The enemy of your enemy is your enemy. So Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu characterized the dilemma facing the United States in a Middle East descending into chaos and sectarian war where Washington finds itself straddling a dangerous religious-political divide.
The Obama administration is trying to negotiate a nuclear arms deal with Shiite Iran and fighting the Sunni Islamic State in Iraq, where Iranian-backed Shia militia have shouldered most of the ground combat in the assault to retake the city of Tikrit. But in Yemen, Washington has thrown in its lot with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni nations battling the Iranian-backed Houthis, a Shia sect. The Houthis overthrew a U.S.-friendly government and threaten American efforts to defeat al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is the most dangerous faction of the Sunni terrorist organization that attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
If that’s got your head spinning, you’re not alone.
It’s not hard to understand why some Americans are starting to wonder what’s our stake in this bloody conflict, especially if it does turn into full scale war between Sunnis and Shiites, a minority among Muslims worldwide but the majority in what aims to be the most powerful state in the Middle East, Iran. How can the United States choose sides? Doing so, the argument goes, would expose Americans to a greater threat of terrorism. Why not just stand back and let Muslims fight it out?
Indeed, President Barack Obama came to office vowing to extricate America from the wars of the Middle East. Yet that policy — seeming like retreat to some — only made things worse. An ill-advised total U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq undermined hopes of political reconciliation there and opened the way for the Islamic state. Now U.S. warplanes are bombing ISIS targets, and U.S. troops, albeit a small number, are back in Iraq. And in Afghanistan, Obama is trimming the sails of his troop-withdrawal strategy to avoid Iraq-like turmoil.
As he navigates ever-changing dynamics, Obama is being criticized for not having a grand strategy for what may possibly be the beginning of Islam’s version of the religious wars of Christianity that wracked Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Lacking such an encompassing blueprint, the president seems to be trying to chart these troubled waters with tactics of the moment, reacting to events as they arise.
That might be the right approach, perhaps the only feasible one. After all, how can the United States hope to tame the forces unleashed by the so-called Arab Spring and contain religious animosities centuries old?
But Obama is haunted by his own missteps that have led to distrust in the region. Arab leaders may not like Israel, but they are not reassured when they see Washington back away from its strongest ally in the Middle East. Furthermore, these tradition-bound potentates are troubled by the coolness Obama shows the new authoritarian ruler in Egypt, who replaced the radical Muslim Brotherhood regime that Obama did support.
More distressing, even alarming, to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Sunni Gulf states are the nuclear negotiations with Iran. They worry that Obama sees Iran as the emerging great power in the region, that the negotiations will confirm that status, that the courting of Iran makes it more aggressive in its hegemonic goals, and that a bad deal appears in the making to leave Tehran on the path to a nuclear weapon.
In 2009 Obama gambled his personal history, his rejection of the anti-terrorist worldview of President George W. Bush and his eager outreach to the Muslim world would pay off with something like a peace dividend for the United States. But that world was more complex than he realized, seething with religious passions, not at ease with modernity, suspicious of any change in the status quo, and not ready for Obama’s grand vision.