November 4, 2016 MEMRI Daily Brief No.109
Two Presidents, One Fatal Historic Move
By: Yigal Carmon and Anna Mahjar-Barducci*
With the anticipated uprooting of the Islamic State (ISIS) from Mosul, and
the subsequent collapse of its stronghold in Raqqa, thanks to American
guidance and military involvement, President Barack Obama will have
successfully completed the historic process begun by President George W.
Bush with the uprooting of the murderous dictator Saddam Hussein and his
regime. The most militant sect within Shi’ite Islam, Iran’s Rule of the
Jurisprudent (Velayat-e Faqih), will be granted an historic victory over
Sunni Islam. Iran will then become the regional hegemonic power from the
Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean, threatening both Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Putting An End To A Millennium Of Sunni Domination In Iraq
Indeed, the Bush administration, while granting the Shi’ite majority in Iraq
the advantage it deserved as per democratic principles, tried hard to secure
for the Sunnis their relative share in government. But this attempt was
eroded by the Shi’ite politicians, who were aided – and controlled – by
Iran. Not only did the U.S. fail to protect the Sunnis’ share of power –
even though the Sunni tribes had helped it fight the Al-Qaeda insurgency in
Iraq – but it actually delivered them into the hands of Iran’s Shi’ite
protégé-turned-Iraqi-prime minister, Nouri Al-Maliki, who stripped them of
all power, and during whose tenure they were persecuted. The more
established Sunni leadership, in shock from its rapid transformation, within
a few short years, from its perceived status as rightful and divinely
empowered ruler to downtrodden minority under the boot of its erstwhile
subjects, was impotent in the face of the U.S.’s consistent support of the
ISIS – A Violent Embodiment Of The Sunnis’ Reaction To Their Loss Of Power
Even though most Sunnis abhor ISIS’s murderous ways, the organization’s
emergence was a violent embodiment of the Sunni reaction to this total loss
of power to the Shi’ites, as facilitated by the U.S. But the Islamic State
began long before Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi declared the Caliphate in June 2014.
It started with Abu Mus’ab Al-Zarqawi, who in 2004-6 focused on targeting
both the Shi’ites, whom he viewed as usurpers of the Sunnis’ rightful rule
of Iraq, and the Americans, whom he saw as responsible for the Iraqi Sunnis’
demise. In 2006, Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi declared the Islamic State of Iraq
(ISI). At its inception, ISIS comprised a mélange of Sunnis: Islamists,
non-Islamists, and Ba’athists. Also, unlike Al-Qaeda which prioritizes
fighting the West, ISIS originally prized territory and the principle of
hijra (immigration to it) over jihad against the West, which for religious,
ideological, and strategic reasons was at the bottom of its priorities. For
ISIS, Iraqi Shi’ites and Iran were far more important targets than the West;
that, however, has shifted as the West has become increasingly engaged in
fighting it, as reflected by all ISIS’s messages to its supporters in the
Can The American Upset Of An Historic Millennium-Long Order Endure?
Will the Sunnis, who comprise 90% of the Islamic world, acquiesce to their
defeat in Iraq and accept the newly empowered geostrategic hegemony of Iran
from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean?
Iran’s leaders always stress that they have never attacked another country.
However true, the reason for this is that they have always recognized their
weakness in a direct confrontation with the Sunni majority. Fully aware of
the real balance of power, beyond their own self-serving propaganda, they
have always refrained from direct conflict with the Sunni world, and
whenever they had to face down Sunni elements, they have done so only by
means of Arab proxies.
Two countries apparently will not accept the emerging Iranian threat to
their national security: Turkey, whose president Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman
ultranationalism does not presage acquiescence to the new Shi’ite-dominated
reality, and Saudi Arabia, which already feels threatened – not only
geostrategically, by the Iran-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen to its south,
but also religiously, by Iran’s increasing dispute of the Saudi role as
Custodian of the Holy Places. Moreover, ISIS may yet prove resurgent in
Iraq’s Sunni-majority areas, where it can expect support from many in the
Sunni world. In addition, the uprooting of ISIS from its Syria-Iraq
territorial base means that its hardened foreign fighters from Western
countries will be returning home – and will exact vengeance. These fighters’
primary targets will be the U.S. and other coalition member countries, and
Shi’ites wherever they can be found.
The U.S. has gotten itself into a situation in which Iraqi Sunnis, Turkey,
Saudi Arabia, and others in the Sunni world perceive it as the great
betrayer that sides with the Shi’ites in Iraq and with Iran. What the Sunnis
see is that the U.S., whether Democratic or Republican, not only ended the
millennium of Sunni domination in what is today Iraq, but also that instead
of punishing Iran for its attempts to obtain nuclear weapons, it negotiated
with it and ended up recognizing it as a nuclear power and lifting the
sanctions on it – even though Iran is continuing to develop ballistic
missiles, to sponsor terrorism, and to violate human rights.
How Did This Happen?
