America’s Persian and Arabian Wars

by Chas Freeman

Sometime between 460 and 450 B.C.E., Herodotus wrote The Persian Wars, his account of the Greeks’ two wars with the Persians, which spanned thirteen years. Even in a time when trends and events unfolded more slowly than they seem to now, that was a famously lengthy conflict. But the ancient Greeks and Persians have nothing on us Americans in that regard.

The United States has now been engaged in a cold war with Iran – Persia – for thirty-seven years. It has conducted various levels of hot war in Iraq for twenty-six years.  It has been in combat in Afghanistan for fifteen years. Americans have bombed Somalia for fifteen, Libya for five, and Syria for one and a half years. One war has led to another. None has yielded any positive result and none shows any sign of doing so.

The same might be said for the wars of others we Americans subsidize and supply. Israel’s wars to subdue the Palestinians and deter other Arabs from challenging its ongoing dispossession of them are now sixty-eight-years-old – and counting. U.S. drones have been killing Yemenis for fourteen years, Pakistanis for twelve, and Somalis for nine. Saudi Arabia’s bloody effort to reinstall an ousted government in Yemen is almost a year old. In none of these wars is an end in sight.

It’s hard to put a price tag on these inconclusive misadventures. The unsuccessful Afghan and Iraq pacification campaigns alone have cost the United States an estimated $6 trillion in outlays and obligations. Over 7,000 Americans have died in combat since these wars kicked off in 2001. At least another 50,000 have been maimed. A million have filed claims for war-related disabilities. And well over two million Afghans, Arabs, Persians, and Somalis have perished. This is a great deal of sacrifice and suffering for no apparent gain in the region and continuously escalating risks to our homeland. Perhaps a bit of reflection is in order, followed by a change of course.

It is said in this regard that before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. (That way, when you criticize them, you’re a mile away, and you have their shoes.) In that spirit, let me offer a few thoughts as well as a question or two about America’s Persian and Arabian wars.

What it is that we Americans are trying to accomplish?  Is there no better way than warfare to protect and advance our interests? How can we finally end the many wars we have begun? On what terms should they be ended and with whom? At what point is enough enough?

Unraveling the tangle of wars in which the United States is now engaged with or against Arabs, Berbers, Hazaras, Israelis, Kanuris, Kurds, Palestinians, Persians, Pashtuns, Somalis, Syrians, Tajiks, Tuaregs, Turkmen, Turks, and Uzbeks – as well as Alawites, Christians, Druze, Jews, secular Muslims, Salafis, Shiites, Sunnis, and Yazidis – will not be easy. In large measure through our involvement, their conflicts have become interwoven. Ending one or another of them might alter the dynamics of the region but would not by itself produce peace.

That is certainly true of the longest-running of these hostilities – the struggle by Zionist settlers to displace Christian and Muslim Arabs from the Holy Land and to establish a Greater Israel [Eretz Israel] with indefinitely expandable borders.  This is shaping up as a tragedy with no catharsis. Israel’s cruelties to Palestinian Arabs provide daily reminders of two centuries of humiliating Muslim impotence in the face of Euro-American intrusions into the realm of Islam [Dar al Islam].  Israel’s policies have been a major driver of radicalization in Arab politics and in the popularization of terrorism as a tool of resistance to oppression and ethnic cleansing wherever it occurs in the region.

Resentment of Jewish colonialism, and American support for it, is now an elemental feature of Arab and Persian politics, with much resonance among Muslims all over the world. U.S. identification with Israel and its policies has made the United States the target ofIsrael’s burgeoning enemies. Peace in the Holy Land now would not soon erase these resentments, which have become deeply entrenched.

More than most, Israel’s ongoing wars have also become a laboratory in which ways and means of waging war are developed. I’m not just speaking here of Israeli innovations like targeted killings, enhanced interrogation techniques, drones, and pervasive surveillance systems. Suicide bombing is a form of asymmetric warfare now identified with Islam. But it came to the Middle East only when Lebanese were unable to find any other means of raising the cost to Israel of its insolent occupation of their country. The technique had been invented by East Asians – Japan’s kamikaze pilots and the Viet Minh resistance to French rule in Indochina – and perfected by the Tamil Tigers. It remains anathema to most Muslims.

