Killing Me Softly: A Soft Landing for Sunni Arabs?

Posted by Cutler on June 02, 2006
Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia

In looking at Washington’s political inclinations in post-Saddam Iraq, I have argued for a factional interpretation that pits Right Arabists (so-called Realists) against Right Zionists (so-called Neocons). If, at first, the US moved aggressively to empower Iraqi Shiites and undermine the political power of Iraq’s Sunni minority, I suggested that this should be coded as a victory for Right Zionists. I still hold to that view.

At least as early as September 2003, however, there seemed to be signs of a serious effort by Right Arabists to win back control of US policy in Iraq. One popular marker was the decision to bring in Robert Blackwill to run the Iraq Stabilization Group, viewed at the time as an attempt to marginalize Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and his Right Zionist deputies. One of the great observers of this process–the alleged eclipse of the Neocons and rally of the Realists–has been Jim Lobe who has been tracking the details of the story without fail for several years now.

I offer, for your consideration, however, a modest–less factional–interpretation of Bush administration policy that, if plausible, would indicate no real loss of influence for Right Zionists. The source of this analysis is Vali Nasr, on the occasion of his being named the newest adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

I have posted below some extended excerpts of Nasr’s March 26, 2006 remarks (how much, if anything, has changed since these remarks were made?) about Iran, Iraq, and Arab regional hegemony. Let’s start, however, with the key “less factional” amendment to the usual analysis of US policy in Iraq.

ultimately there are winners and there are losers out of Iraq, not only in Iraq, but across the region. The Shi’as won and the Kurds won, and the Sunnis lost. And if Iraq continues, ultimately when there’s a balance, for Shi’as the glass will be half full, and for the Sunnis the glass will be half empty. And the U.S. has tried to sort of—has been trying to give the Sunnis, if you would, a soft landing, at the same time as it’s—in Iraq it’s trying to hold the hand of the Shi’as being ascendent…

But at some point, we’re not going to be able to do this, and actually, we’re reaching that point, that ultimately in Iraq, and then across the region, there is going to be a winner and a loser. And there is an enormous amount of effort, particularly by regional leaders, to try to influence Washington in this regard. I mean here, for instance, in the council, I think when last year the Saudi foreign minister essentially called for the U.S. to change its tactics and be much more amenable to Sunnis is indicative of that.

Has US Ambassador Khalilzad been trying to close “pandora’s box” (re-Baathification, curbing Shiite influence, etc.) and reverse US policy in Iraq? Or is he merely trying to provide a “soft landing” to Sunnis in the region, even as the Right Zionist tilt toward the Shia proceeds as planned?

Here are more of Nasr’s remarks. The full transcript is available HERE and is well worth reading.

I would like to sort of raise a number of issues that—in a way of generating discussion with regard to the impact that Iraq has had, at least in terms of changing the balance of power in the region, and introducing in a major way a new factor into the regional dynamics, which is the Shi’a power, not only in Iraq, but actually as a regional phenomenon. I mean, often people don’t consider that about half the population between Lebanon and Pakistan are Shi’a. And around the Persian Gulf, by most counts, about 80 percent of the population are Shi’a. And the Shi’as themselves would always like to point out that wherever there’s oil, there’s Shi’a essentially. (Laughter.)

Now, this has been seen as both a new phenomenon, a threat, or an opportunity. King Abdullah of Jordan referred to the Shi’a Crescent, the first time in a major way, as at threat, essentially, to the established powers in the region and therefore, by implication, he suggested, to the United States…

But what we are seeing is a bit more complicated. Namely, we’re—what we’re seeing is that there is possibility for change everywhere in the region. In other words, the mantra is not a centralized revival or empowerment of the Shi’as, as happened with Iran’s efforts in the 1970s, but the replication of what many in the region refer to as the Sistani model, namely, one man, one vote; call for pluralism; call for power-sharing; call for redistribution of power, which in every—most cases, as it was in Iraq, it will benefit the Shi’as. Where they’re a majority or a plurality, as in Lebanon or Bahrain, they can expect to gain control. Where they’re a minority, as in Pakistan, across the Persian Gulf in Saudi Arabia, they’re likely to get a lot more than what they have right now.

