Since the seventh century, the Middle East has been one of the most tempestuous epicenters of domestic, regional and global wars and terrorism. The Middle East has frustrated U.S. policy-makers, whose genuine attempts to promote peaceful coexistence, human rights, democracy and international law have—too often—fueled social and political disintegration, repression, domestic and regional wars and global terrorism.
For example, in 1978-9, the U.S. intent to advance the cause of human rights and democracy in Iran led to the embrace of Ayatollah Khomeini (an “old religious leader” in exile) and betrayal of the Shah, providing the tailwind for the transformation of Iran from the American “policeman of the Gulf” to the worst enemy of the U.S. and all its Arab allies, a major proliferator of terrorism, wars and ballistic capabilities.
In 1990, America considered Iraq’s Saddam Hussein an ally (the enemy of my enemy is my friend …), unintentionally providing a “green light” to his invasion of Kuwait—during his meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie.
In 2003, the United States toppled Saddam, crushed Iraq’s Sunni dominance of Iraq and empowered the Iran-backed Shi’ites, which unleashed a ferocious civil war and intensified Islamic terrorism.
In 2009, the U.S. spurned the pro-American Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and courted Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood—aiming to advance the cause of human rights and democracy—which catapulted the Brotherhood to power in 2012-3, and energized its attempts to terrorize and topple every pro-U.S. Arab regime.
In 2011, the U.S.-led NATO military offensive against Muammar Qaddafi, which was intended to halt severe violations of human rights, transformed Libya into a blustery platform of civil wars, Islamic terrorism and egregious violations of human rights.
Also in 2011, the U.S. welcomed the fiery eruption of violence on the Arab street as if it were an “Arab Spring,” “March of Democracy” and “Facebook and Youth Revolution.” Thus, the failure to identify the de facto “Arab Tsunami” spurred rogue Arab elements towards domestic upheaval in pro-U.S. Arab countries.
The 2015 Iran nuclear accord (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) was intended to pacify Iran’s ayatollahs and promote peaceful coexistence and influence-sharing between Shi’ite Iran and the Sunni-Arab Gulf states. Instead, it accorded legitimacy and $150 billion to the ayatollahs’ domestic repression, regional wars (in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon), global terrorism, ballistic capabilities and the promotion of the ayatollahs’ fanatical megalomaniacal vision of dominating the Gulf, the Middle East, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Horn of Africa and the rest of the globe, posing a clear and present threat to all pro-U.S. Arab countries and the global order.
For Iran’s ayatollahs, the U.S. is the “Great Satan,” which must be humiliated and defeated, in order to realize their megalomaniacal vision. Hence, the routine ayatollah-controlled mob chanting: “Death to America.”
In 2021, the U.S. is putting Saudi Arabia on notice—including the suspension of arms sales—because of human-rights violations and the lack of democracy, and due to the Saudi military involvement in Yemen’s civil war and its impact on Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. However, U.S. pressure on Saudi Arabia, concurrently with revoking the designation of the Iran-backed Yemenite Shi’ite Houthis as terrorists, and the warming up to Iran’s ayatollahs (who were not put on notice), have emboldened the Houthis. Thus, the Houthis have stepped up their deliberate and systematic launching of missiles and “suicide drones” at Saudi civilian centers and oil facilities.
Moreover, it has bolstered Iran’s attempts to topple the Sunni Saudi regime through Iran’s military involvement in the Yemen civil war, which erupted in 2015, following a long series of civil wars: 2009-2015, 1979, 1962-1970, etc.
For Shi’ite Iran, it is another battle in the 1,400-year-old Sunni-Shi’ite war.
The aforementioned milestones of U.S. policy in the Middle East have highlighted the significant gap between Western conventional wisdom and Middle East reality while exposing the following 1,400-year-old features of the stormy, unpredictable, highly fragmented, violently intolerant Middle East:
- Middle East reality, on the one hand, and political stability and peaceful coexistence, on the other, constitute an oxymoron.
- The relatively ancient local clan/tribal, ethnic, religious, cultural, geographic, ideological identities/loyalties supersede the relatively new national identity and the rule of national law (e.g., Tripolitania in western Libya vs. Cyrenaica in the east vs. Fezzan in the southwest; a nine-tribe coalition in Benghazi, Libya is fighting other tribes, while fighting among themselves).
- Despotic regimes with limited legitimacy (representing a minority of the population), ascend to—and lose—power through violence.
- Relatively transient regimes—highly susceptible to coups—yield tenuous policies, shifty fleeting alliances and ephemeral agreements (e.g., Libya until and since 1969, Libya until and since 2003, Iran until and since 1979, Turkey until and since 2003, Egypt until and since 2012 and then since 2013).
- Western democratic institutions (e.g., free elections, one man one vote, civil liberties, the rule of law, religious tolerance) are foreign to Middle East reality and its inherent political disorder.
- Against the backdrop of the repeated collapse of the political order in Arab societies (e.g., Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen), and in view of the systematic failure of U.S. and international peace initiatives, the expectation of peaceful coexistence among all/most Arab/Muslim communities, which have been fighting each other for centuries through war and terrorism, is unrealistic in the short and medium run, if at all attainable in the explosive Middle East.
- A humongous gap exists between the well-meaning U.S. desire for a peaceful and just Middle East, on the one hand, and that which the turbulent Middle East system can deliver, on the other. Contrary to Western policy-makers, Arab leaders have a long historical memory. They don’t forget and don’t forgive.
According to the iconic, game-changing Mideast historian, London School of Economics Professor Elie Kedourie: “Any such project as bringing democracy to the Arab Middle East was trying to make water run uphill.”
Against the backdrop of the tectonic Middle East reality, which has yet to reach its boiling point, and in view of the impact of the Middle East on U.S. economic and national security interests—and the U.S. desire to minimize its military presence in the region—Israel is the most reliable, capable and democratic ally in the Middle East and the world.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Arab-Israeli conflict has never been “The Middle East Conflict,” and the Palestinian issue is not the crux of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is neither a central concern for the Arabs nor a core cause of regional turbulence.
The unpredictable, erratic, unstable, tenuous, violent, 1,400-year-old Middle East reality that has yet to experience intra-Arab and intra-Muslim peaceful coexistence determines Israel’s minimal security requirements, which must withstand the Middle East-(bad)-case scenario, not a Western-(good)-case scenario.
A secured Israel advances U.S. interests, deterring aggression against Israel and pro-U.S., relatively moderate, Arab regimes, thus, stabilizing the region. On the other hand, a vulnerable Israel would undermine U.S. interests—whetting the appetite of rogue regimes, fueling regional instability, wars and terrorism, and benefiting rivals and enemies of America.
Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A U.S.-Israel Initiative.
This article was first published by The Ettinger Report.
Be a part of our community
JNS serves as the central hub for a thriving community of readers who appreciate the invaluable context our coverage offers on Israel and their Jewish world.
Please join our community and help support our unique brand of Jewish journalism that makes sense.