First used in the Middle East by the Shiites of Hezbollah, suicide bombing was then taken up by Sunni Palestinians and applied to both soldiers and civilians in Israel and the occupied territories. First used to strike the United States with airborne improvised explosive devices [IEDs] on September 11, 2001, suicide bombing then became an oft-used weapon in the resistance to U.S. pacification operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It now routinely spearheads assaults by the so-called “Islamic caliphate” (or “Daesh”) in its savage wars on the West, in the Fertile Crescent, and in Arabia and North Africa.

Suicide bombing is the poor man’s precision-guided munition. It blows up targets of politico-military importance by using the human brain as a sophisticated guidance system and the human body as a versatile delivery mechanism for explosives. So far – the splendidly uniformed men and women of TSA notwithstanding – there is no reliable counter to it.

The unending contention between Israelis and Arabs has also become a major factor in both Iran’s regional role and its estrangement from the United States. Iranian support for Hezbollah and its Arab Shiite constituency during and after Israel’s assaults on Lebanon has given Iran significant sway in Lebanese politics. Iran’s anti-Israel rhetoric was particularly noteworthy during the populist presidency of Iran’s version of President Donald Trump, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. It frightened Israelis while gaining Iran traction among Sunni Arabs dismayed by their own governments’ unwillingness to take action against Israel or to break with the United States on the issue. Among other things, this enabled Shiite Iran to build a cooperative relationship with Hamas, a broad-based Sunni democratic movement that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Sunni Arab autocracies as well as Israel and the United States have sought to isolate.

Iran came to contemporary Baghdad as a hitchhiker on America’s 2003 experiment with hit-and-run democratization, which installed a pro-Iranian Shiite government in Iraq. Our invasion eliminated Iraq as a balancer of Iran and enabled Iraq’s Kurds to achieve their independence in all but name, thus straining our relations with Turkey. The so-called “surge” of U.S. troops to Iraq in 2007 consolidated the Shiite monopoly on political power in the Arab-inhabited regions of Iraq, leaving Arab Sunnis disaffected and rebellious. In 2011, the smoldering sectarian warfare in Iraq spread to Syria, which – with a little help from the Gulf Arabs, Turkey, and the United States – it promptly engulfed. Iran now presents itself as the protector of Shiite rule or rights in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon,Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen. Such protection is proving dangerous to the health of the protected.

Iran’s inroads in Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq greatly increased anti-Iranian and anti-Shiite sentiment in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and theUnited Arab Emirates. The Gulf Arabs see themselves as threatened and encircled by surging Iranian influence. Although they have little faith in America these days, they regard continuing American estrangement from Iran as a vital strategic asset to be preserved at almost any cost. They would not acquiesce in the Iran nuclear deal until they received assurances that it would not open the way to Iranian-American rapprochement.

At the same time, Israeli paranoia about Iran found expression in unprecedentedly brazen manipulation of U.S. politics. A senator wrote to the Iranian leadership urging them to reject the president as the representative of the United States in foreign affairs. Presidential candidates declared that, if elected, they would obey Israeli dictates and repudiate what the Obama administration, Britain,China, France, Germany, and Russia have agreed with Iran. In these circumstances, cooperation between the United States and Iran is essentially impossible.

This means that for now nothing can be built on the significant interests that the United States and Iran have in common. This restricts options for dealing with Islamist terrorism in the Fertile Crescent. It helps fuel the destructive region-wide geopolitical and religious rivalry between Iran and the Gulf Arabs. It reduces the prospects for peace in Syria. Even if refugees from the Levant did not threaten the unity of Europe, decency demands that ending the carnage there be an urgent policy objective. In the past five years, half of Syria’s prewar population has been forced to flee their homes. Somewhere between 350,000 and 470,000 Syrians have been killed.

