Thursday, March 29, 2007

Emerging Lines of Conflict

In recent post I attempted to answer the question, on what lines an anti-Iranian regional coalition would form, if at all. It appears now that such a coalition is forming and the Saudi government has taken the diplomatic lead against not only Iran, but perhaps against the U.S. as well. Lines are being drawn on two dimensions. Subtle balancing coalitions are forming against Iran along ethnic Arab/Persian lines, and against the U.S. along the wider civilizational Islamic/West lines described by Samuel Huntington.

As F. Gregory Gause III notes in a Council on Foreign Relations interview, the Saudi government has been at work building support for its regional interests against the expanding power of Iran. He argues that the Saudis are attempting to “limit Iranian influence in places where the Iranians seem to be getting stronger,” such as Lebanon and Palestine. Containing Iranian ambitions of course has more relevance to its neighbors than it does for the U.S. The U.S. experiences Iranian power once removed while its neighbors feel the direct effects. Gause estimates Saudi intentions in this way:
On the one hand, they want to contain Iranian influence. There's not much they can do in Iraq right now. But certainly at the peripheries of Iranian influence they're trying to roll it back. On the other hand, they don't want an open confrontation with Iran. They remember the 1980s when Ayatollah Khomeini was castigating them and the Iran-Iraq war was going on. That wasn't a comfortable time for them. The Saudis are playing a pretty nuanced balance-of-power game. Bring the Iranians in, talk to them, try to make deals with them where deals can be made, say perhaps in Lebanon, but at the same time, try to—in a sophisticated way—limit Iranian influence in places where the Iranians seem to be getting stronger.
The Saudis however must play to Arab nationalities in its balancing act. As Vali Nasr has noted, the Iraq war stimulated a Shia revival that now is having the larger effect of dissociating the Shia from Islam in general. Iran, as both non-Arab and Shia, is thus twice removed from its Sunni Arab neighbors. Thus as Gause notes: “the Saudis can work in the region to try to constrain and contain Iranian influence, particularly in Arab contexts, in Lebanon and among Palestinians—not so much in Iraq these days.” As such, the members of the Arab League recently considered creating new security alliances to the exclusion of its powerful neighbor. As Al-Jazeera reports, the Arab League seeks a "new and effective pact for Arab national security," against Iran and also presumably the U.S. as well.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has become an increasing liability for its Arab allies in the region, who fear that a U.S. attack on Iran will further upset the balance of power, irrevocably involving them in the widening mess it recently made in Iraq. Thus our former pseudo-allies are now abandoning us. As Robert Baer asserts in Time:
Our Arab allies are jumping ship, apparently as fast as they can. At the opening of the Arab summit on Wednesday, Saudi King Abdallah accused the U.S of illegally occupying Iraq. The day before, the leader of the United Arab Emirates sent his foreign minister to Tehran to tell the Iranians he would not allow the U.S. to use UAE soil to attack Iran. That leaves us with Kuwait and Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki to face Iran.
This unfortunate turn of events should have been quite predictable considering Huntington’s thesis that conflicts in the post-soviet era would emerge along civilization’s boundaries. However, the internal conflicts of a civilization will be dealt with along more specific cultural differences such as ethnicity and contradictory inter-religious dogmas. This explains the emergence of an intra-regional coalition. At the same time, these conflicts likely will resolve themselves and then focus on external enemies, or will be resolved as a result of its focus on the external western threat. This must not necessarily come to pass. Yet as our Arab friends are finding it increasingly more difficult to maintain their political ties to the erratic and unconstrained behavior of our executive administration, reversion to typical modes of conflict will become more prevalent.


Jeb said...

Good post. I don't agree with you entirely (I don't see much depth to Huntington's thesis, for instance), but I do think that the Saudis' main concern at this point is Iran. They do seem to be going about it in a different way than how the Bush administration wants them to, however, which you articulate very well.

Travis said...

Thank you for the complements. It’s always good to get your feedback on these issues. On that note, what is it exactly that you find unconvincing about Huntington's thesis?

Jeb said...

Hey Travis,

To be quite honest, I don't see anything behind Huntington's thesis. Admittedly, I didn't make it through his book, though I did read his Foreign Affairs article.

The main problem I have with Huntington is that he makes this huge set of assumptions that I think are just a little hard to buy into. In particular, the fact that he thinks the world can be divided into seven or eight civilizations is just bizarre. How can you classify, for instance, Islam as just one civilization? Muslims span multiple different countries and cover the entire range of personal customs, political perspectives, and world views. There is no one civilization there. Indeed, the 'Islamic civilization' is incredibly diverse.

Say what you will about Edward Said, he wrote a fairly interesting article in The Nation awhile back about Huntington's thesis that, I think, makes a similar point. Here's the link:

I'd be curious about your response to his article.