After speaking with foreign policy experts and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle last week, there was a rare consensus that we shouldn’t harbor any illusions about our strategic Arab alliances in the Middle East.
US President Donald Trump’s realignment back to our Sunni Gulf “allies” makes sense on the surface, as we share the goal of curbing Iran’s obsession to dominate the region.
But if we ally ourselves with them, will the Saudi and Gulf States stop supporting radical Sunni jihadists? Will the new Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman be a reformer and a transformative king moving Saudi Arabia into modernity, or will he be reckless and adventurous, creating instability in the region? Don’t forget how hopeful it seemed to many, including Hillary Clinton and secretary of state John Kerry, that the London-trained ophthalmologist Bashar Assad would bring enlightened reform to Syria.
It is inaccurate to analyze the region and our choices exclusively in terms of the Sunni-Shi’ite divide. An equally essential filter to understand the conflicting realities is to separate those nation-states who support political Islamism and those who don’t, e.g.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Egypt.
Political Islamists, whose goal is a worldwide caliphate, have both Shi’ite and Sunni adherents.
They may pursue that goal by conquest or terrorism, as do Islamic State (Sunni) and Iran (Shi’ite), or they may create adherents by providing food, shelter and schooling to disadvantaged Islamic populations.
The Muslim Brotherhood (Sunni) subscribes to both strategies, which misled the Obama administration into advocating for the MB as a moderating force within political Islamism, ignoring their actions and words, such as “jihad is our way,” and “dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.”
Aligning exclusively with either side of these divides, whether Sunnis vs. Shi’ites, or political Islamists and their enablers (Iran/Turkey/Muslim Brotherhood/ Qatar) vs. Egypt/Saudi Arabia/Kuwait/UAE is problematic at best.
America must balance bad or worse choices to achieve its strategic goals. The choices are not always clear or satisfying, as there are befuddling realignments between and within the multi-dimensional divides.
In the world of political Islam, the lines of Sunni and Shi’ite blur: • Shi’ite political Islamist Iran supports Sunni political Islamist Hamas, the progeny of the Sunni political Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
• Shi’ite political Islamist Hezbollah and Sunni political Islamist Hamas have been meeting and coordinating their actions, with the shared goal of the destruction of the State of Israel.
Another player with shifting allegiances within the political Islamist world is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who turned his nation from the only secular Sunni democracy in the Middle East into a political Islamist state, threatening American interests.
Regarding the “status quo” Sunni Wahhabi monarchies embraced by President Trump, Elliot Abrams expresses a post-9/11 view in The National Review that “Wahhabi Islam is at least a gateway drug for extremism...
Saudi preachers, mosques, and schools teach...
moderate versions of Islam are impure and must be replaced by the only true version.”
Let us be clear: there is little commonality of values between America and Saudi Arabia. Ambassador Aaron David Miller referred to Arab nations like Saudi Arabia as tribes with flags. Saudi Arabia is a family owned nation-state run by the descendants of the 19th wife of the clan’s founder, Ibn Saud.
So are the Saudis any less supportive of sources of terrorism than in the past? In some ways yes, but they have miles to go, as they still look the other way as wealthy private Saudi citizens continue to give major backing to radical Sunni jihadist actors.
Yet their rhetoric toward Israel has moved from hostile to conciliatory. The government-controlled Al Riyadh said recently that “there is no reason for Arabs to unjustifiably demonize Israel,” according to the UK Spectator.
Democrats I met with in Congress emphasized a point Antony Blinken, president Barack Obama’s deputy secretary of state, made in The New York Times. “Saudi-exported, ultra-conservative Wahhabism, which breeds intolerance around the world, is no less dangerous to Western interests than Iran’s support for radicalism, regional meddling and expansionism.”
Perhaps, but in the Middle East world of bad and worse choices, Iran clearly falls on the more dangerous side for American interests. Blinken’s equivalence is more about not undermining president Obama’s foreign policy legacy, the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA).
Ever since president Obama allowed the Iranian nuclear agreement to supersede American interests in reining in Iranian hegemony, the Sunni world lost faith in American resolve to both protect them and thwart Iranian expansionism.
Complicating this picture are the Gulf monarchies Bahrain, Oman and the UAE, which support Sunni jihadists and claim to be against Iranian interests.
They are genuinely worried about the dangers of the rise of political Islamism supported by Qatar, which threatens their totalitarian dynasties.
At the same time, they paradoxically funnel money for their supposed enemy Iran through their secretive banking systems.
But what motivates all the Gulf States is their fear of Iran; so helping the Iranian regime may simply be a form of appeasement.
Every one of these Gulf nations with the possible exception of Saudi Arabia wants American bases on their soil as a deterrent to Iranian territorial aspirations.
The UAE vs. Qatar crisis is also be about getting an American base in Abu Dhabi, rather than exclusively the stated goal of stopping Qatari support for terrorism, the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Jazeera and Hezbollah.
Going forward, American interests will be advanced if the United States fosters normalization of Sunni-Israeli relations, reins in Iranian hegemonic ambitions and restrains Gulf State support for Sunni jihadists Aligning with peoples and nations that do not share Western values but do advance our interests is the filter and context to understand our choices in 2017 and beyond.
The author is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™. Dr. Mandel regularly briefs members of Congress and think tanks on the Middle East. He is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post.