Obama’s false dichotomy: Short beards vs long beards

Sunday 15/05/2016

By all appear­ances, the Arab world seems awash in extremism. The prominence of violent and regressive elements is, in part, a result of White House strategy. The submergence of the region’s rational voices is also the result of US policy.

In pursuing a single-minded policy of rapprochement with Iran, US President Barack Obama has sought to make moderate Sunni and Shia elements disappear from the Middle Eastern political land­scape.

In his famous Cairo speech of June 2009, Obama set out to rede­fine US-Muslim relations, asserting that the main problem was one of effective communication. Seven years later, the sole beneficiary of US outreach has been the brutal theocratic dictatorship in Teheran.

Earlier this year, during a visit to Washington, a moder­ate centrist Lebanese parliamentarian was told by more than one US government official that, while America’s allies in the region have problems with the short beards (Hezbollah and Iran), the problem for the United States lies with the long beards (the Islamic State). The gentleman was advised to adjust to this new reality: US policy was engagement with Iran and distancing itself from traditional Arab Sunni allies.

In executing this strategic shift, Obama has become a master of the straw man and the false dichotomy. As he surveys the Middle East, Obama tells us that the United States faces a simple choice between Shia Islamism (represented by Tehran and Hez­bollah) and Sunni Islamism. As the president argues, Iran and its allies are clearly preferable to al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (ISIS) and their offshoots.

Obama is speaking past moder­ate voices and effectively seeking to silence them. Moderate Sun­nis and Shia elements opposing Iran are to be disregarded, even discredited. By Obama’s reckon­ing, there are no other viable partners save the ayatollahs and, by extension, Hezbollah. The Green movement of 2009 is noth­ing more than an inconvenient memory. Likewise, the Sunnis of the Gulf can be painted with the same Islamo-fascist brush as ISIS. There is no meaningful distinction between that terror group and the Saudi monarchy, according to this weak argument.

A moderate Shia alternative to the ayatollahs and Hezbollah exists in Iran and Lebanon. In Iraq, there is no desire for Iranian hegemony. The rulers in the Gulf, as well as Saudi Arabia, represent a bulwark against ISIS and the obscurantist elements in their own societies. Obama, however, simply can­not acknowledge this as it would undermine the false dichotomy he has set up.

Obama’s engagement with Iran was not just a rhetorical gambit to convince the world of the merits of rapprochement. The pursuit of a deal affected every aspect of Obama’s Middle East policy. He sacrificed all other regional priorities to appease and reconcile with Iran. This can be seen from Washington’s policies towards Iraq and Syria, and most recently the signing of the Iran nuclear deal and the effect this has had on the wider region.

The success of this deal, which was so relentlessly pursued by Obama, is ultimately hostage to the caprice of the ayatollahs and the president has indicated his willing­ness to bow to their demands at all costs to ensure that the deal is fully implemented and his policy of engagement vindicated.

Obama entered office preach­ing the transformational value of engagement, in particular with Iran. For the last seven years, he has ruthlessly prioritised this en­gagement over all else. Obama has, indeed, signed a nuclear deal with Iran, but one in which the central premise is questionable at best and one that puts the ayatollahs fully in control. The onus of good faith is on the United States in prema­turely easing the sanctions and not on Iran for breaking international laws. The slightest hint of reproach on the part of Washington brings threats that the regime in Tehran will abandon the deal.

On the other side of the ledger, all forces of moderation have been sidelined or annulled: The Green movement in Iran was orphaned. Iraq is now the domain of al-Quds Force. Syria has been destroyed and the moderate opposition there left at the mercy of Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. ISIS has emerged as a force in the region and the new face of Sunni extremism.

A sectarian war has taken hold in the Middle East where traditional allies of the United States in the Gulf are dismissed and maligned and have responded with a new suspicion towards American mo­tives.

This single-minded obsession with engagement has only served to enrich and empower Iran and led to an ever-worsening fanati­cism, the victims of which will be moderates and minorities. Obama’s short-beards-vs-long-beards dichotomy is profoundly false and only time will tell how much dam­age has been caused by this, in the Middle East and beyond.