The return of the myth of insoluble ancient conflicts

On foreign policy, Obama's last State of the Union address was laden with many false dichotomies

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem
Published: Updated:
Read Mode
100% Font Size
15 min read

President Obama’s last State of the Union address contained accurate diagnosis of certain domestic ills. He also proposed some laudable suggestions. He bemoaned the dysfunction in the political system and the rancor that dominates the political discourse. He complained about the erosion of the political center, the corrosive effects of gerrymandering of congressional districts, chastised the hate-mongering against Muslims and immigrants of some of the Republican presidential candidates, and the corrupting role of unbridled special interest money in America’s polity.

However, on foreign policy, the address was laden with many straw men and false dichotomies such as when he said that we have to “keep America safe and strong without either isolating ourselves or trying to nation-build everywhere”. This straw man was as fat and ugly as the previous one Obama used to dig up when defending his lamentable Syria policy by falsely accusing his critics, claiming that they want him to ‘invade’ Syria... Then Obama the professor- in-chief pulled an old canard that purports to explain why Middle Eastern states and societies appear to behave as if they are outside of history and why the political, ideological and strategic considerations that govern other states’ behaviors are not applicable in these strange badlands.

“In today’s world, we are threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states”, thus spake Obama. “The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia”. This is the myth of insoluble ancient conflicts rooted in equally ancient hatred and wrapped by metaphysical explanations the western Cartesian mind cannot fathom. Was this an Orientalist faux pas? Or a carefully – and cynically - framed construct designed to justify the President’s failure in solving the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Libya?

This dangerous myth is rooted in the assumption that the current Sunni/Shiite bitter struggles in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Arabian Peninsula, just as the Arab/Israeli conflict and the Jewish/Christian/Muslim tensions, have been going on and simmering for millennia. Therefore nothing new can be done by outsiders, while laying low and allowing these conflicts to work themselves out, is to manage and/or contain them, because they are beyond permanent resolutions. This assumption, simply condemn these cultures to live in perpetual wars, punctuated by fragile truces mistaken for peace. According to this view, since these conflicts are framed in absolutist and metaphysical language, they are not susceptible to reasonable compromises.

Thus, the recent Sunni-Shiite sectarian demonization is but the latest chapter in a bloody continuum from the seventh century. The current Sunni-Shiite tension, is only few decades old, and although the communities of the believers are aware of its historic nature, they are driven by the political and strategic calculus of the major Sunni and Shiite states in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia and its allies and Turkey as the Sunni powers, and Iran (with portions of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon) as the key Shiite power. This is raison d'état par excellence at play here, and not theological considerations or disputations.

On foreign policy, Obama's last State of the Union address was laden with many false dichotomies

Hisham Melhem

One would think that the young Sunnis and Shiites battling each other on a long front stretching from the Mediterranean to the Gulf are doing so to settle the issue of who are the rightful successors of Prophet Muhammad, rather than fight over political gains, economic and strategic interests or military hegemony. Or as if the less than a century old conflict between Arabs and Israelis, has been raging for millennia and at its heart are old theological disputes about the way the nature of God is depicted in the Old Testament and the Qur’an, rather than a conflict between two peoples with special relations and claims to the same land struggling over national patrimony, identity, and resources, a conflict over what is tangible and not what is spiritual.

Even when the poor foot soldiers are told by their cunning leaders that they are fighting to preserve the righteousness of their religious ethos, their real struggles usually revolve over what is tangible and measurable. Religion has always been a potent force used by political leaders as an effective mobilization tool. Throughout the history of Islam, even strictly political movements and events have been justified, explained or defended by conferring on them a religious and/or sectarian justification. Empires and nation-states as well as political movements always invoke a higher power, or religion, sect, nationalism and myths to explain national interests.

Modern not ancient

True, sectarian identification, concerns, grievances, stereotypes and downright mythology designed to prop up the sect within Islam have existed since the beginning of the divisions over the issue of succession. It is still the fact that in modern times, from the Ottoman Empire, through European colonialism and the mandate system, followed by formal independence, acute sectarianism was not part of the national discourse, and sectarian identification was subsumed by other modern ideologies such as Arab nationalism, socialism and liberalism. This is not to suggest that the history of Islam is devoid of sectarian tension or that tension did not lead to violence against rising minorities such as the violence on Christian communities in Mount Lebanon and Damascus in 1860.

In the 1950’s and 60’s there emerged the modern ‘secular’ but repressive Arab state in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Yemen where Islamic movements like the Muslim Brotherhood were contained or suppressed. The abject failure of the secular Arab states in developing their economies and societies was brought home in a shocking way after the defeat of Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the 1967 war with Israel. That defeat marked the beginning of the return of political Islam to Arab politics. The (Sunni) Arab Islamists saw in the 1967 defeat a historical repudiation of Arab nationalism.

The Iranian revolution of 1979, which was led by the powerful Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, against a regime that was too beholden to the West, marked the beginning of Shiite assertiveness. But the biggest boost to sectarianism until then was by far the disastrous decision by Saddam Hussein to invade Iran, a country three times the size of Iraq. Both countries exploited sectarianism to mobilize their populations in the longest conventional war in the twentieth century, although Iraq was overtly and more crudely sectarian than Iran. Saddam Hussein the supposed ‘secular’ leader began to show publicly his (fake) religiosity, after he realized that Arab nationalism is not a strong tool for mobilization.

