Sectarianism in the Middle East — this month’s Minnesota International Center’s “Great Decisions” dialogue topic — manifests itself in multiple conflicts. The latest epicenter is Yemen, often portrayed as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Shiite and Sunni regional behemoths.
But it’s more complex than that, and analysts — including and especially the news media — risk reducing complicated conflicts to singular factors. “We tend to oversimplify, and in the case of sectarianism we see that happening in a few ways,” said David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Policy magazine. Rothkopf is quick to concur that “traditional sectarianism” is a key conflict component. “But it’s never the only factor. There are people involved, tribes involved, politicians and political parties involved, special interests involved. All of whom want to see outcomes that ensure that not just their religious goals are achieved but that their personal goals are achieved, their nationalistic goals are achieved.” And the Sunni-Shia split is accompanied by a Sunni-Sunni divide between extremists and moderate states, some with “troubling profiles as partners.”
Indeed, the Mideast “has a strange alchemy right now,” said former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross. Much of this is because of an elemental identity struggle. “What we see in the region is a lack of institutions, the lack of basic legitimacy, and the tendency to fall back on the most fundamental forms of identity and security, which are tribe, sect and clan. These are so fundamental and yet they produce these atavistic kinds of conflicts, which are why the conflicts are so terrible, because they’re at such a base level.”
Understanding these dynamics, as well as avoiding ethnocentrism, is important for foreign policy analysts considering Iran. While the nuclear negotiations are newsworthy and crucial, Rothkopf also thinks that policymakers — and the media — need to ask deeper questions, including what threat a potential program poses compared to what “a lot of people would argue: That the primary threat Iran poses is the one they’ve had for 35 years without nuclear weapons, which is regional destabilization.”
Ross said there is a “legitimate fear the Saudis and others have that the regional balance of power is changing even as we are talking to them.”
It’s also important to internationalize the Iran issue instead of narrowing it into the domestic debate that has gripped, and gridlocked, Washington.
“National narcissism is one of the realities that really hurts the United States on a regular basis,” Rothkopf said. Sanctions were successful because they were multilateral, and accordingly the “outcomes have to be acceptable to the European Union, the Russians, the Chinese, all of whom have different and evolving points of view regarding Iran, America’s role, the West’s role, the International Atomic Energy Association. We have to remember our limitations and international obligations while pursuing this.”
And if contextual coverage of the nuclear negotiations is able to prod policymakers and the public to expand their analysis, Rothkopf said a regional rethink and, in fact, a geostrategic reassessment are in order, too.
Even terms like “Mideast peace process” constrict consideration to Israel and Palestine at a time when only Oman isn’t embroiled in some armed conflict. And while the bilateral relationship with America’s stalwart ally is and should be paramount, other perils need to be priorities, Rothkopf said. “If you were to rank the potential threats of the various conflicts in the Mideast to US interests — whether it’s energy access, or the fate of the international economy, or the spread of terrorism, or the return of foreign fighters, or the stability of the region or the spread of extremism to other regions — you would find [on]all of those issues, other countries, other conflicts are more important than the issues associated with Israel.”
The Mideast identity struggle certainly has sectarian components, but conflicts are often more about radical Islamists, said Ross, who acknowledges the gravity of nuclear diplomacy, but adds: “We should see it as a derivitative question. It shouldn’t be the driving question. … We need to fit what we’re doing into a strategic construct, and the construct for me is who is going to define identity, and those who define identity, is that going to shape a Middle East that over the next 10 to 20 years gives us a chance to remove the pathologies, as opposed to perpetuating them?”
These key questions on the conflicts convulsing the Mideast include, but are not limited to, sectarianism. The media, especially in the context of a campaign likely to be more about foreign policy than most, should delve beyond common assumptions about the region, and then press presidential candidates to have a more substantive debate, too.
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John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in “Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to www.micglobe.org.