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ISIS: Paganism with an Islamic Face?

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen“]

“And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Moloch, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD.”

– Leviticus 18:21 

“They rejected the commandments of the Lord … and served Baal. They consigned their sons and daughters to the fire”

– 2 Kings 17:16–17

“And do not kill your children for fear of poverty. We provide for them and for you. Indeed, their killing is ever a great sin”

  – Qur’an 17:31

In a recent comment section conversation with Charles Cameron and RAND scholar David Ronfeldt on the character of Fascism and its resurgence, I remarked that ISIS adopting a Fascist style in its propaganda and governance may be drawing upon a ghastly and ancient lineage:

ISIS is really embracing Fascism. It’s ceremonial public executions actually supercede what the Nazis and Fascists did only symbolically with blood flags and heroic cenotaphs and so on. It is reaching back to something very dark and protean, human sacrifice, as a political symbol. I think [ Moshe] Halbertal’s book On Sacrifice, is a useful reference here on how deep this goes culturally, to the bronze age or earlier.

ISIS has for some time been making quite a perverse spectacle of its executions of prisoners, combatant and non-combatant alike, releasing videos to international fanfare and glorying in the resultant horror and global infamy. The precedent for this macabre “propaganda of the deed“was initially set by the forefather of ISIS, the Jordanian jailbird upjumped to “terrorist mastermind”, the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who originally led al Qaida in Iraq during the American occupation of Iraq. Prior to expiring after U.S. forces dropped a 500 lb bomb on his head, al-Zarqawi pioneered the use of  beheading videos, usually featuring himself being filmed incompetently and gruesomely sawing off an orange jumpsuit-clad captive’s head with a large knife, blood spraying everywhere.

Zarqawi’s ghoulish innovation in terrorist messaging admittedly held a certain fascination for the psychopathic segment of Sunni Islamist extremists and it attracted foreign fighters of this nature to Iraq who in turn lionized Zarqawi as “the Sheikh of Slaughterers”; but the beheading videos also generally horrified public opinion in the Muslim world and repelled even hardened jihadis, earning Zarqawi a rebuke from al Qaida number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri:

….Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable – also- are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages. You shouldn’t be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the shaykh of the slaughterers, etc. They do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq, and of you in particular by the favor and blessing of God.

….However, despite all of this, I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. And that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Umma. And that however far our capabilities reach, they will never be equal to one thousandth of the capabilities of the kingdom of Satan that is waging war on us. And we can kill the captives by bullet. That would achieve that which is sought after without exposing ourselves to the questions and answering to doubts. We don’t need this. 

Zarqawi’s Iraqi bloodlust ended only because it was interrupted by the American military, but the leaders of ISIS have carried on. Far from accepting Zawahiri’s advice, they have doubled down, greatly upgrading the marketing of ritualistic murder from Zarqawi’s crude snuff films to slick videos with professional editing and high production values that have become central to the online “brand” of the ISIS “caliphate”. Like the hosts of a sinister game show, ISIS spokesmen have found the time to murder creatively in order to keep their audience of Islamist terrorist wannabes in the West tuned in and captivate the attention of the global media (though sometimes, things do not work  out as planned).


However effective this circus of horrors has been at daunting their enemies and attracting the allegiance of “zealous young men” to ISIS, it reveals an atavistic impulse at play that no amount of Quranic hand-waving can paper over and conceal. Jurisprudence is absent here; not even the grim and rough Islamic “justice” of the Taliban is given to prisoners of ISIS, which violates the customary protections given under Islamic law or historical Muslim judicial practices. These choreographed and sensationalized executions by ISIS are really a cryptic revival of the ancient and terrible practice of human sacrifice, that in most cultures and religions had long been replaced by symbolic ritual, but once reigned supreme during the Bronze Age, not least in ancient Iraq, which if new findings are to be believed was like Aztec Mexico, a charnel-house of slaughter.

Originating in the Stone Age, human sacrifice in the religious sense of an offering to the gods or God, lasted a surprisingly long time. Setting aside the preColumbian cultures of the New World, the ancient Romans, for example, did not formally outlaw human sacrifice until the first century BC, though the practice had become archaic and Rome vigorously sought to stamp it out among the Gauls and Britons, among whom human sacrifice was an accepted part of Druidic religion. Nor was human sacifice entirely unknown among the ancient Greeks of the classical period while child sacrifice was probably central to Carthaginian state rites to such a degree that other peoples of the time, including the Romans, found abhorrent.

