated a greater willingness to cooperate with Iran than with the United States.

Russia supports Assad, a long-time ally. Russia and Iran (and the Shi’ite government in Iraq) have been co-operating to air-lift troops, aircraft, and materiel from Russia to Syria. Russian aircraft and artillery are now fighting in support of the Assad regime. The Russians are not necessarily committed to Assad remaining in power over the long term, but they will want a diplomatic victory and they will want a friendly state in control of the coast.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are deadly enemies. Saudi Arabia is deeply hostile to Assad’s Alawite (Shi’ite) government. It has been supporting hardline Sunni groups (read radical Islamists) fighting against Assad. They want him gone and a Sunni-majority government in place. That is, they want a Sunni victory in this phase of the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war.

Turkey wants Assad gone and a majority Sunni government in place. Turkey’s policy in pursuit of this goal has been emphatic. However, Turkey also wants to suppress Kurdish nationalism, which has profited from the disintegration of Iraq and Syria as viable states. Turkey has been using the Syrian refugee crisis to exert pressure on the European Union (EU) for—among other things—greater engagement against Assad.

The position of the United States is very awkward. It has already declined to play any active role in the Syrian civil war. Its real concern is to roll-back ISIS as a factor in Iraq, so that it can withdraw once more. The Saudis, the Turks, and the Russians haven’t shown much interest in this problem. With regard to Syria, the US has backed down in its demands. From demanding that Assad be removed as part of the solution, the US retreated to saying that Assad can have no long-term role in governing Syria to desiring to limit whether Assad can run for re-election. Also, the US has agreed to allow Iran to participate in the talks. This has infuriated the Saudis.

What is going to be negotiated? First, what form will a transitional government take? Second, who gets to participate in that government? The Russians want to pick and choose between “terrorists” and “moderates,” with only the latter allowed to participate in a transitional government. The Saudis want the reindeer games to include their clients/proxies (many of whom are Islamists). Having angered the Saudis by allowing Iran into the talks, the US probably will have to back the Saudis in their demand that Islamists be defined as “moderates.” Even if some of them are linked to Al Qaeda.

What will happen to Lebanon in the aftermath of a partition of Syria? The place is awash in Syrian refugees and Iran’s client Hezbollah is very powerful. Will it get absorbed into the Assad-ruled rump-state? That’s likely to scare the living daylights out of Israel. It’s always something.

[1] “Syria Talks: What Countries Want,” NYT, 14 November 2015.


Back in the many-days-ago, immediately following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslims divided over the question of who should lead the “Umma” (the Faithful). Should it be some prominent person who enjoyed wide deference among Arabs or should it be a blood relative? The prominent (and rich) men who argued that one of them should lead tended to be “late adopters” of Islam. This opened them to the suspicion that they were what the Nazis would call “March violets”—opportunists who joined the movement once it came to power. The men who thought that a blood relative should lead tended to be, well, blood relatives, but also essentially lower-ranking figures committed to tribal loyalties. Islam divided between those who supported an eminent figure (Sunnis, the vast majority) and those who favored a blood relative (Shi’ites, a minority overall, but the clear majority in Iran and Iraq). The two sects of Islam did battle for hundreds of year. Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran espouses the cause of the Shi’ites, while the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia espouses the cause of the Sunnis.

For many years, the United States fostered warm relations with Iran. Then came the Iranian Islamist Revolution of 1979. The Americans shifted their support to Sunni rulers, like the kings of Saudi Arabia, but also to more “secular” Arab leaders like Saddam Hussein.[1] This makes it sound like the US is backing “moderate” Islam against “radical” Islam. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Saudis have their own brand of religious radicalism, Wahhabism.