The impasse in U.S. relations with Iran also complicates the prospects for stability in post-NATO Afghanistan, where the Obama administration has punted a lost war to the next administration. It denies the American economy a market that its European and Asian competitors are now vigorously pursuing. It perpetuates the rancor and mutual recriminations that require Americans to garrison the Persian Gulf at the expense of attending to strategic challenges elsewhere in Europe and Asia. And while a freeze in US-Iranian relations may slow the worsening of US-Arab relations, it does not halt or cure it.

A parallel deterioration has taken place in US-Turkish relations. Turkey has joined the Gulf Arabs in seeking regime change in Syriaby supporting Islamist extremists. It is determined to prevent the emergence of yet another Kurdish quasi-state on its southern border.Turkey has always been an essential partner on a uniquely long list of issues. Without Turkish cooperation or acquiescence, one cannot conduct policies toward Iraq, Syria, Iran, Israel, Central Asia, including Afghanistan, the Caucasus, the Black Sea countries,Russia, Greece, Cyprus, the Balkans, North Africa, the EU, the Gulf Arabs, NATO, or the Islamic world and its institutions. Migration from the Levant has just joined that list. But Turkey and the United States are at cross purposes over the Kurdish role in opposing Daesh and not in agreement about what else should happen in Syria.

This is as complex a skein of strife as one can imagine. Like the Gordian knot, the beginnings of the tangle cannot be found to unsnarl it. And the knot is visibly rotting, which risks releasing new horrors.

What is to be done?

We must begin by admitting that various projects to which we have given rhetorical, if not practical, support are now infeasible. The “two-state solution” in the Holy Land is first among these.  Israel continues to insist that it can find no partner for peace. In this argument, Israelis resemble no one so much as the kid who kills his parents and then appeals for sympathy on the grounds that he is an orphan. Under cover of the so-called “peace process,” Israel has assassinated every Palestinian leader of promise – by some counts some 800 individuals over the years – while incarcerating many others and recruiting some to serve as kapos for the occupation. Guns, bombs, booby traps, poison, biological agents, and drones have ensured that there is indeed no one with the vision and political standing to agree to a further subdivision of Palestine.

But, as the South African example shows, democracy in a master race cannot legitimize tyranny over other populations. Young Palestinians no longer have even a Bantustan to look forward to. Their despair has become anomie – a collapse of social norms and constraints. The result is an upsurge in random violence by young Palestinians against their Jewish oppressors.

American leaders spent more than four decades attempting to secure acceptance for a Jewish state in the Middle East. We had some success in this regard, brokering peace with Egypt in 1978 and with Jordan in 1994. In 2002, the Arabs offered Israel a comprehensive peace.  They received no reply at all. The price of domestic tranquility for Israel has always been an end to its land seizures and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Israel has been unable to curb its appetite for Arab land. Now the world is no longer prepared to give Israel – or the United States – the benefit of the doubt. There will either be a one-state solution or escalating low-intensity conflict with increasing collateral damage to American global and regional interests.

It’s impolitic to say so, but the United States and Israel are now seriously estranged, with little prospect of reconciliation. Israeli accommodations of its captive Arab population or its Arab neighbors seem less likely than ever, given the Jewish state’s settler-dominated politics. In the absence of efforts by Israel to reconcile others in the Middle East to its existence, its international delegitimization will accelerate. The United States can no longer protect Israel from the consequences of its own behavior.

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.

Saudi and American values never coincided. The European Enlightenment occurred while Arabia was remote from it and in an Islamic Reformation, inspired by Mohammed ibn `Abd al-Wahhab. The Saudis are Muslim originalists and profoundly anti-secular. They are not impressed by democracy as a political system – especially in its current dysfunctional state in America – and do not aspire to adopt it. These differences never mattered in the past because U.S. and Saudi interests coincided in so many ways. But they matter now.

