November 4, 2016 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 109

Two Presidents, One Fatal Historic Move

November 4, 2016 | By Yigal Carmon and Anna Mahjar-Barducci*
MEMRI Daily Brief No. 109

With the anticipated uprooting of the Islamic State (ISIS) from Mosul, and the subsequent collapse of its stronghold in Raqqa, thanks to American guidance and military involvement, President Barack Obama will have successfully completed the historic process begun by President George W. Bush with the uprooting of the murderous dictator Saddam Hussein and his regime. The most militant sect within Shi'ite Islam, Iran's Rule of the Jurisprudent (Velayat-e Faqih), will be granted an historic victory over Sunni Islam. Iran will then become the regional hegemonic power from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean, threatening both Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Putting An End To A Millennium Of Sunni Domination In Iraq

Indeed, the Bush administration, while granting the Shi'ite majority in Iraq the advantage it deserved as per democratic principles, tried hard to secure for the Sunnis their relative share in government. But this attempt was eroded by the Shi'ite politicians, who were aided - and controlled - by Iran. Not only did the U.S. fail to protect the Sunnis' share of power - even though the Sunni tribes had helped it fight the Al-Qaeda insurgency in Iraq - but it actually delivered them into the hands of Iran's Shi'ite protégé-turned-Iraqi-prime minister, Nouri Al-Maliki, who stripped them of all power, and during whose tenure they were persecuted. The more established Sunni leadership, in shock from its rapid transformation, within a few short years, from its perceived status as rightful and divinely empowered ruler to downtrodden minority under the boot of its erstwhile subjects, was impotent in the face of the U.S.'s consistent support of the Iraqi-Iranian upsurge.

ISIS - A Violent Embodiment Of The Sunnis' Reaction To Their Loss Of Power

Even though most Sunnis abhor ISIS's murderous ways, the organization's emergence was a violent embodiment of the Sunni reaction to this total loss of power to the Shi'ites, as facilitated by the U.S. But the Islamic State began long before Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi declared the Caliphate in June 2014. It started with Abu Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi, who in 2004-6 focused on targeting both the Shi'ites, whom he viewed as usurpers of the Sunnis' rightful rule of Iraq, and the Americans, whom he saw as responsible for the Iraqi Sunnis' demise. In 2006, Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi declared the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). At its inception, ISIS comprised a mélange of Sunnis: Islamists, non-Islamists, and Ba'athists. Also, unlike Al-Qaeda which prioritizes fighting the West, ISIS originally prized territorial integrity and the principle of hijra (immigration to it) over jihad against the West, which for religious, ideological, and strategic reasons was at the bottom of its priorities. For ISIS, Iraqi Shi'ites and Iran were far more important targets than the West; that, however, has shifted as the West has become increasingly engaged in fighting it, as reflected by all ISIS's messages to its supporters in the West.[1]

Can The American Upset Of An Historic Millennium-Long Order Endure?

Will the Sunnis, who comprise 90% of the Islamic world, acquiesce to their defeat in Iraq and accept the newly empowered geostrategic hegemony of Iran from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean?

Iran's leaders always stress that they have never attacked another country. However true, the reason for this is that they have always recognized their weakness in a direct confrontation with the Sunni majority. Fully aware of the real balance of power, beyond their own self-serving propaganda, they have always refrained from direct conflict with the Sunni world, and whenever they had to face down Sunni elements, they have done so only by means of Arab proxies.

Two countries apparently will not accept the emerging Iranian threat to their national security: Turkey, whose president Erdogan's neo-Ottoman ultranationalism does not presage acquiescence to the new Shi'ite-dominated reality, and Saudi Arabia, which already feels threatened - not only geostrategically, by the Iran-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen to its south, but also religiously, by Iran's increasing dispute of the Saudi role as Custodian of the Holy Places. Moreover, ISIS may yet prove resurgent in Iraq's Sunni-majority areas, where it can expect support from many in the Sunni world. In addition, the uprooting of ISIS from its Syria-Iraq territorial base means that its hardened foreign fighters from Western countries will be returning home - and will exact vengeance. These fighters' primary targets will be the U.S. and other coalition member countries, and Shi'ites wherever they can be found.

The U.S. has gotten itself into a situation in which Iraqi Sunnis, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and others in the Sunni world perceive it as the great betrayer that sides with the Shi'ites in Iraq and with Iran. What the Sunnis see is that the U.S., whether Democratic or Republican, not only ended the millennium of Sunni domination in what is today Iraq, but also that instead of punishing Iran for its attempts to obtain nuclear weapons, it negotiated with it and ended up recognizing it as a nuclear power and lifting the sanctions on it - even though Iran is continuing to develop ballistic missiles, to sponsor terrorism, and to violate human rights.[2]

How Did This Happen?

