Monday, February 26, 2007

The Lesser of Two Evils

George Bush secretly funding Sunni Arab extremists? Islamist groups that hate America and are sympathetic to al-Qaeda, the very outfit that started this whole Middle Eastern fiasco are now okay with the White House?

According to Seymour Hersh writing in the latest New Yorker, that's precisely what's happening. Sure it was the Sunni al-Qaeda that bombed embassies and a warship and destroyed the World Trade Centre. Sure it was the Sunni Taliban that allowed al-Qaeda to base itself in Afghanistan. Sure it was the Sunni Saddam that led the US to invade and occupy Iraq. Sure it's been the Sunni insurgency that has mainly targeted US troops in Iraq. Sure it's Sunni fundamentalists, in and out of the government, that threaten Pakistan's ruler, Musharraf, and could potentially wind up with that country's nuclear arsenal. Sure - but so what?

Hersh reports that in America's war against Islamic theocracies, the Shia are now seen as the greater threat, leaving the Sunnis, by default, as America's new allies:

"After the revolution of 1979 brought a religious government to power, the United States broke with Iran and cultivated closer relations with the leaders of Sunni Arab states such as Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. That calculation became more complex after the September 11th attacks, especially with regard to the Saudis. Al Qaeda is Sunni, and many of its operatives came from extremist religious circles inside Saudi Arabia. Before the invasion of Iraq, in 2003, Administration officials, influenced by neoconservative ideologues, assumed that a Shiite government there could provide a pro-American balance to Sunni extremists, since Iraq’s Shiite majority had been oppressed under Saddam Hussein. They ignored warnings from the intelligence community about the ties between Iraqi Shiite leaders and Iran, where some had lived in exile for years. Now, to the distress of the White House, Iran has forged a close relationship with the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

"The key players behind the redirection are Vice-President Dick Cheney, the deputy national-security adviser Elliott Abrams, the departing Ambassador to Iraq (and nominee for United Nations Ambassador), Zalmay Khalilzad, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi national-security adviser. While Rice has been deeply involved in shaping the public policy, former and current officials said that the clandestine side has been guided by Cheney.

"In the nineteen-eighties and the early nineties, the Saudi government offered to subsidize the covert American C.I.A. proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Hundreds of young Saudis were sent into the border areas of Pakistan, where they set up religious schools, training bases, and recruiting facilities. Then, as now, many of the operatives who were paid with Saudi money were Salafis. Among them, of course, were Osama bin Laden and his associates, who founded Al Qaeda, in 1988.

"This time, the U.S. government consultant told me, Bandar and other Saudis have assured the White House that “they will keep a very close eye on the religious fundamentalists. Their message to us was ‘We’ve created this movement, and we can control it.’ It’s not that we don’t want the Salafis to throw bombs; it’s who they throw them at—Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran, and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran.”

"Patrick Clawson, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, depicted the Saudis’ co√∂peration with the White House as a significant breakthrough. “The Saudis understand that if they want the Administration to make a more generous political offer to the Palestinians they have to persuade the Arab states to make a more generous offer to the Israelis,” Clawson told me. The new diplomatic approach, he added, “shows a real degree of effort and sophistication as well as a deftness of touch not always associated with this Administration. Who’s running the greater risk—we or the Saudis? At a time when America’s standing in the Middle East is extremely low, the Saudis are actually embracing us. We should count our blessings.”

"The Pentagon consultant had a different view. He said that the Administration had turned to Bandar as a “fallback,” because it had realized that the failing war in Iraq could leave the Middle East “up for grabs.”

“'It seems there has been a debate inside the government over what’s the biggest danger—Iran or Sunni radicals,' Vali Nasr, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has written widely on Shiites, Iran, and Iraq, told me. 'The Saudis and some in the Administration have been arguing that the biggest threat is Iran and the Sunni radicals are the lesser enemies. This is a victory for the Saudi line.'

"Martin Indyk, a senior State Department official in the Clinton Administration who also served as Ambassador to Israel, said that 'the Middle East is heading into a serious Sunni-Shiite Cold War.' Indyk, who is the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, added that, in his opinion, it was not clear whether the White House was fully aware of the strategic implications of its new policy. 'The White House is not just doubling the bet in Iraq,' he said. 'It’s doubling the bet across the region. This could get very complicated. Everything is upside down.'”


KSM said...

That's pretty bad, if true. But it is Sy Hersh, so I have to take what he reports with a grain of salt.

The Mound of Sound said...

I don't share your skepticism about Hersh. He's one of the best connected reporters in the US and usually presents multi-sourced accounts such as this one. But, you're right, it is bad. Bush dragged us into his war against Wahabbi Sunni extremists and has now gone off to use Sunni Jihadists against the Shiites. I guess he figures we should just keep plugging away in Afghanistan. The man is unbelievable. What blunder will come next?