How did it happen that a country which since President Franklin Roosevelt
was the creator and guarantor of world order has catalyzed regional
disorder, which will spill over into the West? Around the time of the
invasion of Iraq in April 2003, experts and political leaders alike publicly
discussed the many aspects of such a move: the assessment, that turned out
to be mistaken, that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction; his human
rights violations, including the use of chemical weapons and other methods
of mass murder against his own people; the problematics of contending with
Iraq as a rogue state that attacks its neighbors; the erosion of the
sanctions regime against it: and, primarily, the issue of instituting
democracy in the country. The one issue that was not discussed, however, was
the historic act of shifting the rule from Sunni to Shi’ite. In the case of
uprooting ISIS from Mosul, too, what is discussed today is the risk that
Shi’ite forces, both governmental and militias, will make the battle over
Mosul into a vengeance-fest against the city’s Sunni population, and not the
long-term ramifications of what will happen after the operation is
It is not that the Bush administration did not think in terms of historic
change. It did. But the change it aimed for was instituting democracy in
Iraq – while the change that went almost ignored was that the removal of
Saddam and the establishment of a representative ruling council would
terminate a millennium of Sunni-dominated stability in the region.
There are always compelling and worthy reasons, some strategic and some
moral, for uprooting evil – and they obscure the one consideration that
always eludes us at the decisive moment. That consideration is that the new
reality may prove worse, which is what happened, and which may worsen still
further in the near future.
In Praise Of Hindsight
This article was written in hindsight. The authors make no claim to having
had such insight at the time. Some critics, most of them European, did view
the invasion as illegitimate, because it would change the country’s nature
and structure. Like others, we thought this argument overly legalistic, and
believed not only that an invasion was legitimate, but that it was morally
incumbent upon the U.S. to intervene on behalf of those facing mass murder.
Since nearly everyone failed to foresee the consequences of the historic
change brought about by the Bush-Obama policy, whether aimed at instituting
democracy (Bush) or at establishing a new regional equilibrium (Obama), the
question arises: How can leaders avoid repeats of this debacle, which we see
again and again, not only in this case but also in others? It would appear
that the golden rule for leaders to follow in determining a course of action
is: Do not introduce historic change.
The obvious challenge is what to do in the face of evil. Every minority in
danger of mass murder understandably prays that the U.S. will feel morally
bound to fight evil. However, this moral imperative should be implemented
without introducing structural changes. George Bush senior struck this
balance in Operation Desert Storm. Namely, he pushed Saddam out of Kuwait
back to his own borders, severely damaged his military forces, and imposed
sanctions – but did not oust Saddam in order to introduce democracy.
The world’s democracies can and should help peoples under the yoke of
dictatorship. But the onus of structural change rests upon the peoples
involved. Also, when supporting anti-dictatorial forces, great care must be
taken to properly and accurately identify which of them are democratic and
progressive, and deserving of support – and not, as President Obama did,
help elements like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which are neither
democratic nor progressive. This was not the only mistake made by Obama; in
Iran’s 2009 civil uprising, he stood by the regime of the Islamic Republic
as it violently repressed the democratic Green Movement. Indeed, experts can
help apply this rule of refraining from introducing structural change in
each individual case. But the ultimate responsibility for upholding this
rule rests solely upon the leaders.
*Yigal Carmon is President and Founder of MEMRI. Anna Mahjar-Barducci is
Director of the MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project.
 The extent to which ISIS considers jihad against the West at the bottom
of its priorities is amply reflected in statements by the late ISIS
spokesman Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani, who in a message to ISIS fighters said:
“The Islamic State did not launch a war against you, as your lying
government and your media claim. You are the ones who initiated hostilities
against us. And the side that initiated hostilities is the evil one. You
will pay for it dearly when your economies collapse. You will pay dearly
when your sons are sent to fight us. And they return crippled and damaged,
in coffins, or as lunatics. You will pay when each of you feels afraid to
travel abroad. You will pay when you walk the streets in trepidation for
fear of the Muslims. You will not be safe in your own beds. You will pay the
price when your crusader war fails. And then we will invade the very heart
of your country. After that you will never again be aggressive towards
anyone.” Addressing ISIS fighters, he went on to say: “Why is it that the
world is united against you? Why have the nations of unbelief entrenched
together against you? What threat do you pose to the distant place of
Australia, for it to send its legions towards you? Does Canada have anything
to do with you?” See MEMRI JTTM report Responding To U.S.-Led Campaign, ISIS
Spokesman Calls To Kill Westerners, Including Civilians, By Any Means
Possible, September 22, 2014.
 Despite all that President Obama has done for the Iranian regime, not
only have he and his administration received no recognition whatsoever from
Iran for its efforts to extricate it from its international isolation, but
the U.S. is more reviled than ever as the Great Satan; it is also subjected
to various hostile Iranian acts such as the arrest of American citizens, the
arrest and humiliation of American soldiers, escalated calls of “death to
America,” and continued incitement against it.
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