Nothing could be more humiliating for a superpower than to be known as the patsy of some fundamentalist crusader sect.
Fundamentalist religious war plagues the Mideast (surely you all recall the vicious Thirty Years’ War pitting the so civilized West European Catholics and Protestants against each other) because three power centers dominate regional affairs and all three are religious states combining religious intolerance with power politics, exploiting the one in the service of the other, unable to decide which they care about more, but certain in their own blinkered minds that “their” religion must conquer. The best policy for those who want a peaceful world open to international trade and travel, with steady economic progress, is to avoid taking sides. Neither Sunni Saudi crusaders, Jewish Israeli crusaders, nor Shi’i Iranian crusaders will accept American ideals about moderation, tolerance, and democracy; why should anyone expect the fundamentalists in these societies to accept ideals that so many “war party” politicians in the U.S. give nothing but lip service to? Cooperate bilaterally when it does not conflict with U.S. ideals, by all means; talk with and negotiate with on every possible occasion – if for no other reason than to find opportunities to support those Saudis, Israelis, and Iranians who do–or might–share our ideals. But avoid like the plague entangling alliances that subordinate U.S. national interests to any side in the Mideast sectarian fight. It is not in the American national interest to support the victory of any religious faction, an outcome that would fundamentally (pun intended) violate the American principle of religious freedom. Mideast sectarian battles are not our fight.
That is the context in which Americans should view this week’s troubling revelations that Washington is providing military support to Saudi military intervention in the decades-long civil war. Teaching the land that invented Salafi terror how to conduct modern military interventionism sets a bad enough precedent. Actually facilitating this new Saudi addiction by making the Pentagon an assistant to a Saudi military campaign is pouring gasoline on the fires of Mideast sectarianism. Sectarian fires do not cool down easily. Only those seeking sectarian chaos from which to profit will have any reason to rejoice at this news. ISIS will rejoice because internationalizing the Yemeni civil war will take the pressure off, giving it a chance to regroup and renew its offensive at a place of its own choosing. Saudi Salafis will rejoice because they will realize that Washington can hardly offer Riyadh military support for intervention in a foreign civil war and simultaneously conduct a serious campaign against Salafi terror (whether you call it ISIS or al Qua’ida or Wahabiism). The Israeli right will rejoice because a U.S.-Saudi military partnership to defeat Yemeni Houthis who have been fighting for many years for either autonomy or the right to participate in national politics will undermine all efforts to encourage moderation on the part of a deeply divided Iranian regime split among fundamentalists and pragmatists. All of these groups cherish foreign policy goals profoundly in conflict with U.S. national interests.
The U.S., to put it bluntly, is the only superpower standing; inevitably, a tenuous and temporary situation, but that does not mean we need rush to step off our pedestal. It is a nice place to be, if you can keep your balance. It is not in the interest of a lone superpower, by definition rather a status quo state, to empower any religious crusader: these are mutually exclusive points of view. Superpowers keep their status precisely by offering something of value to the whole world equally (e.g., world peace, a reliable international currency, a fair set of rules enabling all to play the game). Nothing could be more humiliating for a superpower than to be known as the patsy of some fundamentalist crusader sect.