by Robert E. Hunter
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger last held political office 39 years ago. Yet he remains foreign policy’s pundit primus inter pares in the United States if not also the world. Like the old E. F. Hutton stockbroker commercial, “when Henry Kissinger speaks, people listen.” Thus, anyone interested in the Middle East and trying to read the tealeaves about the future course of US policy in the region is reading the article he published this past week in the Wall Street Journal. Whether Kissinger continues to have major influence in the White House or President Barack Obama is using him as a messenger to the outside world is likely known only to those two men. Given the content of this article, however, the latter is hard to credit. But many people in the Middle East and especially in Tehran will suspect some White House connection and thus will pay acute attention.
Alas, in my judgement, if they see in Kissinger’s analysis a harbinger of US policy, they are either likely to be mistaken or will react in ways that won’t help promote President Obama’s objectives in the region or advance U.S. interests there. In this way, Kissinger’s article is also not helpful.
To begin with, it contains a number of questionable propositions about what is happening in the Middle East. One is Kissinger’s characterization of Iran and its ambitions. The “legacy of Persian imperialism” he cites, an assertion centuries out of date, is perhaps the most telling analytical error. So is his presentation of Iranian ambitions for “historic dominance stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean,” as though anyone in Teheran except for a fantasist could for a moment believe in the realization of such ambitions.
Kissinger also discusses the desire of the Gulf Arab states “to thwart Shiite Iranian designs, which they fear more than [the] Islamic State. ” If true, the Gulf States betray a total want of self-protection. Thus supposedly they see the “nuclear deal” as “tacit American acquiescence in Iranian hegemony.” If anyone in these states believes this, he needs to spend time in Washington observing our debates on the region and listening to commentary by every US government official from the president on down, as well as by all the candidates for president in 2016!
Kissinger’s analysis shows no understanding that neither non-Shiite states nor the United States will accept any such Iranian ambitions passively. Nor does he seem even aware of the competitions between Sunnis and Shias or the geopolitical ambitions of different states in the region, of which Iran is only one. (Others include Saudi Arabia, some other Gulf Arab States, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, and perhaps at some point Iraq.) Kissinger further characterizes the United States as at odds “with Saudi Arabia over Yemen,” whereas in fact the US, whether for good reasons or ill, has been providing Saudi Arabia with military assistance in that conflict. And he sees “What started [in Syria] as a Sunni revolt against the Alawite…autocrat Bashar Assad” solely in its own terms rather than also a product of efforts by Sunni states to redress the regional Sunni-Shiite balance after the 2003 US-led overthrow of the minority Sunni government in majority Shiite Iraq.
Most baffling, perhaps, is Kissinger’s characterization of Tehran’s “imperial and jihadist designs.” True, there are “jihadist” designs in the region. But those fostered by the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs dwarf anything that Iran might be attempting. This has certainly been true since the waning many years ago of any broader appeal the Iranian Revolution commanded among other Shia populations.
By contrast, without Saudi-sponsored and -financed Wahhabism around the Middle East, North Africa, and Southwest Asia, there would be no Islamic State (ISIS or IS) — and very likely no Taliban or al-Qaeda. At the very least, these Islamist groups would be far less influential. Indeed, the most valid indictment of US policy in the region is the failure—or unwillingness—to confront the government of Saudi Arabia on this matter and demand a halt to all support emanating from the Kingdom for this most malevolent and virulent threat to the entire region. Kissinger seems to have no awareness of this dynamic beyond his noting the “disillusionment of some of our Sunni allies” with US policy on Iran. “Allies” is a potent concept: it implies at least some parallel interests and certainly some reciprocity in actions. Indeed, for a valid “alliance” between the United States and these Sunni countries to continue, they need to start taking US interests into account and realizing, in fact, that we need them a good deal less than they profess to need us.
Regarding his policy priorities, Kissinger is right that “so long as ISIS survives and remains in control of geographically defined territory, it will compound all Middle East tensions.” But he fails—indeed, refuses—to acknowledge the principal source of the Islamic State in Sunni religious and other ambitions. Further, Kissinger prefers that “ISIS-held territory…be reconquered either by moderate Sunni forces or outside powers [in the context of this sentence, to include Russia] than by Iranian jihadist or imperial forces.” Again, he gets “jihadist” dead wrong in terms of its sources and sponsorship. His use of “imperial,” meanwhile, suggests an Iran that is many feet taller than it is.
Kissinger also argues that “the reconquered territories should be restored to the local Sunni rule that existed there before the disintegration of both Iraqi and Syrian sovereignty.” In regard to Syria, that implies that Sunni rule should replace Alawite. Such a replacement could be a proper objective in major parts of the country, if it could be done without expanding the civil war in the region. But in Iraq? That can have only one meaning, which is “Sunni Saddamism without Saddam.”
In terms of U.S. “military assurances in the traditional Sunni states,” the Obama administration indeed made such promises, and they can have psychological value. But nowhere in his article does Kissinger recognize that the Sunni Arab states are vastly more powerful militarily than Iran is and almost surely will be for the foreseeable future. He also fails to acknowledge that the Iranian challenge to these states comes primarily not in military terms but from economics, culture, and the almost total failure of the Sunni Gulf states to embark on a course of social or governmental modernization. By contrast, Iran, despite the mullahs, is more than a generation further along.
I will leave to others to comment on Kissinger’s comparison of the Iranian nuclear deal and the 1971-72 opening to China (he sees none), the evolution of Egyptian policy in the early 1970s (where he gets his dates wrong), and the other recommendations for policy that he makes. But on contemporary matters in the region, beginning with an adequate assessment of the “facts on the ground,” his analysis is a failure.
He is, of course, entitled to his perspective. Unfortunately, his article demonstrates a distorted view of forces at work in the Middle East, an implicit advocacy of a continuing US role in the Sunni-Shiite civil war on the Sunni side, and a negative view of the possibilities of a transformed relationship with Iran. The risk is that those political elements in Tehran who oppose the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will inflate the significance of this article in President Obama’s deliberations and, along with their American counterparts, try using it as part of their continuing effort to vitiate the landmark nuclear agreement with Iran.