March 8, 2016

A Powerful Speech By Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. On Changing U.S. Relations In The Middle East

An excerpt from, "America's Persian And Arabian Wars," by Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr., Middle East Policy Council, March 4, 2016:
What's worse – the interests of Israel and the United States now clash on a growing list of issues. Iran, the security architecture of the Persian Gulf, and the imperative of cooperation with Turkey are at the head of the list. But US-Israeli differences now prominently include relations with Islam, which Israel has sought to demonize, a task in which it has had enormous help from Islamist extremists. Absent American self-identification with Israel, the United States has nothing to gain and much to lose by allowing an establishment of religion to guide its foreign policy.

Contemporary Israeli values are also increasingly at odds with those of both the United States and Jewish tradition. Doctrines of racial supremacy, religious intolerance, and ethnic cleansing were once very American but un-Jewish. They are now anathema to Americans even as they flourish in Israel. American Jews find it hard to overcome the tribal impulses that incline them to rally behind the Jewish state but are more and more offended by the way an aggressively expansionist Israel is redefining Judaism and its image.

The partnerships of the United States with Saudi Arabia and others in the Gulf are also in increasing jeopardy, as the Gulf Arabs double down on foreign policies based on sectarian intolerance of Shi`ism as well as rivalry with Iran, the self-proclaimed protector of Shi`ites everywhere. Like Israeli Jews, Saudi Muslims react badly to even the most well-meant criticism by outsiders. They talk about their problems only to themselves, reinforcing their self-righteous self-perceptions and failing to understand the way others see them. (It couldn't happen here!)

Islam is inherently among the most tolerant and humane of faiths. But Saudi Islam is intolerant of other traditions within Islam, the other Abrahamic religions, and actively hostile to faiths not rooted in Judaism like Animism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shamanism, Shintoism, Yazidism, or Zoroastrianism. And it is adamantly opposed to secularism and secular doctrines like Confucianism.

More to the point, Saudi Salafism – pejoratively labeled "Wahhabism" abroad – is kin to the xenophobic doctrines espoused by Islamist extremists, like Daesh or al Qaeda, even if it clearly lacks the zeal for bloody massacres that is their hallmark. This theological affinity makes Saudi Arabia either a reluctant opponent or even clandestine collaborator with Islamist extremists or the ideal partner to combat the perverted Salafism of Daesh. It has been hard for either Americans or Saudis to sort out which it is. That's a problem.
Americans neither understand nor have any interest in involving ourselves in theological rivalries between Sunnis and Shiites. When it is in our interest to do so, we should feel free to cooperate with Iran, as we do with Israel, rather than automatically deferring to Gulf Arab (or Israeli) objections. Our policies in Syria are the palsied offspring of an unholy marriage of convenience between liberal interventionists and Gulf Arab rulers obsessed with deposing Bashar al-Assad, establishing Sunni dominance in Syria, and breaking Syria's alliance with Iran.

But, with the exception of the Iranian angle, would these outcomes necessarily serve U.S. interests? Is the unconditional support of the Gulf Arabs for military dictatorship in Egypt likely to end well? Is the perpetuation of the fighting in Yemen something we favor? It is time to restructure U.S. relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Iran to reflect the challenges of the post-Sykes-Picot and Cold War eras, the need for mutual accommodation between Arabs and Persians, and the rise of Daesh.

Greater flexibility in the U.S. relationship with the Gulf Arabs as well as with Iran is essential to end our cold war with Iran and our hot wars elsewhere in the region. It is necessary to restore a basis for a balance of power in the Persian Gulf that can relieve us of the burden of permanently garrisoning it. We should be looking to internationalize the burden of assuring security of access to energy supplies and freedom of navigation in the region. We should be using the United Nations to forge a coalition of great powers and Muslim states to contain and crush Daesh, criminalize terrorism, and build effective international structures to deal with it.