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America Has Abdicated Its Guiding Role in the Middle East to a Sectarian Arab Military Force

What could go wrong?

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In the speech on counterterrorism policy that he delivered last year at West Point, President Barack Obama made clear that the United States would no longer try to fight the terrorist threat abroad on its own, but rather would aim to “more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.” Last month, the Arab League answered that call by pledging to establish a joint Arab military force to respond to the growing chaos in the region. The Obama administration has given its cautious support to the proposal. A senior State Department official I spoke to said, “We welcome something like this, especially in Syria, but also elsewhere.”

I would say: Be careful what you welcome.

The actual details of this proposed army, including its members, force structure, and location, are to be worked out over the next several months. And as Arab unity — political or military — has often proved to be a mirage, there is good reason to be skeptical that the force will ever come into being. Even if it did, fundamental divisions among Arab states would ensure that a joint force would look more like a shifting coalition of the willing than a collective body like NATO, or even like the African Union’s Peace and Security Council.

Nevertheless, a sense of real danger, combined with a fear of abandonment by the United States, has propelled the idea onto the Arab agenda. Egypt, which has pushed hardest for the joint force, worries that extremist violence in Libya will spill across the border between the two countries. After Islamic State fighters in Libya beheaded 21 Egyptian Copts, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called for a U.N.-backed intervention force, or, failing that, the lifting of the arms embargo on the internationally recognized Libyan government in Tobruk. When the United States and Britain opposed both measures, Sisi apparently concluded that he would have to rely on his fellow Arabs, and began sounding the tocsin for a joint force.

The impetus for the force was Egyptian, but it will go nowhere without Saudi Arabia, the paramount political and financial force in the Gulf. The Saudis also see a grave threat on their doorstep, as Yemen has been overrun by Houthi tribesmen allied with Iran. Saudi Arabia has pulled eight other Arab nations, as well as the United States, into its air war against the Houthis. That war has thus become a prototype of a new form of collective regional action with the United States as a supporting player — precisely what Obama suggested at West Point.

The administration defends the Saudis’ resort to force to stem the tide of the takeover of Yemen: The Houthis had placed Scud missiles on the border, while Iran had begun regular flights to Saada, the Houthi stronghold. But the State Department official I spoke to added that the hostilities would have to end soon in order to limit death and destruction, and to bring the Houthis to a political settlement.

There is, unfortunately, no sign that Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz agrees with that proposition. His apparent plan is to bomb the Houthis into submission. What’s more, the Saudis are new to the game of military intervention, and they seem bent on reproducing America’s worst mistakes. The air war has caused over 500 civilian deaths and an incipient humanitarian disaster; created new opportunities for al Qaeda, which has seized Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth-largest city; and done nothing to hinder the Houthis’ bid to conquer the strategic southern city of Aden. It’s not a very encouraging prototype.

The fight is only two weeks old and perhaps the tide will turn. The more lasting problem is King Salman’s idea of a political solution. Once he’s evicted the Houthis, he plans to restore to power President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was forced to flee Yemen to Saudi Arabia. But it was the Saudis who put Hadi there in the first place; so weak is his writ that his army effectively abandoned him in favor of his widely hated predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Hadi might survive, but only as a Saudi puppet. What’s more, the Houthis are not Iran’s puppets, as the Saudis insist, but a powerful indigenous force whose demands must be accommodated in a power-sharing agreement.

A comparable situation can be seen in Libya, where Egypt has given political and military support to the Tobruk government in its effort to destroy the rival government based in Tripoli. The former is avowedly “moderate,” the other “Islamist,” but these oversimplified terms disguise the reality of different regions, tribes, and ethnic groups vying for control. Again, the only lasting solution would be a political one. Yet right now the greatest obstacle to a cease-fire is the refusal of the Tobruk government to negotiate with the Islamists. The Tobruk prime minister, Abdullah al-Thinni, has demanded that the Arabs do in Libya what they’re now doing in Yemen. That would be a catastrophe.

The United States has learned the hard way that it cannot simply prop up governments seen as illegitimate by their own people; that’s why Obama has tried to condition military assistance to Iraq on political reform that offers a significant role to Sunnis. Arab autocrats do not accept this principle. Saudi Arabia reacted to political dissent among the Shiite majority in Bahrain by sending in a military force to help the Sunni monarchy in Manama crush the peaceful movement. The Sisi regime treats domestic dissent as a threat to national security; from Cairo’s point of view, members of the Muslim Brotherhood are “terrorists” — a fifth-column version of the Islamic State.

The problem goes deeper still. The West defines African security problems more or less the same way African states do: Failing states, military coups, and aggressive warlords pose a danger beyond their own borders that must be addressed by external actors. That’s why working with the African Union is relatively unproblematic. No such consensus exists with the Arab world. The Saudis see localized uprisings as manifestations of a relentless Iranian campaign to dominate the Middle East. The central battle is thus not moderate Islam versus violent extremism, as it is for the United States and the West, but Sunni versus Shiite. The joint strike force will be a Sunni, rather than an Arab, instrument; Iraq and Lebanon, where Shiites hold effective control, have shown no enthusiasm for the proposed body. This will have the effect of deepening existing schisms.

The other great regional bugbear is political Islam. The Emiratis and other Gulf states share Egypt’s paranoia on the subject, and have also branded the Brotherhood a terrorist organization. None of them have shown any interest in bolstering Tunisia, a country beset by domestic terrorism. That’s because the Tunisian government includes the Islamist Ennahda party. The United States has an interest in supporting nascent democracies and ending conflict through reconciliation. The Arab army won’t do either.

But the United States also has a very serious interest in rolling back the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, and suppressing al Qaeda and curbing the Houthis in Yemen. Here U.S. and Arab interests converge. The West cannot solve the problem of Islamic extremism; only the Islamic world itself can do that. Obama has said that the United States will henceforward work through partners when it comes to counterterrorism. As one Arab diplomat said to me about the proposed force, “If Obama’s policy is to get the region to take care of its own problems, I think this is a good place to be.” Indeed, from the Arab point of view, it is precisely the American abdication that has necessitated the new Arab activism. “The U.S. is not the 911 for these problems anymore,” the diplomat put it.

When you’re the hegemon, you can tell your partners how to behave; when you’re not, you can’t. The United States can no longer afford to play that role, and in any case doesn’t want to. It must rely on, rather than simply conscript, its partners. And that means it must adapt, more than it has in the past, to its partners’ views. Washington is thus in no position either to oppose the Arab joint strike force or to tell it how and where to act. It really is a lamentable state of affairs. But it’s where we are.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

About the Author

James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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