Making things worse in the Middle East
Over the past few months, the Middle East has become an even more violent place than usual. Iraq is now once again home to one of the most bloody civil wars in the world, after Syria of course, which is the worst. Watching these horrors unfold, many in the United States are convinced that this is Washington’s fault or that, at the very least, the Obama administration’s “passive” approach toward the region has allowed instability to build. In fact, the last thing the region needs is more U.S. intervention.
The Middle East is in the midst of a sectarian struggle, like those between Catholics and Protestants in Europe in the age of the Reformation. ...view middle of the document...
The most important states in the Middle East — Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, for example — were not sectarian; in fact, they stressed their secular mind-set. But over time, as these regimes failed, they drew increasingly from particular tribes that were loyal to them. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq went from mildly sectarian to rabidly so by the 1990s.
Often the new sectarianism reinforced existing patterns of domination. When you travel in the Middle East, you often hear that these Sunni-Shiite differences are wholly invented and that people always lived happily together in the old days. These comments are almost always made by Sunnis, who assumed that their Shiite brethren, who were rarely seen or heard in the corridors of power, were perfectly content with their subordinate status.
The third factor is one involving Washington deeply: the invasion of Iraq. If a single action accelerated the sectarian conflicts in the Middle East, it was the decision of the George W. Bush administration to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime, dismantle all structures in which Sunnis had power and then hand over the Iraqi state to Shiite religious parties.
Washington in those days was consumed with the idea of transforming the Middle East and paid little attention to the sectarian dimensions of what it was unleashing. I met with the current prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, in 2005 when he held no office. I described him then as “a hard-line Shiite, unyielding in his religious views and extremely punitive toward the Sunnis. He did not...