Why Donald Trump's 'Arab Nato' would be a terrible mistake
This planned Sunni coalition would alienate Shia populations and Iran. How can it be in the national interest of the US to support one side in a sectarian conflict?
There is nothing new under the sun in the Middle East, where almost everything we associate with civilization was first invented: writing, cities, agriculture, astronomy and libraries, for instance. So for anyone with knowledge of Middle Eastern history, the news that the United States is planning “an Arab Nato” seemed like déjà vu.
Back in the 1950’s, at the height of the cold war, the US was busy putting together a similar alliance system, the Baghdad Pact, also known as Cento. But just as that alliance was meant to group together several countries of the region not only against the Soviet Union but also against Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser, the fine print reveals that there is a specific local focus to this alliance. According to one report, this is not meant to be a general Arab alliance, but rather a “unified Sunni coalition of countries” intended to counter Iran.
Such a plan is music to the ears of the absolute Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, to the arms producers who will sell them hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of advanced weapon systems (in spite of their striking incapacity to use effectively the arms they already have), and to Israel, which would like nothing more than to distract them and the rest of the world from its atrocities in Palestine by playing on their fears of Iran.
Leaving aside the enormous difference between the power and reach of the Soviet Union in the Middle East at the height of cold war and that of Iran today, this cunning plan misses a number of important facts.
One is that while the rulers of these despotic Gulf regimes are Sunnis, there are many in the eastern Arab world who are not. These include majorities of the populations of Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain, and large minorities in Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Gulf countries.
What does a “unified Sunni coalition of countries” mean to these tens of millions of people? Equally important, in the western portion of the Arab world from Egypt to Morocco, there are no significant Shia populations, and Iran is a tertiary concern.
More to the point, how can it be in the national interest of the United States to support one side in a recently concocted sectarian conflict? What benefit can come to the US from supporting an unwinnable Saudi-Emirati war on Yemen, the poorest Arab country? Does the United States really desire to increase the number of its enemies in the Middle East? Must Americans adopt the Israeli and Saudi Arabian position – convenient to both those countries – that Iran’s enmity to the US is intractable and immutable?
It is worth pointing out that before the Iranian revolution of 1979, the Sunni-Shia divide was a secondary one. Sunnis married Shia, and any number of other conflicts were more important. It is true that there were serious rivalries between Iran and its neighbors. But Iran under the Shah also supported countries in the Arabian Peninsula, such as Oman during the insurgency of the 1960s and 1970s and the royalist side during the Yemeni civil war in the same period.
Since 1979, this conflict has been envenomed by the expansion of the sectarian influence of the Islamic Republic, and by the counter-offensive spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, involving intolerant sectarian appeals, which in turn have contributed mightily to the growth of takfiri jihadi terrorism.
While the former is a problem for the United States and many countries of the region, in the US we hear endless sermons about the danger of the Shia sectarianism of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Meanwhile, there is a cone of silence over the manifest dangers of the Sunni sectarian bigotry which treats Shia as kuffar (unbelievers), mushrikin (idolaters), and rawafid (rejectors of Sunni orthodoxy), terms which imply not only that they are bad Muslims, but that this obliges believers to fight them to the death.
Perhaps after Trump has launched his so-called “Arab Nato”, someone with a clue about the region he is visiting and the real nature of its conflicts should bring to his attention these inconvenient facts that his hosts on the first two legs of his tour will be sure to conceal from him.
And if the president is too mesmerized by his enmity towards Iran, and by the hundreds of billions of dollars in arms sales that this junket has provided, perhaps the American people and their elected representatives might pay attention to them, before the US is dragged into yet another land war in Asia.