NEW YORK — In New York City last Saturday-Sunday, I followed President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia while simultaneously scanning assorted Saturday and Sunday cartoon shows on television — and at times it was very difficult to tell the difference between the two. The American president’s proven capacity to live in a make-believe world of distinctly good and bad guys reached another peak, which portends rough days ahead for the people of the Middle East.
Trump swallowed whole the Saudi (and Israeli) view that Iran is a major menace to the region and it must be fought relentlessly. In fact, the Saudis have been trying to fight Iran politically in half a dozen places around the Middle East, and largely have failed. Iran’s allies have beaten Saudi Arabia’s allies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, and other lands, either politically or militarily. It is no wonder that Saudi Arabia — with its proven weak statecraft across the Middle East — has pulled out all the stops in enticing the Trump administration to side with it against Iran and rescue it from a predicament of its own making.
For Trump now to wage fierce political battle against Iran puts the United States in a situation where to a large extent it is fighting an imaginary enemy, on the basis of exaggerated or false threats, using tactics and strategy that have both proven ineffective in the past. Rarely has an American president moved so quickly to verify his total ineptitude in grasping the realities of the Middle East, and to craft a policy response whose nature and magnitude bring together degrees of political immaturity that only make the United States a laughing stock globally.
The economic gains for the American economy from the agreements with Saudi Arabia will be significant, if they are all implemented over the coming decade. That seems to have been the main motivation from the American side. Yet the political stresses and likely new forms of conflict and sectarian tensions we can expect across much of the Middle East will only amplify the foundation of failed policies that the U.S.-Saudi combine has just relaunched in a new format. Aggressive American militarism combined with Arab arms and money in the pursuit of political stability is the policy of delusional politicians, not sensible statesmen and women.
The emphasis on U.S. strategic cooperation with Arab conservative governments in order to fight Iran and the separate threat of Islamic State (ISIS) will not succeed, because it has been tried and has not succeeded in the past. Yemen, Syria, and ISIS are the three main reasons to believe this. It is hard to think of a more lopsided military equation than the power of Saudi, Emirati, American, British and other military capabilities against the much weaker Yemenis forces they attacked over two years ago — and still have not vanquished. Syria shows that political determination — even by cruel dictators and their powerful allies — can withstand for years the military assaults of rebels funded and armed by American, Saudi, and other countries. The consequences of a destroyed Syria, with its multiple militant jihadi armed movements, have revealed themselves in recent years, to the chagrin and new threats felt by many countries.
The ISIS threat is the most frightening example of why a U.S.-Saudi military alliance, or even the more hare-brained wider Arab-Islamic-American alliance Trump speaks of, will not easily remove the threat of ISIS, Al-Qaeda or other smaller movements like them. The sorry tale of ISIS in the Arab world has three main elements that Trump and his advisers clearly ignored, as they seem to ignore most realities in the Middle East.
The first was the birth of ISIS from deep within the belly of Arab societies during the past few decades, especially given that most of the key leaders of ISIS (and Al-Qaeda and other such militant movements) were radicalized in part in Arab jails, in countries the U.S. supported strongly. The second phase was the birth and launch of the Islamic State in mid-2014 in Syria and Iraq. The Arab countries were immobilized by this, and were totally unable or unwilling to push back ISIS. They had to rely on American and other foreign militaries to halt ISIS’ expansion. The battle to defeat ISIS militarily only gained momentum when several non-Arab armies came to the rescue, including American, British, Kurdish, Turkish, Iranian, Russian, and Lebanese Hezbollah forces. The Iraqi armed forces finally showed their capabilities in the past year, but only with considerable and direct U.S. assistance.
The third phase of the Arabs’ encounter with ISIS is now taking shape before our eyes, in the form of a grandiose alliance of Arab, Islamic and Western armies that will work together to rid us of evil. This is a worthy and necessary goal. It remains unclear, though, how such forces that helped give birth to ISIS, and then could not defend their own countries when ISIS expanded in their midst, will be able to do a better job, in view of one critical elephant in the room that all the gatherings of these parties continue to ignore: The underlying conditions of economic disparities, social stress, political autocracy, civil and regional wars, ravaged environments, and corruption that plague most of the Arab countries involved will always generate more new disgruntled and desperate militants than any high-tech weapons can kill.
In the imaginary world of weekend television cartoons, the moral dilemmas facing the protagonists always end well. In the real world of American strategic relations with assorted Arab and Islamic countries and Israel, the moral dilemmas have no place in the script. Only repeating the same script with a larger cast of characters, while wars, terror, and refugee flows continue apace, strikes me as the epitome of foolhardy and irresponsible leadership.
Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative. He can be followed on Twitter @ramikhouri
Copyright ©2017 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global
Released: 23 May 2017
Word Count: 962
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Agence Global is the exclusive syndication agency for Le Monde diplomatique, and The Washington Spectator, as well as expert commentary by Richard Bulliet, Rami G. Khouri and Immanuel Wallerstein.