By Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger, “Second Thought: a US-Israel Initiative”
US policy in the Middle East
Since the 7th century, the Middle East has been one of the most tempestuous epicenters of domestic, regional and global wars and terrorism. The Middle East has frustrated US policy-makers, whose genuine attempts to promote peaceful-coexistence, human rights, democracy and international law have – too often – fueled social and political disintegration, repression, domestic and regional wars and global terrorism.
For example, in 1978/79, the US intent to advance the cause of human rights and democracy in Iran, led to the embrace of Ayatollah Khomeini (an old religious leader in exile….) and betrayal of the Shah, providing the tailwind for the transformation of Iran from the American Policeman of the Gulf to the worst enemy of the US and all its Arab allies, a major proliferator of terrorism, wars and ballistic capabilities.
In 1990, the US considered Saddam Hussein an ally (the enemy of my enemy is my friend….), unintentionally providing a “green light” to his invasion of Kuwait (during Saddam’s meeting with US Ambassador April Glaspie).
In 2003, the US toppled Saddam Hussein, crushed Iraq’s Sunni dominance of Iraq and empowered the Iran-backed Shiites, which unleashed a ferocious civil war and intensified Islamic terrorism.
In 2009, the US spurned the pro-US President Mubarak and courted Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood – aiming to advance the cause of human rights and democracy – which catapulted the Brotherhood to power in 2012/13, and energized their attempts to terrorize and topple every pro-US Arab regimes.
In 2011, the US-led NATO military offensive against Qadhafi, which was intended to halt severe violations of human rights, transformed Libya into a blustery platform of civil wars, Islamic terrorism and egregious violation of human rights.
In 2011, the US welcomed the fiery eruption of violence on the Arab street as if it were an “Arab Spring,” March of Democracy and Facebook and Youth Revolution. Thus, the failure to identify the de facto “Arab Tsunami” spurred rogue Arab elements towards domestic upheaval in pro-US Arab countries.
The 2015 Iran nuclear accord (JCPOA) was intended to pacify Iran’s Ayatollahs and promote peaceful coexistence and influence-sharing between Shiite Iran and the Sunni Arab Gulf states. Instead, it accorded legitimacy and $150bn to the Ayatollahs’ domestic repression, regional wars (in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon), global terrorism, ballistic capabilities, and the promotion of the Ayatollas’ fanatical-megalomaniacal vision of dominating the Gulf, the Middle East, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Horn of Africa and the rest of the globe, posing a clear and present threat to all pro-US Arab countries and the global order. For Iran’s Ayatollahs, the US is “The Great Satan,” which must be humiliated and defeated, in order to realize the megalomaniacal vision. Hence, the routine Ayatollahs-controlled mob chanting: “Death to America.”
In 2021, the US is putting Saudi Arabia on notice – including the suspension of arms sales – because of human rights violations and the lack of democracy, and due to the Saudi military involvement in Yemen’s civil war and its impact on Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. However, US pressure on Saudi Arabia, concurrently with revoking the designation of the Iran-backed Yemenite Shiite Houthis as terrorists, and the warming up to Iran’s Ayatollahs (who were not put on notice….), have emboldened the Houthis. Thus, the Houthis have stepped up their deliberate and systematic launching of missiles and “suicide drones” at Saudi civilian centers and oil facilities. Moreover, it has bolstered Iran’s attempts to topple the Sunni Saudi regime through Iran’s military involvement in the Yemen civil war, which erupted in 2015, following a long series of civil wars: 2009-2015, 1979, 1962-1970, etc.
For Shiite Iran it is another battle in the 1,400-year-old Sunni-Shia war.
Middle East reality
The aforementioned milestones of US policy in the Middle East, have highlighted the significant gap between Western conventional wisdom and Middle East reality, while exposing the following 1,400-year-old features of the stormy, unpredictable, highly-fragmented, violently intolerant Middle East:
*Middle East reality, on the one hand, and political stability and peaceful coexistence, on the other hand, constitute an oxymoron.
*The relatively-ancient local clan/tribal, ethnic, religious, cultural, geographic, ideological identities/loyalties supersede the relatively-new national identity and the rule of national law (e.g., Tripolitania in western Libya vs. Cyrenaica in the east vs. Fezzan in the southwest; a 9-tribe coalition in Benghazi, Libya is fighting other tribes, while fighting among themselves).
*Despotic regimes with limited legitimacy (representing a minority of the population), ascend to – and lose – power through violence.
*Relatively-transient regimes – highly susceptible to coups – yield tenuous policies, shifty fleeting alliances and ephemeral agreements (e.g., Libya until and since 1969, Libya until and since 2003, Iran until and since 1979, Turkey until and since 2003, Egypt until and since 2012 and then since 2013).
*Western democratic institutions (e.g., free elections, one man one vote, civil liberties, the rule of law, religious tolerance) are foreign to Middle East reality and its inherent political disorder.
*Against the backdrop of the repeated collapse of political order in Arab societies (e.g., Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen), and in view of the systematic failure of US and international peace initiatives, the expectation of peaceful-coexistence among all/most Arab/Muslim communities, which have been fighting each other for centuries through war and terrorism, is unrealistic in the short and medium run, if at all attainable in the explosive Middle East.
*A humongous gap exists between the well-meaning US desire for a peaceful and just Middle East, on the one hand, and that which the turbulent Middle East system can deliver. Contrary to Western policy makers, Arab leaders have a long historical memory. They don’t forget and don’t forgive….
According to Prof. Elie Kedourie (London School of Economics, the iconic game-changing Middle East historian): “Any such project as bringing democracy to the Arab Middle East was trying to make water run uphill.”
1. Against the backdrop of the tectonic Middle East reality – which has yet to reach its boiling point – in view of the impact of the Middle East on US economic and national security interests, and realizing the US desire to minimize its military presence in the region, Israel is the most reliable, capable and democratic ally in the Middle East and the world.
2. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Arab-Israeli conflict has never been “The Middle East Conflict,” and the Palestinian issue is not the crux of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is neither a central concern for the Arabs, nor a core cause of regional turbulence.
3. The unpredictable, erratic, unstable, tenuous, violent, 1,400 year old Middle East reality – which has yet to experience intra-Arab and intra-Muslim peaceful coexistence – determines Israel’s minimal security requirements, which must withstand the Middle East-(bad)-case scenario, not a Western-(good)-case scenario.
4. A secured Israel advances US interests, deterring aggression against Israel and pro-US, relatively-moderate Arab regimes; thus, stabilizing the region. On the other hand, a vulnerable Israel would undermine US interests, whetting the appetite of rogue regimes, fueling regional instability, wars and terrorism, and benefitting rivals and enemies of the US.