Bush gave a speech before the National Endowment for Democracy that was widely panned as a hoary rehash of worn themes. It certainly wasn’t effective at rallying support for his Iraq policy (currently hovering at 40% or less) or at convincing people that terrorism is job #1 (only 7% of the public think it the most important issue). What it did do was describe the new specter said to be haunting the Middle East: a pan-Islamic movement bent on global domination and competition with the West whose revolutionary vanguard is al Qaeda network terrorists.
How realistic is such a bugaboo? What are the prospects of what is essentially the negative correlative of the Neo-Con democratic domino theory for the Muslim world?
The lands with majority Muslim populations, especially those of the Middle East, have long been home to super-nationalist sentiments. The imperial past of Islam under the Caliphates is a golden age to the minds of many. Such internationalist sentiments have historically taken the form of pan-Arabism – an appeal to the allegiance to the common ties of language, culture and history – embracing people from North Africa to Mesopotamia. The very party we just toppled from power in Iraq, the Ba’thists, were the failed secular embodiment of that aspiration. However, in recent history it is pan-Islamism that, much like Christo-Conservatism here in the U.S., seems to have gained populist traction among average people.
There is a growing tendency to see the possibility of a pan-national political entity born of the religious affiliation among the people of the Middle East. Certainly, al Qaeda and its ilk are a product of, and proponent of, such dreams. The threat of an extremist, international, and totalitarian Islamic Superpower brought into being by a violent and revolutionary vanguard has a toehold in reality, but little more.
Such a dystopian vision suffers a few key delusions: it vastly overestimates the political appeal of radical fundamentalist Islam to the average Muslim; it vastly underestimates the strength and resiliency of national governments and the secular order in the Muslim world; it assigns far more power and resources to violent terrorist organizations than they actually possess; and it overestimates the political appetite among Middle Eastern people for confrontation with the West. In short, it is a boogyman with far less substance and reality than the Red Menace of the Soviets which it is intended to replace in the American political lexicon.
I’m not going to defend my assertions in detail, I’m too lazy, and anyone who is seriously interested in these subjects can easily research them, but there is one aspect of Bush’s boogyman I will consider more closely. Al Qaeda is supposed to play the role of a violent revolutionary vanguard in Bush’s fantasy. This would be somewhat akin to abortion clinic bombers getting all the Protestants in the world to follow them and throw down their governments in their name. The political support of such violent extremists may be intense, but it is neither broad enough nor deep enough to sustain a political revolution – though it may spark and excite the political mobilization of a large constituency with more modest goals – again like the Christo-Cons in America.
Ironically, it may be the minority of Muslims, the Shiites, rather than the majority, the Sunnis, who pose the most immediate threat to American security (if defined by Carter’s Persian Gulf Doctrine). Al Qaeda and their most closely aligned supporters in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt and elsewhere are Sunnis. An Islamic state under the majority sect holds little appeal to Shiites, who are often considered not to be Muslims at all by the more purist of the 90% of Muslims who are Sunni. The inspiration for pan-nationalist Islamic political unification for the Shiites is the revolutionary Islamic Iranian state, not al Qaeda. It is to the political Mecca of Tehran that Shiites turn; and that constitutes a serious political threat that Bush’s invasion of Iraq has only inflamed.
The Southern provinces of Iraq have Shiite majorities and contain the greater part, about 70%, of Iraq’s oil reserves. The Shiite majority is determined to control the revenues from those resources. With those resources the Shiites will have a power base from which to dominate Iraqi politics, or to accomplish a de facto secession from Iraq. The economic and military ties between the Shiite provinces of Iraq and Iran are already established and growing stronger fast. Before too long, the dream of a pan-national Islamic state may be a reality in all but name. But the real prospect of pan-Islamic unification is among Shiites led by Iranian mullahs, not among Sunnis led by terrorist radicals which the President claims are the paramount threat to our security. How does the President get this most important dynamic exactly backwards?
The Arab-Persian alliance under a Shiite theocracy would be the most populous nation in the Persian Gulf by far, controlling both Iran’s and a the majority of Iraq’s oil resources, as well as the most productive and viable aquifers in the region (an often overlooked strategic asset). But that is not the worst of it. The geographically contiguous Eastern province of Saudi Arabia is also majority Shiite: it also contains 80-90% of Saudi oil fields and reserves. It generates most of that nation’s wealth, but receives little of the benefit. The nominally Sunni House of Saud is highly unpopular, not only among these Shiites of the east, but also among average Sunni Arabs. There are already places in the Shiite majority east that are no-go areas for Saudi national security forces. It is not unrealistic to expect that an expansionist Shiite theocracy, emboldened by success in southern Iraq, would decide to foment the overthrow of the House of Saud in the hopes of peeling off the majority Shiite east in the fray. Nor is it unrealistic to expect that they may be successful in doing so.
The only dominos likely to fall in the Middle East are the Shiite majority areas controlled by superannuated Sunni oil sheiks around the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Dubai and Qatar, all have substantial Shiite populations and sclerotic political institutions ripe for destabilization by populist movements. Without us being able to do much more to stop it than we could have done about Iran itself in 1979, a theocratic Shiite pan-national alliance, led by Tehran, could dominate the Gulf region and the great majority of the Middle East’s oil. This is the real pan-Islamic threat that America should be concerned about. Instead, Bush rants about his fever vision of a grand pan-Islamic superpower stretching “from Spain to Indonesia” led by Osama bin Laden, or someone like him. Bush won’t talk about the real threat, because that chain of dominos is one that his own rash invasion and occupation of Iraq tipped over. Bush is setting America up to be blind-sided by the most important security development in the Middle East since decolonization. Bush isn’t providing leadership on national security, he’s doubling up on a bet he’s already lost, and hoping we don’t notice.