The appalling bloodshed in the Middle East has led many generally well-meaning Americans to demand that we “do something” about it. Many, and not just Republicans and neoconservatives, have condemned President Barack Obama for his inaction while thousands die and our allies come under threat.
The press, ranging from the “liberal” Washington Post to the “conservative” Wall Street Journal, has had a field day demanding that the United States destroy jihadist terrorists – including Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon under that rubric – and stop the expansion of the infamous “Shia Crescent” from Iran across Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.
Bipartisan voices on Capitol Hill complain that Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempt to bring peace between Palestinians and Israel poses an existential threat to the latter while confusing it with the existential threat posed by Kerry’s efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear programs.
Were it not so serious, the degree of ignorance among supposedly well-informed Americans, let alone the general public, would be a fit subject for a Saturday Night Live skit. Unfortunately, in the United States foreign policy remains largely a residual of domestic policy and thus ignorance becomes a prelude to disaster.
This ignorance enabled the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal to suck us into a self-destructive war in Iraq, an action that had the side effect of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in Afghanistan.
The Obama Administration, to be fair, has not covered itself with glory in Syria. It made the mistake of conflating public revulsion to any new military interventions in the region with a desire to avoid any admixture that, in classic American fashion, would “mission creep” into boots on the ground. If anything, the Administration deserves criticism for doing what the American public wants.
And here lies the rub: nowhere more than in the United States do domestic politics determine foreign policy. Yet, the American public knows little about reality other than what domestic interest groups feed it. Nowhere is this truer than in the Middle East. Few Americans know that al-Qaeda hates Shi’a Muslims and secular Sunni regimes far more than it hates the United States.
The attacks on American interests are collateral damage. The jihadists represent an extreme form of Sunni Islam, somewhat akin to fundamentalist Protestants who consider the Pope the Antichrist.
The origins of the split between Sunni and Shia, similar to the origins of the Schism between Orthodox and the Vatican, lie in politics, not religion. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, his followers embarked on a civil war between those who believed that his descendants should lead Islam (the Shi’a) and those who wanted an elected leader (the Sunni).
The power struggle continues with Sunni jihadists fighting Shia and other minorities in Syria and Iraq, just as brutal as the Catholic-Protestant struggle in Ireland and the recent conflict in Yugoslavia.
In 1054, the Pope of Rome cut a deal with the Frankish King Charlemagne, both of whom resented the religious and political ascendancy of the Greeks in Constantinople. The Pope crowned Charlemagne Emperor and, in return, Charlemagne supported the Pope’s claim to rule all Christianity.
The conflict that followed, highlighted by the Crusader sack of Constantinople in 1204, continues today. The Yugoslav civil war was mostly about Catholic Croatians supported by Germany, France and Italy fighting Orthodox Serbs supported by Russia, Greece, and Romania. The Muslim Bosnians were also collateral damage.
As Orthodox Christians we share some characteristics with the Shi’a. Orthodoxy teaches free will and puts the burden of being a good Christian on each of us. The Catholic Church lays down rules that its adherents must obey. (I recommend Sir Stephen Runciman’s The Great Church in Captivity for those interested further on this subject.) Similarly, Shi’a Islam teaches that Muslims have the right to not only interpret the Quran but to draw novel conclusions. Sunni Islam has much more in common with fundamentalist Protestant literalism.
Foreign policy choices regarding terrorism also require knowledge. We have labeled Hezbollah in Lebanon a terrorist organization to satisfy a domestic constituency. Hezbollah has never attacked American or other Western targets.
Hezbollah has fought Israelis attacking Lebanon and in the process both sides have killed civilians, citing them as collateral damage. Although Hezbollah shares a common enemy, Israel, with Hamas, only the latter can be fairly classified as a terrorist organization for targeting Israeli civilians. On the other hand, both Hamas and Hezbollah have scrupulously protected the Orthodox Church and other Christians in territories they control.
Iran presents an even more interesting case. The Iranian Revolution overthrew the Shah, a corrupt and oppressive ruler, imposed by the United States by overthrowing a democratically elected government. Taking 52 American diplomats hostage at our Embassy in 1979 in an emotional reaction to our giving asylum to the Shah permanently poisoned the relationship.
Beyond the emotions, however, we do have real differences with Iran, an ancient country with a highly nationalistic but rational and intelligent population whose vital strategic interests impinge on ours. The description of Iran as a messianic state seeking nuclear Armageddon is a creation of those who want to influence American policy.
Religion is also the favorite tool of hardliners on both sides, as well as regional states with a better grasp of diplomacy than our political leaders, to keep the bilateral relationship toxic. However, why would “messianic” Iran support Christian Armenia against Shi’a Azerbaijan and help us against the Taliban until Cheney-Rumsfeld slapped them in the face?
American foreign policy reflects domestic policy more than any other major country in the world; an uninformed electorate can lead to disaster.
(Ambassador Patrick Theros)