Is Washington intentionally provoking Sunni-Shi'ite civil war in the Mideast? Would such a policy be likely to work - Sunni radicals and Shi'ite radicals canceling each other out, leaving pro-U.S. Arabs in control? The pattern in Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq is clear enough to take seriously. Complexity theory suggests that the result will come as a nasty surprise.
According to this video of a CNN interview of investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia jointly funded Sunni extremists in Lebanon as part of a broader U.S. policy of fomenting Sunni-Shi'ite civil war as a means of undermining Shi'ite radicals by strengthening Sunni radicals (i.e., al Qua'ida's base). Washington and Tel Aviv supported Fatah against the legally elected Hamas government in Palestine, as well. In Iraq, Washington's shifting of support from the Shi'ite groups that dominate Washington's Iraqi colonial government toward the Sunnis defeated by Washington's invasion could also be interpreted as an effort to strengthen Sunnis for the purpose of weakening the Shi'a (rather than simply as a belated attempt to separate Baathists from al Qua'ida).
Describing the then-new U.S. policy toward Iraqi Sunnis in Feb. 2007, Cliff Montgomery observed:
Perhaps precisely because of its hopeless blunders in Iraq, Iran has become
the Bush Administration's "Public Enemy Number One", against which its Middle
East strategy is increasingly focused, according to some leading experts on the
Gulf region. That strategy appears aimed at forging an informal alliance between
Bush, Sunni-led Arab states and Israel. The alliance seems designed to challenge
and roll back perceived Iranian influence in the region, according to Gary Sick,
a Columbia University professor who served as former President Jimmy Carter's
chief advisor on Iran."The organizing principle of the new strategy is
confrontation with and containment of Shia influence--and specifically Iranian
influence--wherever it appears in the region," says Sick.
How the new U.S. policy of funding Sunni militias, the "Awakenings," (as long as they combat al Qua'ida) fits in remains to be answered. Is it primarily an effort to unite moderate Iraqis against (mostly foreign) Wahhabi fundamentalists, or is it the first step in a new stage of the Iraqi civil war between Shi'ite and Sunni Iraqis? That is at least two questions:
1) What is the policy actually accomplishing?
2) What is Washington's intent?
The answers are not yet clear, but according to a new study from the Center for American Progress, what has been extolled as a central “success” of the surge has also exacerbated existing political divisions and fomented new political cleavages in an already fractured and fragile Iraqi body politic. Newly empowered sahwa leaders are challenging each other, traditional Sunni Arab political parties, and the Iraqi government.
The assumption that Shi'ite radicalism is potentially as dangerous to the U.S. as their mutual enemy, al Qua'ida, is somewhat far-fetched since al Qua'ida has been attacking the U.S. directly. The three main Shi'ite forces are Iran, which is not attacking the U.S. and has frequently offered to negotiate; Hezballah, which is focused on defending its Lebanese homeland; and the Shi'ite parties in the Iraqi government under U.S. control. (This is of course not to say that an aggressive U.S. policy might not transform one or more Shi’ite group into an implacable enemy.) But even if we somehow could make a logical case that Shi'ite radicalism was bound to become a greater threat than the Sunni groups we have supposedly been fighting ever since the African embassy bombings, the Cole, 9/11, the London subway attack, and the Spanish train attack, is fomenting an Islamic civil war a logical road to U.S. security? (Many glib and uninformed analogies have been made between Islam and the Nazis; a more interesting analogy would be between the al Qua’ida-neocon struggle and the Nazi-Soviet use of the Spanish Civil War as a proxy test for WWII.)
As Alastair Crooke concluded in a study of how to pacify an armed political movement,
...any effort to marginalize the plurality ethnic group in Lebanon -- the
Shia -- [is] fated to fail....A consensual outcome in Lebanon would need to begin
by defining Lebanese national security objectives in ways that address the
vulnerabilities of the respective confessional groups rather than defining
external threats. It would require the agreement, at minimum, of the four
principal confessional groups (the Shia, the Sunnah, the Druze and the
Christians) to new security structures and forces. The new forces would have to
be disengaged from their earlier sectional attachments and histories; and their
operational policies and conduct would have to be overseen by a monitoring body
that is viewed as representative of the community. To achieve such agreement in
any divided society is ambitious; but to achieve it at a time when the West and
other Arab actors are polarizing the politics of Lebanon in pursuit of their own
strategic agendas, may prove impossible. Finally, what needs to be done
eventually and inevitably...must needs be done in Lebanon: the international
community must abandon the ideal and adopt the real. Hezbollah will not disarm
in the face of its enemies... But Hezbollah...will engage in a political process
that is transparent and honest, and that holds out the hope that, at its
conclusion, its existence as a political movement will be guaranteed and that
the sacrifices of its cadre will be recognized and rewarded.