Wahhabism began in the 18th Century as a puritanical sect of Sunni Islam. The founder, sheik Abdul-Wahhab, forged an alliance with the leader of the Saud family, an alliance sealed by the alliance of their children. Almost two centuries later, the Saud family completed the conquest of Arabia. Later, still, it became a major oil exporter. The oil wealth led to a loosening of the strict moral standards that had run in parallel with the rise of the Sauds. In 1979, Wahhabist enthusiasts administered a very public rebuke to the nation’s leadership by seizing the Great Mosque in Mecca. Taking the message to heart, the Saudi leadership changed course. Saudi Arabia has long tried to spread Wahhabism while checking the spread of Shi’ite doctrines.[2] Saudi money pays for mosques, schools, and cultural centers abbroad.

In failed or failing states like Pakistan and Afghanistan during the war against the Soviets, Saudi-funded religious schools (“madrasas”) offered the only schools available to children in border regions and in refugee camps. The Wahhabist doctrines spread to many boys who would later take arms as part of the Taliban. The schools continue to teach studetns drawn from Muslim populations in Indonesia and Malaysia.

In exchange for this largesse for the cause, Wahhabist militants operate only outside Saudi Arabia. The “Arab Afghans” who went to fight the Soviet Union were Wahhabists. Others went to fight in Bosnia or in Chechnya. Most of the 9/11 plane hijackers were Wahhabists.[3] The Nigerian group Boko Haram grew out of Saudi-funded efforts to counter the spread of Sufism in the Sahel. ISIS can be seen as an extension of Wahhabism. Certainly, the Saudis have shown no interest in fighting it in Syria and Iraq, even as their planes pound Shi’ites in Yemen.

In short, victory over Iranian-backed Islamism might just reveal a greater danger still. Little in either the media or government pronouncements is preparing Americans for that shock.

[1] Clients of Iran had a hand in bombing the Marine barracks in Beirut, so it isn’t like this was done at the whim of the oil companies. Regardless of the last sermon in the New York Times.

[2] “Exporting radical Islam,” The Week, 14 August 2015, p. 11.

[3] A portion of the 9/11 Commission’s report that deals with Saudi involvement remains classified.

An eye for an eye.

Here’s the narrative of the Sunni-Shi’a conflict in the Middle East as seen through Saudi Arabian eyes.[1] Back in the day, as my students often refer to any historical event that occurred before the latest installment of “The Dark Knight,” the dispute over who should lead the Faithful divided Islam into Shi’ites and Sunnis. Over many years, the two different schools of thought pretty much learned to live with one another. Later still, most people stopped caring about the argument in any concrete way. For fifty years in the middle of the 20th Century conflict turned on rivalries between conservative monarchical (and pro-Western) regimes like Saudi Arabia and Iran, and revolutionary, “democratic” (and pro-Soviet) regimes like Syria and Egypt. Still, that did not mean that particular religious identity had ceased to matter to people, just that they wouldn’t fight over it. Then came the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Not only did the Iranian ayatollahs overthrow the Shah, they also claimed the right to lead all of the “ummah,” and they attacked the conservative monarchies that had once been Iran’s partners. The Sunni countries, led by Saudi Arabia, weren’t taking this pretentious claim lying down: they counter-attacked by questioning the ayatollahs. Political conflicts began to activate the long-dormant conflict between sects.

Then, in 2003, the United States attacked Iraq. The American invasion overthrew the established order (a Sunni minority ruling a Shi’ite majority), then, first, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and, then ISIS arose out of the conflict. From 2011 on, the civil war in Syria turned up the flame under the Sunni-Shi’a struggle.   The Iranians backed the Assad regime in Syria and the Shi’ite state in Iraq. Now, the Iranians have supported (fomented) trouble in Yemen by the Houthis. This has finally alarmed the ever-patient Saudis: “Until this war, there has been a sense that Iran was encircling Saudi Arabia, [and] that this Shi’ite revival is occurring at the expense of Sunnis.” With the outbreak of fighting in Yemen, however, “It was no longer a Shi’ite crescent, but a Shi’ite circle.” The Middle East has been engulfed in violence as a result of the immoderation of Iran.

