Send for the mullahs
23 October 2012
For a generation that’s grown up with the notion that US foreign policy was fundamentally opposed to Islamic fundamentalism, this may come as a shock: US foreign policy is swinging relentlessly towards an accommodation, even, in places, an actual alliance, with the jihadis.
There’s nothing novel in this. Check back through time and you’ll see that the US (and Britain) have frequently had accommodations and active alliances with the most fundamental of fundamentalists. They played the Islamist card against Iran’s reforming Mossadegh government in 1953; they did it again in Indonesia in 1965 (at least half a million were murdered); they played it in Afghanistan against the Soviet-backed governments.
Consider the US’s longest-serving ally in the middle east except for Israel. Saudi Arabia is a sprawling monarchy whose state religion is Wahhabism, a particularly strict interpretation of Islam.
When the US was trying to displace Soviet influence in Afghanistan, to whom did they turn? Saudi Arabia backed the Mujihadeen guerrillas fighting the Kabul government with money and jihadis and the US provided more funds and critically-important weaponry like Stinger ground-to-air missiles. The Wahhabist jihadis maintained a comfortable enough relationship with their US backers. This famously, was when the late Osama bin Laden came to prominence as a key Western ally.
Trouble was, the Soviets pulled out, the unstable coalition of warlords fell out and Afghanistan fell apart. The warlords tore Kabul to pieces fighting each other, and the Taliban came along with their “We’re going to do it by the book, and this is the book” routine. Only then was the place stabilised.
After 9/11, the US stormed into Afghanistan and set up the Karzai puppet regime. This proved to have even less influence and authority than the poor old King the Soviets helped depose at the start of the whole ghastly process. It was an attempt to replace the harsh Islamist regime with an authoritarian dictatorship but, inevitably, it hasn’t worked.
Karzai has no more chance of becoming a long-term ruler like, for example, the now-deposed Egyptian ruler, Hosni Mubarak, than I have of heading up the Saudi Ministry of Religious Affairs.
What US foreign policy most fears is any secular, or semi-secular, Third World regime pushing for independence and a fair go for their people. Given a choice, or course, the US most prefers compliant right-wing authoritarians: people like Mubarak or Suharto, or the Shah of Iran, but they cannot always swing that and when they can’t they send for the Mullahs.
And thus there’s a sort of grim humour behind the bet-hedging and back-peddling by the US foreign policy elites over who might have been responsible for the Benghazi incident. A few short years ago the answer – regardless of any actual evidence to contrary – would have been “Al Qaeda did it”. And that answer would have come immediately. Suddenly, the foreign policy supremos aren’t quite so sure. There’s been an outbreak of ostentatious caution and judicial investigation. Who knows, it might just have been grumpy locals. It might have been the so-called “Green Resistance” organised by Gaddafi loyalists. Nobody is too keen to pin it, definitively, on Ansar Al Sharia, the dominant Salafist militia in Benghazi and the sort of folk who would once have been automatically tagged “al Qaeda linked” by the mainstream media. Well, they fought on “our side” against Gaddafi, didn’t they?
You don’t have to look far to find the reason for all this caution and judiciousness. The oil has to keep flowing to the West and with almost no chance of a secular authoritarian regime emerging from the Libyan rubble, the answer might have to be the fundamentalists.
Shifting focus to the other side of the Arab world, the West’s Iraq adventure has also had unintended effects. Iraq has been lost to US influence and is now solidly aligned with Iran and in turn solidly aligns itself with Assad in Syria, who in turn is backed by Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The only hope the US has to break up this emerging crescent of Shiite influence is to back the persistent low-level guerrilla war against the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, currently being waged by Sunni fundamentalists, and try to pave the way for either an authoritarian secular-Shiite ruler – like Iyad Allawi, sometimes called “Saddam without the moustache” – or a Sunni fundamentalist regime. In Syria too, the US’s only hope is to rely on Sunni fundamentalists to take power from Assad’s Iranian-backed regime.