President Obama’s Middle East policy is imploding, a spasm of activity seems to be disconnected from specific objectives, and we are assured that the deployment of an Army division headquarters to Iraq does not constitute “boots on the ground.” Egypt wants him to expand the fight against ISIS to include Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. Others point to Boko Haram in Nigeria and an al Queda splinter group in Algeria. There is a real and growing concern about the spread of terrorist acts to Europe and the United States. With 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, over 3 million in the United States, and 44 million in Europe, we’ve got to figure out the immediate battle plan and the broader approach to the Muslim world.
President Obama’s September 23 speech at the United Nations provides a typically eloquent framework. True, it got carried off into the Ukraine, climate change, ebola, and Ferguson Missouri. True, it is naive in claiming that the Golden Rule is a universal aspiration and that Islam is a religion of peace. True, it would be nice if he followed the constitution and sought Congressional approval for his actions against ISIS before touting them to the United Nations. Nevertheless, his writers did a good job of laying out four tasks for the world community:
1. Degrade and destroy ISIS;
2. Call for the Muslim communities to explicitly, consistently, and forefully reject the ideology of ISIS and al Queda;
3. Address sectarian conflict, particularly between the Sunnis and the Shia;
4. Focus on the potential of youth in Muslim countries.
Good thoughts. Where we were once concerned about a few training camps in Afghanistan and the risk to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, we now have proliferating safe havens, worldwide recruiting, and a greatly escalated risk of home grown terrorism. But who in the Muslim world will really lead the effort? There are a few options, each with some baggage, but that’s what vision and diplomacy are about.
1. Sunni Egypt. The Sunnis do not have a pope, but they do have al Azhar University in Cairo, the preeminent center of study for serious religious scholars, and the badge of authenticity for imams across the Sunni Muslim world. Leadership of al Azhar was comfortably moderate during the Mubarak regime, and is again under the al Sisi regime. Had the brief reign of the Muslim Brotherhood been extended, there would undoubtedly have been a change of management and direction.
2. Sunni Turkey. The Turks have their problems – anger about rejection for European Union membership because of their Muslim religion; a restive Kurdish minority in the southeast who identify with their brethren in Iraq, Iran, and Syria; and internal politics characterized by a greatly decreased role of the military and a growingly authoritarian president. Nevertheless, Turkey is a democracy, is a member of NATO, and has a long history with most of the countries in the Middle East.
3. Sunni Saudi Arabia. The Saudis control the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, and the world’s largest oil reserves. More than President Obama, they have an existential reason to destroy ISIS, and were responsible for assembling the coalition of threatened monarchies – Jordan, the Emirates, Bahrain; and Qatar – which has joined the United States in air strikes.
4. Shia Iran. The counterweight for Saudi Arabia carries big problems – support for Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon; the nuclear program – the dominant US interest. Thankfully, the jihadis are virtually all Sunni, and it would be enough for Iran to sit out the ISIS campaign.
Hillary did nothing to develop relations with Egypt, Turkey, or Saudi Arabia, and Kerry has done no more. We are holding up arms shipments to Egypt because of the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood; we badger Turkey about their internal politics; and Saudi Arabia – well, they were Bush’s friends. We need a Kissinger rather than a Carter.
This week’s video – a 2012 visit by Hillary Clinton to meet with the head of the Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, where she was met with a barrage of rocks, tomatoes, and shoes as well as concern by the Coptic Christians and the Israelis about the Obama administration’s support for President Morsi.