When Sunni and Shiite Extremists Make War
Translations of this item:
If al Qaeda fighters want to murder Hezbollah fighters and Hezbollah fighters want to return the favor, who in their right mind would want to stand in the way? . . . If one branch of Islam wants to be at war with another branch for a few years — or decades — so much the better for the non-Islamic world. Mass civilian casualties in Aleppo or Homs is their tragedy, not ours. It does not implicate us morally. And it probably benefits us strategically, not least by redirecting jihadist energies away from the West.
Wrong on every count.
Why wrong and on how many counts? Actually, Stephens points to just one count: He looks back on the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s, arguing that it harmed both the West's interests and its moral standing. He assesses its impact on the West:
It's true that the price of crude declined sharply almost every year of the war, but that only goes to show how weak the correlation is between Persian Gulf tensions and oil prices. Otherwise, the 1980s were the years of the tanker wars in the Gulf, including Iraq's attack on the USS Stark; the hostage-taking in Lebanon; and the birth of Hezbollah, with its suicide bombings of the U.S. Marine barracks and embassy in Beirut. Iraq invaded Kuwait less than two years after the war's end. Iran emerged with its revolutionary fervors intact — along with a rekindled interest in developing nuclear weapons. In short, a long intra-Islamic war left nobody safer, wealthier or wiser.
He finds that the fighting left the West morally tainted.
The U.S. embraced Saddam Hussein as a counterweight to Iran, and later tried to ply Iran with secret arms in exchange for the release of hostages. Patrolling the Strait of Hormuz, the USS Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iranian jetliner over the Gulf, killing 290 civilians.
Stephens concludes that "inaction only provides moral safe harbor when there's no possibility of action."
I'll start my reply by praising Bret Stephens as one of the finest foreign-policy analysts writing today and someone I recently congratulated on his winning the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. I like him and respect his views. That said, here is my response:
The Iraq-Iran war of 1980–88 and the Syrian civil war differ in a decisive way. The former directly involved the world's energy center, the latter does not. The Iraq-Iran war threatened the global economy, the Syrian conflict does not.
Stephens focuses on relatively minor disadvantages of the Iraq-Iran war. Seen from the perspective of a quarter-century later, the conflict did bring the major benefit of weakening both combatants. Khomeini enjoyed a vast reach among Muslims at the war's start but lost this power by its end; not a single other country experienced an Iranian-inspired Islamic revolution, and the much-feared domino effect fizzled. Similarly, Saddam Hussein's Iraq never recovered from the terrible costs of its war with Iran; although still powerful enough to conquer defenseless Kuwait in 1990, its forces were no match whatsoever for the American-led troops in 1991 and 2003.
The civil war in Syria has also benefited the West until now: It set Sunni extremist against Shiite extremist, weakened the governments of Iran and Syria, harmed the Hezbollah and Hamas terror organizations, caused the malign AKP government of Turkey to stumble badly for the first time in its ten-year reign, and created troubles for Moscow in the Middle East. More broadly, a region that constantly threatens the outside world has become so focused on its own travails that its capacity to make trouble for others is reduced.
As for the moral question: I emphatically agree with Stephens that we who have the means should help those in need. But does he really believe that a victory by either the Islamist rebels or the Assad government, given their horrific battlefield records, would signal an improvement in civilian conditions? I suggest instead that Western powers use their influence to get the battling forces out of the populated areas.
The fighting now underway benefits those of us outside the Middle East. May it weaken both combatants even as our governments take meaningful steps to help civilians caught in the crossfire.
Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum. © 2013 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.
June 5, 2013 update: (1) David Goldman comes down on my side in this argument, concluding his analysis with this observation:
the terrible fact remains that it is not in our power to prevent the decline of a civilization embracing over a billion people, and to prevent some aspects of that decline from turning ugly beyond description. Among the many things we might do, there is one thing we must do: limit the damage to ourselves and our allies.
