Much ink will be consumed in the coming days and weeks analyzing the terms of the new deal over Iran’s nuclear program brokered by Russia. As dispiriting as these valuable analyses will be—and they will be, if they are accurate—it is important to understand in regional terms the magnitude of the geostrategic collapse that our acceptance of this deal in the Middle East will cause.
We Americans profoundly believe in the universal nature of our concept of freedom, and thus tend to give short shrift to the influence of culture and civilization on the political mentality of states. In the Middle East, alongside the physical remains of ancient civilizations, are the remains of their cultures underlying the region’s politics.
The political imagery of many Islamic cultures emanates from their nomadic, tribal and clan origins. While that may, in some cases, overlay an older urban culture, the penetration of Arab influence via Islam still shapes their politics.
Even in ancient times, the greatest Arab tribes filled the lattices of power between the great urban civilizations, rather than function as an empire in themselves. Indeed, the rise of the Umayyads and the Abbasids as independent Arab empires actually was a rather short-lived ahistorical anomaly. Baghdad fell by 965 to the Persians Buyids. As such, this tribal soul, rather than the ethos of urban empire and the strategic behavior that this soul engenders, is easily visible in current Arab politics.
To understand the current situation, it helps to consider the case of revenge-killing in tribal and clan dynamics. Americans whose descent originated north of Hadrian’s Wall and who study their heritage are more familiar with this, and are indeed quite proud of their history and the values it implies.
But, for the purpose of understanding what the Iran deal means in regional terms, one must consider first the dynamics of hostile relations among tribes. Specifically, a cycle of revenge and counter-revenge among tribes for a murder ends when a tribe signals that it lifting its protective status over one of its members. This means that he is fair game and can be murdered with impunity—and the cycle is thus broken.
This tribal essence is intertwined with early Islamic history and ties directly to the Prophet Muhammad. One cannot dissociate Islam from its historical origins or Arab roots. Muhammad, whose message threatened the powerful tribal aristocracy of Mecca, could live in Mecca safely, as long as his powerful uncle, Abu Talib, the leader of the immensely powerful Banu Hashim clan, extended his protection over him after his parents died. However, the moment that Abu Talib lifted that protection, Muhammad was essentially served a death warrant. He was fair game; his life was forfeited; and he had to flee to Medina.
In this context, the United States is not really understood as a nation, but more as the most powerful clan on earth, the clan of clans. Think of us in that context as being the Banu Amrika, the “children” or tribe of Americans.
We, the Banu Amrika, are seen by other weaker clans as the patron of an allied league. The region’s clans and tribes align with us and pledge their fealty in exchange for enjoying our power and the umbrella of protection that comes with it.
Similarly, the Israelis are not seen in Western terms of parliamentary democracy, but as the Banu Israil, and Prime Minister Bennett is viewed as the tribal leader of the Jews.
As such, in tribal terms, our concessions to and agreement with Iran, whose open goal is the annihilation of our local allied tribes—the Banu Saud (Saudi Arabia), Banu Maktoum (United Arab Emirates), Banu al-Khalifa (Bahrain) and the Banu Israil (Israel)—means that we lift our umbrella of protection over them.
Their lives are forfeited, and anyone, internal or external, who wants to kill them is now released to do so without fear of revenge. The Saudis, Emiratis and Israelis are now alone and marked with a death warrant issued by their own strong horse. Worse, we have essentially anointed Iran as the new regional power to which all must bend the knee.
As such, the Arabs in the region are reacting uncharacteristically bluntly, sharply and acerbically, not out of pique, but out of survival. They must immediately find a new strong horse, a new patron, or they are dead. China stands out, and making peace with Russia to call off its dogs is essential. But they must first scramble, follow the American precedent and bend their knees to Tehran, as well. They have no choice but to grovel to their enemies or die because to continue to hope for the United States is the path of certain death.
Israel, of course, is a Western country, and such a construct is not inherent to its understanding of itself. This may work internally (though it’s dubious since it implies a different political framework with its own Arabs), but it cannot work strategically in its position and relations with the region. Israel may have an urban soul and a Western outlook, but it lives in the region and must understand that it, too, now is seen as a tribe marked for death by its patron.
So Israel is at a crossroads. It has three paths: It can accept its elimination; it can scramble like its Arab kin to grovel in front of Russia and China; or it can leverage its raw power to emerge as the region’s strongest tribe to become a strong horse itself. The second path will fail in violence—Israel’s fate is tied to the West inherently—leaving Israel only the choice of the first (accept death) or third (establish itself as a great regional power) paths.
For the moment, Arab tribes have only the choice of the first or second paths, which means that they face death, since, as in the case of Israel, the second path will eventually fail and leave only the other path.
But if Israel chooses the third path and emerges as the strong horse, then it opens for the Arabs a new path for survival with Israel’s becoming their new protective strong horse—but only if Israel chooses the third path. It can only get close to its Arab neighbors if it is useful for their survival. This means that Israel must act to prove it is the strong horse.
It is tempting to compare the faltering of the United States’s regional stature to the collapse of the British and French positions in the late 1950s and 1960s. That collapse indeed was catastrophic. It exposed the region to Soviet penetration and triggered a new age of indigenously inspired radical challenges to traditional leaderships (the long-term effects of which we continue to suffer).
And yet, even that cataclysm will pale in comparison to the current collapse of the U.S.’s position, since the British and French retreat six decades ago seamlessly transitioned into the parallel rise of American power, which, to a large extent, compensated for its negative effects.
The American retreat has no global force to replace it, other than our adversaries, China or Russia. Regionally, perhaps Israel can fill the void left by the U.S. and buffer the impending collapse of American power. Hopefully, it can help our jilted allies survive, preserve some of our regional interests, check our regional adversaries and prevent our global opponents from seizing full control of the region.
But while Israel is powerful, it is not a global superpower. It cannot replace the regaining of our senses. But the damage now being done will be the work of generations to repair. Let’s hope that the enterprise soon begins.
Dr. David Wurmser is director of the Center for Security Policy’s Project on Global Anti-Semitism and the U.S.-Israel Relationship. A former U.S. Navy Reserve intelligence officer, he has extensive national security experience working for the State Department, the Pentagon, Vice President Dick Cheney and the National Security Council.