The Middle East Cold War and U.S.

As big a threat as ISIS is, the competition that truly defines the Middle East is the one between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Where do we fit in?


The grisly and unspeakable beheading by ISIS of American photojournalist James Foley in Syria will rightly dominate the international news today. It’s a grave tragedy. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that it’s a tragedy that underscores the reality that American air power has been hurting the Islamic State. In an effort to support the successful retaking of the Mosul Dam by Kurdish and Iraqi government forces, the United States launched about three dozen airstrikes since Saturday, and they clearly made some difference.

Last week, I argued that Americans—and liberals in particular—should support this action. The interest in stopping ISIS, in both American strategic and just basic human terms, couldn’t possibly be clearer.

What I didn’t emphasize in that column is that we can’t stop ISIS alone (unless the experts have dramatically overstated their firepower). For better or worse, that will have to be done in concert with regional actors like the gulf states, Turkey, and even Iran.

Americans need to understand a lot more about these countries and their foreign-policy motivations. Gregory Gause of Texas A&M and the Brookings Institution is one of America’s foremost authorities on the region. Late last month he published a paper called “Beyond Sectarianism: The New Middle East Cold War.” (PDF) The Cold War that Gause posits is between Saudi Arabia and Iran—the former Sunni and the latter Shia. They’re the two largest and richest countries in the region, with plenty of billions at their disposal to finance proxy wars, so at one level or another, almost everything that happens in their area of the world can be interpreted as part of this power struggle.

Relations between the two countries are at a historic low point. It started in the early 2000s, as sectarian competitions that had been held in check for various reasons started to become more pronounced. The Iraq War didn’t help; “the breaking of the Iraqi state,” Gause writes, “enormously increased the salience of sectarianism in regional politics, from the bottom-up.” More recently, the fallout from the Arab Spring across the region has given the two powers many more sandboxes in which to play. And while the Saudi-Sunni side has a huge numerical advantage in the Muslim world, and the Saudis have more petrodollars than the Iranians, Tehran has stronger alliances. “The difference between Iran and the gulf states,” Gause told me, “is that the gulf states can bring money, but they always have to outsource their foreign policy, in essence renting people to execute their foreign policy on the ground. Iran has the Quds force and Hezbollah. But the Saudis don’t have allies. They have clients.”

As the paper’s title instructs us, it’s too simple to reduce everything to a Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict, and this Cold War, just like the “real” one that included competition between the Soviet Union and China, isn’t merely bipolar. The intra-Sunni rivalries are intense. Saudi Arabia despises the Muslim Brotherhood, which is also Sunni. They were allies until 1990, Gause says, when the Saudis backed the U.S. expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait, and the Brotherhood opposed it. Ever since, the Saudis have seen the Brotherhood as both a domestic and geopolitical threat to the monarchy. Qatar, meanwhile, backs the Brotherhood. “Basically, they saw Islamists as the wave of the future in the region,” Gause says, noting that Qatar’s foreign policy influence has wobbled and waned a bit recently.

For all the competitions, though, one fact unites all of them. No one likes the Islamic State—Iran for sectarian reasons, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar because they’ve been placing their Syria bets on other rebel groups. Don’t get your hopes up: Those groups aren’t the much-discussed moderates. They’re not much less extremist than ISIS. Ahrar al-Sham, for example, is a salafist amalgam of a bunch of different radical groups that has reportedly received money from both the Qataris and the Saudis. But even it isn’t quite ISIS, with its dreams of establishing a broad and ghastly caliphate. In fact, the Saudi government (there is high irony in this, to be sure) recently made up a list for the first time of official terrorist organizations and put ISIS on it.

But while no one wants to see the Islamic State in Damascus, it’s still the case that Syria is where the sectarian showdown looms. It’s the ground zero, the Germany, of this Cold War. It’s probably not inevitable that a great sectarian battle will rage there one day—although if Saudi Arabia wants to foment one, it’ll happen. There are plenty of reasons to hope for Assad’s fall—because he’s a remorseless butcher, for starters; because Iran’s power and influence would decline; and because Hezbollah in Lebanon would probably be diminished in proportion, after Hezbollah’s very public embrace of Assad. But he won’t be replaced by a Boy Scout troop, and the Cold War would probably just intensify.

Seen in this context, Obama’s refusal to get behind the Free Syrian Army in 2012 looms a little larger. Gause told me that the Saudis were backing the FSA for a while but gave up on them. It’s arguably conceivable that if the United States had put resources there, that could have persuaded the Saudis to stay. Gause himself tends to think the United States could not have assembled a credible fighting force.

Maybe so, but the terrible things that have happened in Syria in the American absence demonstrate to me that we have to stay deeply involved in the region’s politics. So do the smaller affirmative things that are happening around Erbil, and in Baghdad, too, where we played some role in getting Nouri al-Maliki out, giving Iraq a second chance with a new prime minister who will hopefully try to run a representative government. Your opposition to American imperialism can’t be so unstoppable that you want to leave the fate of hundreds of millions of people to two of the most reactionary regimes on the planet, and to ISIS.