(2) A reader points out that my policy recommendation is old-fashioned Realpolitik ("politics based on practical and material factors rather than on theoretical or ethical objectives") and I should not be embarrassed to say so. He has a point: but I am no so much shying away from the moral task than giving priority to protecting ourselves.
|Placing military objects among civilians [38 words]||Henk Twerda||Aug 16, 2013 19:37||209023|
|Protect the Christains [69 words]||Rick||Jun 26, 2013 16:46||207341|
|MIDDLE EAST UPRISINGS [196 words]||Anna B||Jun 18, 2013 13:19||207077|
|2||The Shite Sunni Wars [36 words]||Tom||Jun 17, 2013 01:33||207045|
|Combatants and civilians [140 words]||Peter West||Jun 12, 2013 04:10||206923|
|Entirely agree with you Daniel! [48 words]||Mark Rcca||Jun 8, 2013 13:07||206835|
|Who are Muslims? [122 words]||Bart Benschop||Jun 8, 2013 08:18||206826|
|13||The Coming Collapse of Islam? [615 words]||Ron Thompson||Jun 6, 2013 20:57||206789|
|3||Islam by itself is already non-existent [234 words]||Prashant||Jun 7, 2013 01:27||206789|
|1||Islamic Reformation overdue [105 words]||Tim Fairless||Jun 15, 2013 18:26||206789|
|Spirituality in Islam [105 words]||biccky||Jun 16, 2013 08:21||206789|
|3||An Islamic Martin Luther? Not likely [729 words]||Ron Thompson||Jun 19, 2013 18:31||206789|
|1||On the relationship of Spirituality, Suicide, and Absence of Conscience in Islam [491 words]||Ron Thompson||Jun 20, 2013 11:18||206789|
|Islam is beyond a reformation [81 words]||peter heath||Dec 22, 2013 08:37||206789|
|Islamism spreads hatred and violence [195 words]||Murthy S||May 23, 2014 01:04||206789|
|Iranian Nukes [89 words]||JP||Jun 6, 2013 12:12||206773|
|Nature abhors a vacume [94 words]||Abe Irwin||Jun 6, 2013 12:08||206772|
|NATO border [81 words]||myth||Jun 6, 2013 05:06||206756|
|1||ISLAM WILL ALWAYS BE HARD TO UNDERSTAND [154 words]||JACQUES HADIDA||Jun 5, 2013 21:01||206738|
|integration of Muslims into western society's concept of government, [45 words]||rodney allsworth||Jun 5, 2013 18:26||206729|
|Islamists in Syria [91 words]|
w/response from Daniel Pipes
|Anon||Jun 5, 2013 18:10||206727|
|1||Lebanon [93 words]||rick||Jun 5, 2013 17:32||206726|
|The last paragraph [12 words]||Eddie Hister||Jun 5, 2013 17:10||206725|
|1||I agree with your position. [54 words]||Perla Fox||Jun 5, 2013 16:16||206723|
|10||Big Picture is Not Two-Dimensional Mr.Stephens [113 words]||Michael Hanni Morcos||Jun 5, 2013 14:39||206719|
|2||When Sunni and Shiite Extremists make War. [71 words]||Anne||Jun 5, 2013 14:08||206718|
|Sunni VS Shiite [20 words]|
w/response from Daniel Pipes
|Steven L||Jun 5, 2013 13:17||206717|
|Taking the lead [112 words]|
w/response from Daniel Pipes
|David W. Lincoln||Jun 5, 2013 11:55||206712|
|Sunni-Shiite War [157 words]||Paul Jeffery||Jun 5, 2013 11:24||206709|
|Assad vs. Jihad [318 words]||Anton Bargielski||Jun 5, 2013 10:12||206706|
|How to help civilians [44 words]||Stuart rose||Jun 6, 2013 16:42||206706|
|4||Who are the Civilians? [310 words]|
w/response from Daniel Pipes
|Mike Ramirez||Jun 5, 2013 09:19||206704|
|2||Shite Hezbollah, Assad & Iran vs. the Arab Sunni World [256 words]||Tom||Jun 8, 2013 02:26||206704|
|Indonesia [20 words]||Mark Causey||Dec 28, 2013 16:27||206704|
|3||Be aware of the wrong decisions [109 words]||Stergios Bakas||Jun 5, 2013 09:15||206703|
|2||The Infidel is a Legitimate Target [98 words]||Kerry||Jun 5, 2013 07:41||206701|
|Agree with Daniel Pipes [154 words]||FX Meaney||Jun 5, 2013 07:28||206700|
|1||Let them kill each other off [80 words]||Ken Besig||Jun 5, 2013 06:58||206699|
Support Daniel Pipes' work with a tax-deductible donation to the Middle East Forum. Daniel J. Pipes