What occurred in many cases is that as civilizations evolved in social complexity, substitutionary practices for human sacrifice developed that served the same impulse, to propitiate and honor their God(s) and create powerful emotional bonds among the participants:  animal sacrifice, burial ceremoniesmysteries, religious ritual, necromancy, symbolism in theater and political matters of state religion. The Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac is itself a scriptural admonition to the ancient Hebrews to adopt animal sacrifice as most pleasing to God, a practice the Israelites and Jews of the classical period continued until the destruction of the second temple by the Roman general Titus. From that point on, from the close of the first century AD, Jews and the early, still Judaic, Christians moved away from the practice of animal sacrifice and substituted prayer and theology of salvation, respectively. Sacrifice, especially human sacrifice, became a distinguishing mark of paganism and the subject of Christian crusades in the middle-ages, like the brutal war waged by the Teutonic Knights against the human sacrificing Old Prussians and Lithuanian barbarian tribes.

The Binding of Isaac

The end of late medieval European religious warfare and the rise of the Westphalian system after the Thirty Year’s War slowly shifted the symbolic moral center of sacrifice from God to the State, with divine right monarchy serving as a waystation for the incubation of modern nationalism. There was an epistemic shift, as Halbertal argues in On Sacrifice from a sacred and mystical “sacrificing to” the sovereign God borrowed from the examples of Jewish martyrdom by early Christians who shared in the Romans the same persecutors. This shift opened the gates of permissible sacrifices, legitimating a new secular and political “sacrificing for” the glory of the State.

It is a profound difference but occurring within the same phenomena, as illustrated by two quotes:

…And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.

And the Lord said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

                                                                              – Genesis 22:2


….But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow, this ground – The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.

It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

     – Abraham Lincoln

Gettysburg and Antietam were not Mount Moriah. Neither were the Somme or Stalingrad the same as the Tophet. From time of the Patriarch Abraham to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, nations of men ceased to sacrifice usually helpless others but moved to sacrifice themselves in what they reckoned as the highest cause. Movement away from human sacrifice as practiced by ancient Carthaginian or animal sacrifice as practiced by most peoples of antiquity, including the Jews, to gentler substitutionary practices, Moshe Halbertal has called the “cataclysmic shift” in the history of civilization.

If so, it is a shift that ISIS has begun to reverse.

In their outstanding ISIS: The State of Terror, counterterrorism scholars Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger analyze the dark obsession ISIS has demonstrated in its propaganda messaging with exquisitely orchestrated executions:

….As we have noted, ISIS’s psychological warfare is directed at its potential victims. But it is also directed at those it aims to control. It is deliberately attempting to blunt its follower’s empathy by forcing them to participate in or observe acts of brutality. Over time, this can lead to secondary psychopathy, or a desire to harm others, and contagion of violence. Beheadings are one such tool for blunting empathy.

Berger and Stern are likely correct that the methodical character of ISIS demonstrations of brutality are intended to desensitize the participants and (as they further explained) a tendency to cultivate secondary psychopathology in ISIS recruits, especially the young. A similar process occurred during the Holocaust with Nazi Einsatzgruppen and reserve unit police battalions detailed to assist the SS mobile killing squads on the Eastern front. Many serving in these units, already fanatical National Socialists, became inured to the suffering of women, children and the old who were shot and dumped still alive into mass graves, though some SS men showed signs of PTSD, depression and higher rates of severe alcoholism, desertion and suicide.

The comparison between the genocidal cruelty of the SS and ISIS, while natural, is limited by a very important distinction. However zealous their ideological fanaticism and dedicated in their murderous mission to exterminate European Jewry, the SS lacked the context of moral certainty and the psychological reinforcement effects of religious exaltation enjoyed by ISIS killers. Even the malevolent Heinrich Himmler, in his secret speech to Nazi gauleiters and SS leaders, regarded the Final Solution as a terrible burden that the SS shouldered on behalf of the Fuhrer to assure Germany’s future; a “glorious” crime that Himmler believed must be kept forever hidden from history and the German people.