What gets left out of this narrative? The most obvious thing is that Iraq attacked Iran at the start of the Iranian Revolution. In the long (1980-1988) war that followed, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait financed much of the Iraqi war effort. Iran had done little beyond rhetoric at this point to threaten either “revolutionary” Iraq or the conservative monarchies. It looks more like trying to profiteer off a weakened Iran on the part of Iraq and then an attempt to fend off the consequences of an ill-considered adventure by Iraq on the part of the Saudis.

A second thing to consider is that Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of Wahhabism, a conservative brand of Sunni Islam, did not arise as a response to a challenge from Shi’ite Iran. Rather, the Saudi monarchy and Wahhabism have been long-term allies. The oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 vastly enriched Saudi Arabia.[2] The wealth sucked out of Western countries allowed the Saudis to embark on a vast Wahhabist propaganda/proselytization campaign in many areas of the Muslim world.[3] That propaganda described non-Wahhabi Muslims as “apostates.”

All narrative demands simplification as a means to clarity. Some narrative simplification can be carried too far in the service of political advocacy. Doubtless this page is a case in point.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Sunni-Shi’ite Conflict Is More Political Than Religious,” WSJ, 15 May 2015.

[2] See:

[3] Including northern Nigeria, where Wahhabists opposed the local brand of Sufi Islam. Out of this struggle and from the many failings of the Nigerian state, emerged Boko Haram.

Menagerie a trois.

Many Saudis blame Iran for fomenting the fighting in both Syria and Iraq, fighting in which Sunnis have been the biggest losers.[1] Government spokesmen equate the Houthis in Yemen with Hezbollah in Lebanon. A spokesman for the Saudi military stated Saudi Arabia’s view of Iranian strategy: “Wherever the Iranians are present, they create militias against these countries. In Lebanon, they have created Hezbollah, which is blocking the political process and has conducted wars against Israelis, destroying Lebanon as a result. And in Yemen, they have created the Houthis.” (Obviously, this is a simplistic analysis that ignores many other factors. However, not many people doing applied politics have the spare time to read the American Political Science Review.) Facilitating this equivalence is the Houthis’ firing of rockets into Saudi Arabia, which Saudi officials compare to Hezbollah’s firing of rockets into Israel. That is, the Saudis see the rocket as the Iranian weapon-of-choice. Since Iran is in hot pursuit of nuclear weapons, it is easy to see why this alarms the Saudis.

Alarmed over the looming escape from sanctions by the Iranians, the Saudis are beginning to draw distinctions. “Israel is an enemy because of its origin, but it isn’t an enemy because of its actions—while Iran is an enemy because of its actions, not because of its origin,” said a former Saudi diplomat. In theory, the Palestinian issue still obstructs Saudi-Israeli co-operation. In practice, anything that appears to be an existential threat to both countries will lead to lesser issues being swiftly resolved or adjourned.[2]

There are hints of other ramifications as well. Saudi Major General Anwar Eshqi (retired), now the director of the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies, told the WSJ that Saudi Arabia wants Israel to be integrated into the Middle East. “[W]e can use their technology while they can use our money.” When the United States cut off aid to Egypt after the coup against Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government, Saudi Arabia immediately stepped in to more than make up for the lost aid. Since then, Egypt has gone ahead pretty much as it prefers without paying much attention to Washington. What if the same thing happens with Israel? Well, the Israelis are not likely to make an open break with the United States because it is the chief source of advanced arms and cover in the UN’s Security Council. Still, the Bush Administration’s attack on Iraq and the Obama Administration’s embrace of the “Arab Spring” have had long-term consequences that undermine American influence in the Middle East.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Saudi Arabia and Israel Find Common Ground on Iran,” WSJ, 19 June 2015.

[2] See: What would Bismarck drive? 3,” May 2015.

What would Bismarck drive? 3.

