Embarrassing Sectarian Strife over Sectarian Strife in the Middle East
By Jackson Diehl
January 10, 2016
Saudi Arabia’s execution of
a Shiite cleric produced a predictable
explosion of sectarian enmity across the Middle East last week. Less
noticed — and perhaps less excusable — was the narrow, partisan and more or
less sectarian reactions it prompted in Washington.
Republicans, led by their presidential candidates, rushed
to excuse or even defend the Saudis’ reckless and brutal killing of a sheik
whose crime was speaking up for the country’s oppressed Shiite minority.
“Our response should be to stand with our allies,” said Sen.
Marco Rubio (Fla.). “A strong relationship with Saudi Arabia would allow us to
say you shouldn’t be executing people for the types of crimes they
The Obama administration was meanwhile leaning toward
Shiite Iran, which furiously denounced the execution and allowed
militants to sack the Saudi E mbassy in Tehran. The State Department carefully
refrained from blaming the regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for the
violence and adopted a neutral position on the bilateral dispute — an
extraordinary stance given the decades of U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia and
enmity with the Islamic Republic.
It quickly became clear that the White House’s
overwhelming priority boiled down to avoiding any words or action that would
disrupt the ongoing implementation of the Iranian nuclear deal. That was of a
piece with its last-minute
retreat on Dec. 30 from imposing sanctions on Tehran for missile
launches that violated a U.N. Security Council resolution and a promise
to waive new congressional restrictions on visas for foreigners who
In short, if Republicans were “swooning
for Saudi Arabia,” as columnist Peter Beinart put it for the
Atlantic, then Obama and his foreign policy team were in a “tilt
toward Tehran,” as Josh Rogin and Eli Lake documented for Bloomberg.
Both positions were stunningly blinkered. Republicans were
encouraging a Saudi regime that has appeared
to come almost unhinged since 80-year-old King Salman took the throne a
year ago and installed his
30-year-old son, Mohammed, as defense minister. At the expense of the war
against the Islamic State, from which it has withdrawn its warplanes, the Saudis have
launched a bloody and unwinnable military adventure in Yemen and moved
to suppress all domestic dissent — especially that from liberal intellectuals
and bloggers seeking modest political reforms.
interview with the Economist last week, Mohammed bin Salman promised
painful economic restructuring but offered no prospect of political or religious
change in a country where women still cannot drive and a blogger calling for
fresh interpretations of Islam was
sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes. “Standing with”
such allies could mean diving with them over a political cliff.
The Obama administration, of course, has hardly abandoned
the Saudi rulers; since the Iran deal, it has been heaping Riyadh with fresh
weapons. But Republicans are probably right in arguing that Obama’s feckless
accommodation of Iran is spurring Saudi belligerence, thereby making the
sectarian fight worse.
The embarrassing retreat from imposing missile sanctions
was particularly damaging. The administration first accused Tehran of violating
a U.N. Security Council resolution linked to the nuclear deal by testing
long-range missiles, then pulled back a relatively mild set of financial
penalties on companies and individuals hours
after notifying Congress they were coming.Officials called the delay
“technical” — but 11 days later, the sanctions have still not been issued.
The resulting message, true or not, is that Washington lacks the will to punish
Iran for clear violations.
What’s missing from the Republican rhetoric and Obama’s
maneuvering is any sense of fundamental and long-term U.S. interests in the
Middle East or how they might be pursued amid the sectarian maelstrom. Rather
than picking among Sunni or Shiite dictators, Americans should be asking what
needs to change in the region for stabilization and modernization to be possible
— and what forces might advance it.
If the bloodletting is to end, minorities — whether Sunni
or Shiite, Christian or Kurd — must gain basic rights. That means supporting
proponents of peaceful reform among Shiites in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and
Sunnis in Iraq — and demanding that their governments accommodate them before
they receive more U.S. arms. It means abandoning the impractical and immoral
position that reconstituting Iraq and Syria takes precedence over allowing a
Kurdish homeland. And it means removing the vicious regime of Bashar al-Assad,
whose crimes against humanity are responsible for much of the chaos.
Like the Kurds, secular liberals across the region are
natural U.S. allies — especially in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Morocco. Yet
both the Obama administration and its Republican opponents often disregard them,
while catering to strongmen like Cairo’s Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, who
imprisons and kills them.
The tumult over the Saudi executions revealed a Middle East
that desperately needs a steadying outside force. But the reaction in Washington
suggested that U.S. help is not on the way.