Saddam, wrote the words (Allahu Akbar) on the Iraqi flag, and ‘rented’ the services of an Egyptian journalist to create Saddam’s family tree to establish officially that he is a direct descendent from Prophet Muhammad. Immediately after this ‘revelation’, the Iraqi media, to the extent that it existed, began to refer to Saddam as the حفيد الرسول literally ‘the grandson of the Prophet’. Iraqi leaders and media employed crude anti-Iranian propaganda. The Iranians sent thousands of young revolutionary Basij to certain death after giving them maps of Palestine and Jerusalem as if after they defeat the Iraqis holed up in their trenches, the young Iranian Basij will continue their victorious march to liberate Jerusalem.

The gates of the sectarian inferno

However, the gates of the sectarian inferno in Iraq were opened wide when the United States invaded the country in 2003. The sectarian tensions exploded and unleashed unprecedented violence, now that most people began to identify themselves as Sunnis or Shiites, and when Baghdad and other cities were subjected to terror attacks designed in part to do sectarian cleansings. Baghdad now is almost 80 percent Shiite. At the turn of the 20th century, the population of Baghdad was so diverse, that it was estimated that the Jewish population of the Iraqi capital was between 20 percent and 25 percent.

In Syria, sectarianism also was relatively new. A fairly large number of the Syrian officer corps was Alawites, a small off-shoot sect of Twelver Shi’ism. With the rise of Hafez Assad to power in 1970 it became clear that the ‘core’ of the Ba’ath regime was Alawite, a community representing 12 percent of the population. Historically, the Alawites were disenfranchised and marginalized economically and politically but now they had in their hands the real levers of power in Damascus.

From 1978 to 1982 an Islamist rebellion began against the regime. Both the regime and the opposition displayed a penchant to extreme violence. The rebellion was brutally crushed in a cataclysm of violence in the city of Hama in 1982 where at least 10,000 people (some believe 20,000) perished, many of them civilians. That was the beginning of Syria’s slow descent to the sectarian inferno that we see today.

Political and religious leaders exploit religion and sectarian solidarity, just as other ideologies and nationalisms are exploited to mobilize the base and continue the strife. However, the objectives of these conflicts are political, economic and strategic and not religious. And it is misleading to claim, as President Obama did that these conflicts ‘date back millennia’, just to justify the failure of his contradictory policies in Libya (where these old conflicts did not even exist) or in Iraq, where his eagerness to withdraw U.S. forces and his reluctance to challenge the sectarian policies of the supposedly American ally Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki plunged the country deeper into sectarian strife, a fact that explains in part the rise of the Islamic State ISIS in 2014.

Policy failure or failed states?

Before the invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush in his 2002 National Security Strategy warned that the United States is ‘threatened less by conquering states than by failing ones’. Almost 14 years later, President Obama used strikingly identical language. The United States is threatened ‘less by evil empires and more by failing states’. It is difficult to quibble with this diagnosis. But if President Obama truly believes that failing states such as Libya, Syria and Iraq (not to mention Yemen) represent serious sources of threat to America, how can he justify his abandonment of Libya, following his military intervention with the allies in the war against the Qaddafi regime. President Obama may not own Iraq’s war fully but he contributed to the breaking of Libya and hence he partly owns that mess.

It is worth repeating that his failure to deliver on his threats and promises in Syria, also contributed to the country’s collapse into the category of failed states, with his dithering contributing to the killing of more than 300,000 Syrians. Yes Syria is a failed state, and Syrians, particularly the Barbaric Assad regime, are mainly responsible for this tragedy. However, the failure of the leader of the U.S. to deliver on promises to help and threats to punish have pushed Syria deeper into the abyss of a conflict. Obama says it cannot be resolved because it is ancient and religious and not susceptible to the working of his cold, calculating Cartesian mind.

A Persian epilogue

Hours before his address, the Iranian navy captured ten American sailors on two small boats after they mistakenly entered Iran’s territorial waters. They were released less than 24 hours later. But the brief encounter in the middle of the Gulf between the two navies and more importantly how the political leaderships in Washington and Tehran dealt with it showed that Iran acted like the superpower and the U.S. acted like the regional power. The Iranians, who did not accuse the Americans of spying, treated the U.S. sailors as captives or ‘hostiles’ and humiliated them publicly by forcing them to kneel and put their hands behind their heads in total submission, then getting them to thank Iranian ‘hospitality’. Of course the pious regime provided the lone American woman sailor with the proper head scarf, to show respect for modesty and tradition.

The videos of the spectacle were shown on every anti-American media outlet in the region and beyond. Secretary John Kerry, who has a mystical belief in the power of diplomacy made several calls to his diplo Iranian buddy Jawad Zarif to get the sailors released. He was effusive in his public gratitude to the appropriate Iranian treatment of the U.S. sailors. President Obama discovered the virtues of silence, and there was not even a whimper of outrage from the White House or the Pentagon.

Of course, President Obama, as he did during the nuclear negotiations with Iran, when Iranian forces and their proxies were pulverizing large swaths of Syrian and Iraqi territories kept his cold eyes on the prize, that is the nuclear deal come what may. The cool and Cartesian bunch in Washington did not want to anger the Iranians few days before the full implementation of the nuclear deal, which explains the faint sound of silence of the White House subsumed by an assertive and loud Persian epilogue to a sad tale.

Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter: @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
Top Content Trending