ISIS looks like a coalition of old Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia survivors, Iraqi Ba’athists, and conservative Syrian Sunni rebels against the Assad government. If ISIS wins in western Iraq and eastern Syria and establishes a caliphate, what will happen to that coalition? Will the coalition hold together in happier times once external dangers are reduced? Or will “hunting season” open as the members pursue disparate goals?[1]

If you look at this over the long-run, working to strengthen good governance and economic development around the world is a good idea. The Islamist movements and the refugees seeking to break into Europe (and the US for that matter) are fleeing stagnant economies, misgovernment, and often violence.[2] “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Alas, I’m not sure that we know how to do this—aside from empires.

The Iraq War was a disaster.[3] As a result, Americans don’t want another real war at the moment. It would take a real war to slow down Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons by any significant amount of time. It would take conquest and occupation to stop it entirely.[4] So, the odds are that President Obama’s pursuit of an agreement with Iran to delay that country’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by some indefinite, but shorter, period is about the best that we can hope for.

However, confessing that we don’t want to do anything serious about Iran estranges us from Israel and Saudi Arabia. A nuclear Iran appears to both Israel and Saudi Arabia as a grave security threat. One of these days, the two countries may decide that Allah/Yahwey helps those who help themselves.[5] Perhaps the key decisions will be made in Jerusalem. Israel and Saudi Arabia have a community of interest in doing something about Iran’s nuclear program. The Saudis probably could not manage a pre-emptive attack on their own. The Saudis probably could not manage to fend-off an angry American reaction on their own. In both cases, a tacit alliance with Israel would be very valuable. On the other hand, Israel and Iran have a community of interest in doing something about ISIS, while Saudi Arabia has not made much of an effort against ISIS because it is beating up on Iranian clients in Iraq and Syria. It is difficult to imagine Israel working a deal with Iran over ISIS if it meant tolerating Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons. It is easier to imagine Saudi Arabia turning on ISIS as part of a deal with Israel. The thing all the decision-makers—in Riyadh, Jerusalem, Tehran, and Washington—are bearing in mind is that any attack on Iran’s nuclear program will start a bigger war in the Middle East, rather than end the current ones. So, perhaps cooler heads will prevail. Perhaps there will be a grand bargain instead of Armageddon. An American presidential campaign in which a host of Republican hopefuls appear to have been recruited from clown college and the anointed Democratic candidate once voted for the Iraq War just to appear tough enough to be president doesn’t inspire confidence.

[1] See: Gordon Craig, Problems of coalition warfare: The military alliance against Napoleon, 1813-1814 (Colorado Springs: U.S. Air Force Academy, 1966); Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. 6: Triumph and Tragedy. .

[2] It appears that the long drop in homicide rates in most American cities has been problematic for local television news stations. Perhaps they should just keep news crews in some place like South Sudan.

[3] In a few years, someone is going to add a chapter to one of those What If? books that explores “counter-factual history.”   My own version runs something like the following. Saddam Hussein was 66 when he was overthrown by the coalition of “the all-too-willing”; he had a bad back, but was afraid to have surgery because it would involve general anesthetic and something might happen; his sons were violent morons who were unlikely to be able to either share or hold power after the eventual death of their father; Iraq had attacked Iran in 1980 and the Iranians were—and are—eager for pay-back; the Shi’ite majority and the Kurds were eager to chart their own course, if only the Sunni minority would get their boot off the necks of the vast majority of Iraqis; and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (the ancestor of ISIS) was operating in Syria from about 2002. So, even without the invasion, things might have shaken-out pretty much as they did. Only, we wouldn’t have our finger-prints all over the rubble. See: Richard K. Betts and Samuel P. Huntington, “Dead Dictators and Rioting Mobs: Does the Demise of Authoritarian Rulers Lead to Political Instability?”, International Security, Vol. 10, #3 (Winter 1985-1986), pp. 112-146.

[4] Perhaps we could partition the place with Russia? See:

[5] One of the ways to think about Saudi Arabian intervention in the Yemen civil war is as an opportunity to give their soldiers and flyers some combat experience before, you know…..