Reality vs. romance
On Jan. 1, 2015, Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah al Sisi told Sunni Islam’s leading scholars gathered at Cairo’s Al Azhar University, its leading temple of knowledge, that they had been leading Islam on a course disastrous for itself and leading to war with the rest of the world.
He said : “ You, imams, are responsible before Allah … that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years … is antagonizing the entire world. It’s antagonizing the entire world … Is it possible that 1.6 billion [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants – that is 7 billion — so that they themselves may live? Impossible! … I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution.”
That is reality. It is also reality that no such revolution is in the works, in part because the West continues to deal with the Sunni world by trying to appease it, romance it, seduce it.
Imagine the predicament of an Islamic scholar at Al Azhar who agrees with al Sisi: what could he say to Saudi or Qatari royals, or to the citizens Mosul or Raqqa — never mind to young people besotted with blood and enjoying their slaves that might cause them to turn against Daesh/ISIS?
As William McCants’ The ISIS Apocalypse shows, the Islamic State’s religious leaders — well equipped and adept at textual arguments as they are, and given the heterogeneity of both the Q’ran and the Hadith, as well as their own intellectual dishonesty — would surely give powerful arguments why their positions are true Sunni Islam rather than those of that scholar.
Why should anyone find the scholar’s arguments dispositive?
And if these same royals, ordinary citizens, or young people were to take seriously the suggestion that they should consider their indulgence of the Wahhabi or Muslim Brotherhood version of Sunni Islam to have been a mistake, they might notice that, in fact, the West’s attempt to get on the right side of the Sunni world, to gain its confidence, to “enlist” it, etc. means in practice giving its current leaders — meaning the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahhabis — what they want.
For example, there is no other way to interpret president Obama’s patronage of the Muslim Brotherhood in its struggle for power in Egypt, and his treatment of the Brotherhood’s branch in America, CAIR, as the legitimate representative of Muslim interests other than as approval of them. Why should these ordinary Sunni turn against current leadership?
Intellectual impasses tend to be broken by practical considerations. Necessarily, the citizens of Mosul or Raqqa measure what price they have to pay by sticking with the Islamic State against what they have to fear by breaking with it. Currently, the price is low and shows no sign rising. For their part the Sunni monarchies, not being at war with the Muslim Brotherhood or/and Wahhabis (unlike al Sisi’s military regime), would rather maintain their precarious internal peace.
Until the cost of maintaining that peace exceeds the cost of risking such a war, they will continue to have it both ways. By the same token, so long as the West plays Erdogan’s multiple-double game, why should Erdogan stop playing it? So long as the Sunni Muslim communities in the West pay no price for nurturing the thirst for infidel blood, what argument can convince them to stop nurturing it?
To romance today’s Sunni leadership by word or deed, thus validating and “empowering” it, is to confirm the Sunni world in the course that al Sisi characterized so courageously. It is to ensure that Daesh/ISIS or something worse will plague us increasingly, indefinitely.
Minding our own Business
Daesh/ISIS having murdered some Americans and continuing to instigate the murder of others, the US government’s quintessential duty is to exterminate any and all who have any part in it. Any number of US politicians make noises more or less in this direction. But he who wills the ends must also will the means. That is the first touchstone of seriousness. The second is like it: those means cannot be out-sourced. Minding our safety is our inalienable responsibility.
Making any foreigner’s concurrence a condition for executing the government’s duty to protect Americans is dereliction. Waiting for Sunni states and potentates to fight the Sunni Islamic State is an excuse that disregards reality. Nor will the Sunni fight for us against the Shia.
The past quarter century’s experience demolishes our establishment’s expectation that the goodwill of the likes of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia can shield us against Iran’s Islamic Republic. No. If the American people are going to be protected against violence from both sides of the Sunni-Shia divide, it will be strictly by our own government’s wise warfare.
The first truth of war is that nations fight only for their own sake. Lately, the US government has led the American people into wars for other peoples’ sake. Americans will have no more of that. But Americans are eager enough to exterminate Daesh/ISIS. Were the US government to commit to doing that, it would be easy enough to find governments that would cooperate in that work for their own reasons and in their own ways.
But his would require not only seriousness on our own part. It would also require accepting the fact that others who might fight the Islamic State would do so for only for their own reasons and in their own ways.
The necessary preliminary to destroying the Islamic State, for example, is closing the Turkish border to it. Because of Turkey’s current government’s complex foreign policy, only force can force it to accept that closure. Russia has reasons for wanting to close that border that are not consistent with US policy. Regardless of that, Russia shares an interest with America in forcing that border’s closure. Erdogan could not defy both.
American ground troops would have to lead in the Islamic States’ destruction. Several nations would consider joining in. But the US government would have to accept that each would do it for its own purposes and its own way. The Kurds, for example, have been eager and successful in pushing Daesh/ISIS away from Kurdistan. But they will not give their lives for a US government that continues to refuse to recognize Kurdistan’s independence.
They might join a campaign to eliminate the Islamic State, or just to push it out of Mosul, if they could then claim Mosul as part of an independent Kurdistan. Former Iraq’s Shia, for their part, have come to suspect that the US government is actually working hand in hand with Daesh/ISIS, because the US advisers with whom they work seem less interested in defeating the jihadis than in safeguarding their human rights.
Seriousness about war would counsel reversing that sentiment, especially since the very prospect of US firepower opening the way for murderous Shia militias would be sure to trouble the Islamic state’s defenders.
By the same token, The Wall Street Journal reports that US officials reject cooperating with Russia because Russians use air power and artillery less discriminately than current US rules of engagement prescribe, believing as they do that imposing pain on the enemy’s marginal adherents will peel them off from the core. Since current US rules of engagement have been associated with more defeats than victories, seriousness counsels weighing their value against those of concurrence with Russia.
Heretofore, the US government has outsourced policy to people whose adherence it tries to purchase — people who would work with us, if at all, only if forced to. Far better to take responsibility for the outcomes we desire, and to compromise with others whose interests may concur with ours in particular circumstances.
This concludes this three-part series. Read Romancing the Sunni: A US policy tragedy Act I; Lifting the veil; Romancing the Sunni: Act II; A surge of confusion
Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University, and a member of the Hoover Institution’s working group on military history. He is the author of fourteen books, including Informing Statecraft, War, ends And Means, The Character of Nations, Advice to War Presidents, and To Make and Keep Peace. He served on President Ronald Reagan’s transition teams for the Department of State and the Intelligence agencies. He was a US naval officer and a US foreign service officer. As a staff member of the US Senate Intelligence committee, he supervised the intelligence agencies’ budgets with emphasis on collection systems and counterintelligence. He was instrumental in developing technologies for modern anti-missile defense. Codevilla has taught ancient and modern political thought and international affairs at major universities.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.
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