How did it happen that a country which since President Franklin Roosevelt was the creator and guarantor of world order has catalyzed regional disorder, which will spill over into the West? Around the time of the invasion of Iraq in April 2003, experts and political leaders alike publicly discussed the many aspects of such a move: the assessment, that turned out to be mistaken, that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction; his human rights violations, including the use of chemical weapons and other methods of mass murder against his own people; the problematics of contending with Iraq as a rogue state that attacks its neighbors; the erosion of the sanctions regime against it: and, primarily, the issue of instituting democracy in the country. The one issue that was not discussed, however, was the historic act of shifting the rule from Sunni to Shi'ite. In the case of uprooting ISIS from Mosul, too, what is discussed today is the risk that Shi'ite forces, both governmental and militias, will make the battle over Mosul into a vengeance-fest against the city's Sunni population, and not the long-term ramifications of what will happen after the operation is successfully concluded.

It is not that the Bush administration did not think in terms of historic change. It did. But the change it aimed for was instituting democracy in Iraq - while the change that went almost ignored was that the removal of Saddam and the establishment of a representative ruling council would terminate a millennium of Sunni-dominated stability in the region.

There are always compelling and worthy reasons, some strategic and some moral, for uprooting evil - and they obscure the one consideration that always eludes us at the decisive moment. That consideration is that the new reality may prove worse, which is what happened, and which may worsen still further in the near future.

In Praise Of Hindsight

This article was written in hindsight. The authors make no claim to having had such insight at the time. Some critics, most of them European, did view the invasion as illegitimate, because it would change the country's nature and structure. Like others, we thought this argument overly legalistic, and believed not only that an invasion was legitimate, but that it was morally incumbent upon the U.S. to intervene on behalf of those facing mass murder.

Since nearly everyone failed to foresee the consequences of the historic change brought about by the Bush-Obama policy, whether aimed at instituting democracy (Bush) or at establishing a new regional equilibrium (Obama), the question arises: How can leaders avoid repeats of this debacle, which we see again and again, not only in this case but also in others? It would appear that the golden rule for leaders to follow in determining a course of action is: Do not introduce historic change.

The obvious challenge is what to do in the face of evil. Every minority in danger of mass murder understandably prays that the U.S. will feel morally bound to fight evil. However, this moral imperative should be implemented without introducing structural changes. George Bush senior struck this balance in Operation Desert Storm. Namely, he pushed Saddam out of Kuwait back to his own borders, severely damaged his military forces, and imposed sanctions - but did not oust Saddam in order to introduce democracy.

The world's democracies can and should help peoples under the yoke of dictatorship. But the onus of structural change rests upon the peoples involved. Also, when supporting anti-dictatorial forces, great care must be taken to properly and accurately identify which of them are democratic and progressive, and deserving of support - and not, as President Obama did, help elements like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which are neither democratic nor progressive. This was not the only mistake made by Obama; in Iran's 2009 civil uprising, he stood by the regime of the Islamic Republic as it violently repressed the democratic Green Movement.

Indeed, experts can help apply this rule of refraining from introducing structural change in each individual case. But the ultimate responsibility for upholding this rule rests solely upon the leaders.


*Yigal Carmon is President and Founder of MEMRI. Anna Mahjar-Barducci is Director of the MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project.



[1] The extent to which ISIS considers jihad against the West at the bottom of its priorities is amply reflected in statements by the late ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani, who in a message to ISIS fighters said: "The Islamic State did not launch a war against you, as your lying government and your media claim. You are the ones who initiated hostilities against us. And the side that initiated hostilities is the evil one. You will pay for it dearly when your economies collapse. You will pay dearly when your sons are sent to fight us. And they return crippled and damaged, in coffins, or as lunatics. You will pay when each of you feels afraid to travel abroad. You will pay when you walk the streets in trepidation for fear of the Muslims. You will not be safe in your own beds. You will pay the price when your crusader war fails. And then we will invade the very heart of your country. After that you will never again be aggressive towards anyone." Addressing ISIS fighters, he went on to say: "Why is it that the world is united against you? Why have the nations of unbelief entrenched together against you? What threat do you pose to the distant place of Australia, for it to send its legions towards you? Does Canada have anything to do with you?" See MEMRI JTTM report Responding To U.S.-Led Campaign, ISIS Spokesman Calls To Kill Westerners, Including Civilians, By Any Means Possible, September 22, 2014.

[2] Despite all that President Obama has done for the Iranian regime, not only have he and his administration received no recognition whatsoever from Iran for its efforts to extricate it from its international isolation, but the U.S. is more reviled than ever as the Great Satan; it is also subjected to various hostile Iranian acts such as the arrest of American citizens, the arrest and humiliation of American soldiers, escalated calls of "death to America," and continued incitement against it.

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