Until recently, the United States had no political or ideological agenda of its own in the Middle East. It was satisfied to enjoy preferred access to the region’s oil and to provide the Saudis and others protection in return for this. A grateful Saudi Arabia had America’s back on foreign policy issues affecting its region or the realm of Islam. On occasion, it was helpful farther afield.

For decades, the shared American and Saudi obsession with countering Soviet communism sidelined differences over Israel and its policies as well as human and civil rights in the Kingdom. No more. Since 9/11, the entrenchment of U.S. Islamophobia, American unilateralism, and Saudi ambivalence about Salafi jihadism have soured the undemanding friendship of the past.

Contradictions between the American and Arab political cultures were increasingly prominent even before the 21st century began.

With the end of the Cold War, Americans felt free to insist that the price of good relations with us was to accept our deeply held conviction that Western democratic values are self-evidently universal and to demand that foreign partners act accordingly. This inevitably distanced the United States from conservative non-Western societies, of which Saudi Arabia is the epitome. The emergence of feminism and libertarian tolerance of a variety of sexual orientations and behavior in America has added to the mutual distaste. Restoring a sense of common purpose will not be easy, despite the existence of a common enemy in Daesh.

American policies in the Middle East have produced a mess in which we are estranged from all the key actors – Arab, Iranian, Israeli, and Turkish – and on a different page than the Russians. The state of our relations with the region is symbolized by the sight of U.S.diplomats cowering behind barriers surrounding fortress embassies that resemble nothing so much as modern-day Crusader castles. Diplomacy is all but impossible when we must ask host governments to protect our diplomats from their people by placing our embassies under perpetual siege by police. The fact that other countries don’t have to do this is suggestive of something. After so many years, it should be obvious that bombing, drone warfare, and commandos just make things worse. It is time for Americans to end our wars and support for the wars of others in the Middle East and to try something else.

What might that be? Well, we might start by recognizing a few unpalatable realities. In the Levant, the world brought into being by Messrs. Sykes and Picot has ended. All of our bombers and all of our men can’t put Humpty Dumpty together again. We and our friends in the region are going to have to accept the rise of new states within changed borders. Where we cannot fix things, we must at least do no harm.

The Arabs have made it clear that they recognize the reality of Israel’s presence in their midst and do not expect it to disappear. It’s clear that, if Israel did indeed disappear, this would be because it did itself in, not because it was militarily overwhelmed. Israel has had a free ride on the United States for forty years. It is in denial about the ultimate consequences for it of moral self-destruction, political self-compression, and rising personal insecurity. Israelis will not address these perils without shock treatment. They need to make short-term political sacrifices to secure domestic tranquility and well-being over the long term.

If Americans could muster the political will, we could easily administer the requisite tough love to Israel through selective suspensions of the unconditional UN vetoes, aid, and tax subsidies that make counterproductive behavior by the Jewish state cost-free. If we are politically unable to cease the enablement and creation of moral hazard for Israel, we should consider how best to minimize the damage to ourselves as Israel self-destructs. We should not support or appear to support Israeli policies we consider misguided.

Similarly, America should restructure its relationship with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arabs to be more two-sidedly collaborative. LikeIsrael, these countries have effectively declared their independence from us. Their continued dependence on us does not oblige us to support their policies. When these policies do not serve American purposes we should withhold our backing for them.

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 breakingSyria’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.

It is time to cut a knot or two in the Middle East. Enough is now enough.

This article is republished, with permission, from the Middle East Policy Council. It was a speech given at the DACOR Bacon House in Washington on March 4, 2016.

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  1. Israeli’s policy has created a fertile ground for radicalisation of youth in ME and beyond. Saudi Arabia has been a cradle for Al-Qaida and Daesh. I cannot understand for a moment why successive US governments have not dissociated their policies from those of Israel and Saudi-Arabia. I think it is now in hands of good decent american citizens to break this circle of unhappy alliances. We have to use our vote to make a change, otherwise we will be leading a world with an unimaginable and perhaps disastrous consequences.

  2. I would date the US’s war on Iran to 1953, when it overthrew a moderate, popular, elected president and installed a brutal puppet.

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