Differentiating Friends from Foes

To develop an effective Mideast policy, Washington and Americans generally must learn to distinguish between factions and individuals rather than labeling allies and adversaries by national or religious terms.

Like the Israeli and Saudi (and U.S. regimes), the Iranian regime is a coalition drawn from a wide range of political factions. Like the Israeli, Saudi, and U.S. political arenas, the Iranian political arena includes some folks who are nicer, nastier, more patriotic, less patriotic, more prejudiced, less prejudiced than others. A wise statesman tries to ascertain some appropriate distance from each political actor (not from the state as a whole; that would be a grossly short-sighted and irresponsibly self-defeating policy). At the moment, the “Dagan faction” in Israel, for example, is far closer to US national interests than the “Netanyahu faction.”

Today, the US “distance” from the ruling clique in Tehran should probably be significantly less sufficiently closer so that we can convince them that we are willing to accept Iran’s natural role in regional affairs.This means recognizing Iran’s right to inclusion in regional diplomacy and recognition that Iran has real and legitimate national security concerns that must be addressed in any international discussion of nuclear arms or freedom of the seas or any US discussion of where it would like to install overseas military bases.

Similarly, our “distance” from the current ruling elites in both Saudi Arabia and Israel should be greater. The Saudi ruling elite wants to use the US to push Iran away so the Saudis can lead global Islam…in a radical, militant, sectarian, fundamentalist direction that harms US national security. The Israeli ruling elite wants to use the US to push Iran away so it can continue unopposed to colonize the West Bank, suppress Palestinians, and make the rules that its neighbors must follow, again policies that harm US national security.

But this is a discussion of the appropriate US attitude toward specific political factions. The issue of states or societies is quite different. It is quite reasonable for the US to aspire to support the security of the Israeli, Palestinian, Lebanese, Saudi, or Iranian people as long as the support of A does not entail discrimination against B. Offering that support unconditionally or (offering hostility unconditionally) as a function of the faction or individual in control is simply unprofessional. It gives the initiative to the adversary. It empowers the adversary. It is a policy of weakness and blindness that teaches others that they are in control, and a professional policy-maker should not control to the leader of another country.

The issue of religion is also quite different. The Shi’i Shah was a close ally of Israel. The Shi’a of Bahrain engaged in a democratic protest. The Shi’a of Iraq are (depending on your perspective) either US allies or US proxies. The Shi’a of Lebanon actually welcomed the Israeli invasion in 1982…until the Israeli army started abusing them; then they rose up in revolt under the Hezbollah flag. The fact that someone is Shi’i or Sunni or Jewish is essentially irrelevant (but of course very useful as an excuse or cover for unrelated behavior).

One must of course start somewhere, but nationality and religion are not the places to start. Organizing friends and foes by religion or nationality is counterproductive. It confuses rather than clarifying.Instead, try  “level of deprivation.” If you are deprived of food or security, you will be considering a militant stance. You deserve sympathy. If you are still militant when no longer deprived, then you deserve to be condemned. That is simple, just a starting place. But at least it is a logical, useful starting place.

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Questions for Further Consideration:
  1. Can one differentiate among factions in the ruling coalition in terms relevant to U.S. national security?
  2. Can one differentiate among factions in the ruling elite in terms relevant to U.S. national security?
  3. Can one differentiate among the genres of political thinking by the thinking public in terms relevant to U.S. national security?


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