Thursday, February 01, 2007

Someone Else's Dime

Following up on a prior post about the Bush administration's attempt to create an axis of "realignment" in the Muslim world centered around a "pan" Sunni bloc formed for the purpose of checking the emerging Iranian (or Shiite) influence, it's worth turning to Fred Kaplan and Michael Young who each make some important points.

Interestingly, one of the key members of that putative pan-Sunni bloc, Saudi Arabia, has recently crossed the picket line in order to engage Iran in common pursuit of a solution to quiet the rampant violence and communal tension in Lebanon. A breach in the supposed "united front" this early in the game doesn't exactly portend well for the long term success of the project.

Young provides a glimpse as to the difficulties inherent in maintaining discipline and unity in such a pan-Sunni faction. It's actually quite simple. Overt hostility to Iran has certain drawbacks for the parties involved:

Lebanon is one of several new front lines in a regional contest between the United States and the Sunni regimes of the Arab world on the one side, and Iran and its allies or proxies—most significantly Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas—on the other. However, what is interesting is that all sides are resisting sectarian conflict. Neither Iran nor the Arab states want a Sunni-Shiite conflagration. Sectarian polarization would severely impair Iranian interests in the Arab world; it would also threaten the stability of Arab countries with sizeable Shiite communities. This is particularly true of Saudi Arabia, where Shiites make up 15 percent of the population, concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province. That is why avoiding Sunni-Shiite violence in Lebanon and elsewhere is so vital, and why both the Saudis and Iranians have recently been trying to sponsor a negotiated solution to the Lebanese crisis. At the forefront of talks on the Saudi side is the one-time ambassador to the United States and head of the kingdom's National Security Council, Prince Bandar bin Sultan; on the Iranian side, Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council.

Kaplan goes even further:

There are three serious problems with this idea.

First, as Michael Young points out in a Slate column today, the Sunni states' leaders don't much like it. They face challenges from Shiite militants in their own cities. Joining a war of civilizations against Shiite strongholds, especially a war led by the much-loathed Americans, would jeopardize their own hold on power. (It doesn't matter, in this sense, whether the war is a hot or cold one.)

Second, the sectarian confrontation leaves Iraq—the focal point of this mess—in an awkward position. The American-supported Iraqi government is run by Shiites; the population is overwhelmingly Shiite. How is it possible to take the Shiites' side in Iraq and the Sunnis' side in the region? One tack might be to declare the clash as one of moderates vs. extremists, with Shiites and Sunnis arrayed in both camps. But this is easier said than done, and not so easily said. What are the lines of division? And who draws them?

Third, in the unlikely event that the Bush administration succeeds in splitting the region along this sectarian divide, it will only harden tensions, inflame passions, and, by the way, do nothing to solve our immediate problems in Iraq. [...]

Right now, America's leverage in the region is limited and diminishing. Dick Cheney and Condi Rice may think they can expand this leverage by heightening the sectarian divide and letting those "birth pangs" roar. But that strategy is more likely to engulf us all in much more bloodshed. [emph. mine throughout]

Those last two paragraphs really capture the crux of the weakness in this approach. While roaring birth pangs and roiling conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites, writ large, might sound attractive to certain denizens of the White House, the leaders that reside in the region that is designated to be set ablaze won't likely agree on the aromatic quality of napalm in the morning. At least when it's their houses being incinerated.

Given the stakes, they will likely decide that negotiations aren't, in fact, a sign of weakness or appeasement. They'll look at Lebanon and Iraq and decide that they can't really afford the risks of faux bravado and chest thumping self satisfaction.

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