What historical record in any human culture would support the contention that civil war brings out moderation? Al Qua'ida rose from the ashes of U.S.-Saudi support for Islamic extremists in Afghanistan. Moqtada al Sadr and the whole Iraqi insurgency rose from the ashes of Bush's invasion of Iraq. Hezballah rose from the ashes of the Lebanese civil war, with considerable help from Israel's 1982 invasion. The split of Palestine into two feuding camps rose as the result of U.S. military and diplomatic support for Fatah at the expense of the legally elected Hamas government. And now we are to believe that Hezballah will be reined in and replaced by moderate, pro-U.S. feeling as a result of a new civil war, with considerable help from Washington?
There is no law prohibiting politicians from ignoring history, but missing a pattern this obvious cannot but make one wonder if there just might possibly be an alternative explanation. Rather than concluding that Washington is run by people so naive as to think that we can defeat Islamic radicalism by provoking even more radicalism, might it be that the almost inevitable chaos that will result from such an inflamatory policy is in itself the goal?
As long as chaos exists in the Islamic world, the neo-cons (both in Washington and Tel Aviv) can make the argument that they are right, there really is a war between civilizations, and their brand of fundamentalist/expansionist extremism is the West's only hope of survival. The argument may be ridiculous, it may turn reality on its head, but chaos will enable them to convince the many voters filled with righteous indignation but utterly ignorant about the world.
THE NEW WORLD OF COMPLEXITY.
Perhaps one should not be surprised that the traditional policy of divide and conquer would be used by Washington. Empires have, after all, been successfully implementing this policy as long as historical records have existed. Rome was past master at the technique, Stalin used it in Central Asia, the British empire used it in Iraq in the 1930's.
However, near universal education, modern communications, and the extraordinary danger today of asymmetric warfare that effectively empowers the marginalized in a unique way have changed the world. The modern world is significantly more complex - more integrated, more difficult to divide up into local situations that an external power can manipulate one by one. Where a historical policy of divide and conquer left an isolated group disempowered and defeated (e.g., the majority Shi'a in Iraq in the 1930's or a Central Asian ethnic minority intentionally placed in a Soviet Republic dominated by a different ethnic group), today these groups are quick to see the parallels between their local situation and other situations. For example, Bush had hardly left the Mideast when a pro-government Saudi paper, the Arab News, termed Bush's policy of forming an anti-Iranian front composed of the U.S. plus its Sunni allies "madness in search of war." All can see the pattern of Shi'a in Lebanon being frozen out of the Lebanese political system and Shi'a Iran being frozen out of the Mideast/South Asian political system.
Aggravating conflict between extremist Shi’ite and Sunni groups will radicalize and energize both. The more they fight, they more radical each will become. Moreover, the more they fight, the more harm will come to the 1.5 billion Moslems of the world – most of whom (e.g., anti-mullah electoral outcome in Pakistan; e.g., declining popularity of Ahmadinejad in Iran; e.g., peaceful behavior of the half million residents of Gaza who spilled out of their Israeli prison last month, calming went shopping, and voluntarily returned home) just want to go about their lives. That harm (“collateral damage”) will, as in Iraq, provoke them to take sides and/or blame the U.S.
The new, more complex world of today facilitates the formation of new alliances that enable oppressed, ostracized groups to survive long enough to learn how to adapt. Once the process of adaptation gets rolling, it becomes increasingly difficult for the external aggressor to keep up with the evolution of the adapting opponent: the oppressed group not only can gain strength but evolve rapidly, creating new organizational structure, new behavior, and perhaps new goals, none of which will be predicted by the external aggressor. "Divide and conquer" today is a policy that sets up the aggressor for a nasty surprise: in a complex world, it is no longer logical policy.