And this notion of a sort of an enveloping, cascading Shi’a call and achievement of power is based on not just a political dynamic, but what has happened after Iraq and often we don’t take note of is the much bigger cultural, economic and religious ties that have been spawned since 2003 and are now sort of the underbelly of this movement…

The—in many regards, at least in the short run, the relations between Iraqi Shi’as and Iranian Shi’as is going to be less defined by objective connections between them, as it’s going to be defined by the Sunni threat that is perceived. Iranians view it differently in terms of what the—the rise of al Qaeda in the region and rise of salafism and jihadism means, but for Iraqi Shi’as it’s very clear that the prospects or possibility of a Sunni restoration or a continuation of insurgency at the pace that it has been occurring and the vehemence that we saw at the Askariya shrine bombing overrides any Arab Iranian divisions that they proceed with Iran.

And in fact, many Iraqi Shi’as would say that there are two pillars to the Shi’a position in Iraq, and considering one can say this is true of everywhere in the region, but more so in Iraq. One is the United States, and one is Iran. And in many regards that’s the reason why many Shi’a politicians have been lobbying for an Iranian-American dialogue because the more these two pillars move away from each other, the more difficult it will be for Iraqi Shi’as to maintain their position…

I think Ibrahim Ja’afari is the first Shi’a leader that the U.S. has dealt with in some way since the Iranian Revolution. And even Ja’afari’s ability to influence, to impact U.S. policy, U.S. thinking, is not comparable to the regional powers, who essentially are arguing against the Shi’a empowerment in the region—Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan and the like…And I think, you know, not everybody in the region laments the fact that there was de-Ba’athification or the destruction of the Iraqi army. I think the Shi’as and the Kurds were very happy with the destruction of the Sunni officer class…

6 Comments to Killing Me Softly: A Soft Landing for Sunni Arabs?

  • Wow, this guy Nasr really hates Muqtada, doesn’t he?

    Anyway, I think the neocon strategy regarding the sects can be seen in terms of the old Syrian paradigm : Hafiz Assad was expected to act as an obedient US puppet precisely because he and his inner cadre were members of s Shi’ite sect (Alawites) which was demographically a minority in the Syrian population. Hence he would always lack popular support and would be dependent on outside (US) support. Applying this paradigm to the current situation, we arrive at the strategy of always placing Shi’ites in charge, but at the same time always ensuring that they rule over populations in which their sect or tendency is only a minority. This not only forces them to be ‘Western’ (US) – leaning, but also forces them to be secular and pluralistic in their cultural approach. Finally, it follows from this that Iran itself must be reduced in autonomy and rendered part of a larger Islamic polity in which Shiites are, once again, a minority – a regional free trade association would be one way of achieving this. If it all sounds unrealistic, well, that’s neocons for you : I believe that Jewish culture has always favoured a gambler’s approach to realpolitik anyway, and that this is one of the distinctive features of the Jewish world-view – success is to the bold, to he who takes a high-risk strategy ; Jewish leadership groups have always tended to think this way.

  • Sorry the time scale isn’t explained above – I meant, when I talked about Assad as a putative US puppet, to refer only the period after the fall of the Soviet Union!

  • Rowan Berkeley writes: “I believe that Jewish culture has always favoured a gambler’s approach to realpolitik anyway, and that this is one of the distinctive features of the Jewish world-view – success is to the bold, to he who takes a high-risk strategy.”

    Cutler responds: Wow, and to think, I was brought up in a Jewish culture and somehow I never got the memo on “the Jewish world-view,” especially regarding the whole gamblers approach and the whole “high-risk strategy” thing. I better call my (Jewish) broker!

  • Incidentally, I think it is a sociological fact about the Jewish world that gambling addiction is its most prevalent vice, just as alcoholism is its least prevalent. I’m sorry I can’t offer a link to a survey that demonstrates this, but I don’t think it’s very controversial. Ultimately, I think it derives from the diasporic condition.

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