Not so ISIS, which revels in its bloody terror. Worse, the repetition of garish executions as public celebrations by ISIS, with a vague but constant religious context, devoid of any shred of Islamic legality, inevitably acquire over time the theological characteristics of Halbertal’s “sacrificing to”  – what began as harsh jihadi jurisprudence and psychological warfare mutated under conditions of lazy, sociopathic brutality and totemic invocations of Islam into ritual “offering” by ISIS of its prisoners of war as human sacrifices in the manner of the ancient pagans. A perverse blasphemy, but one that draws on a powerful archetype deeply buried in the human psyche.

ISIS leaders have not only looked into the Abyss, they have descended into and become one with it.

Armageddon: if you can’t hasten it, maybe you can dodge it?

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — plus a date-setting video, awaiting The End in 2031! ]

Armageddon. Even if you can’t hotwire it..

SPEC Paz Schindler

you may still be able to dodge it..


From the late Israeli analyst, Reuven Paz:

Jihadi apocalyptic discourse, either by Jihadi-Salafi scholars, clerics, or supporters of global Jihad is one of the main innovations of the Jihadi-Salafi discourse that followed the September 11 attacks. Waves of what may be termed apocalyptic discourse are not new in the modern Arab Islamic world. They accompanied almost every major war or disaster that occurred in the Arab World in modern times. Such major events were the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the last Muslim Caliphate in 1922-24; The 1948 war with Israel — the “catastrophe” (Nakbah) in Arab and Palestinian eyes — which resulted in the establishment of the State of Israel; The 1967 war — the calamity (Naksah) in Arab and Muslim eyes — which resulted in Israeli occupation all over Palestine, Jerusalem, and Al-Aqsa mosque, and marked a humiliating Arab defeat; and the first Gulf war in 1991, following the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, which marked the first round of America’s massive military involvement in the Middle East. These wars, and some additional minor events such as the “Triple aggression” in the Suez canal in October 1956; “Black September” and the sudden death of the most admired Egyptian President Gamal Abd al-Nasser in September 1970, The Islamic revolution in Iran in February 1979; The Israeli-Egyptian peace// agreement the same time; The Iran-Iraq war between 1980-88, or the Soviet collapse in 1990-91, created waves of apocalyptic discourse.

From John Schindler:

Fifteen years ago I authored a piece for Cryptologic Quarterly, the National Security Agency’s in-house classified journal, about how close the world actually came to World War III in the early 1950s. Although this was little understood at the time, the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950 was a dry-run for the Kremlin, which was obsessed with silencing Tito’s renegade Communist regime in Yugoslavia. Had the United States not strongly resisted Pyongyang’s aggression, a Soviet bloc invasion of Yugoslavia would have followed soon after.

Of course, President Harry Truman did send U.S. forces to defend South Korea in the summer 1950, resulting in a conflict that has never formally ended. More importantly, he saved the world from nuclear Armageddon, as my CQ piece laid out in detail. Lacking much Western conventional defenses in Europe, any Soviet move on Yugoslavia would have resulted in rapid nuclear release by a hard-pressed NATO. I cited numerous still-secret files and as a result my article was classified TOPSECRET//SCI.

However, NSA has seen fit to declassify and release my article, minus some redactions, and even post it on the Agency’s open website. They have omitted my name, perhaps out of fear UDBA assassins will track me down decades after Tito’s death, but I’ll take my chances.

You can read the article here — enjoy!


  • Reuven Paz, Hotwiring the Apocalypse: Jihadi Salafi Attitude towards Hizballah and Iran
  • John Schindler, Dodging Armageddon: The Third World War That Almost Was, 1950
  • **

    None of which precludes date-setting — something that both Christian and Islamic scriptures suggest is futile.

    I can’t embed MI7 Agency‘s Passage Through the Veil of Time, but it’s an intriguing entry into the prediction stakes, and the first I’ve seen that confirms Richard Landes‘ contention that Christian millennial movements will be with us at least until the second millennial anniversary of the death and resurrection of Christ in the 2030s — and no doubt through the start of the next Islamic century in 2076 AD since, as Tim Furnish has also reminded us, “Mahdist expectations increase at the turn of every Islamic century.”

    We’re a legacy industry in a world of start-up competitors

    Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — Ambassador Husain Haqqani and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross at Chautauqua ]

    chautauqua haqqani daveed


    From the outset, when cheers went up for Daveed’s birthplace, Ashland, Oregon, and Ambassador Haqqani’s, Karachi — and for the brilliant meeting of the minds that is Chautauqua — it was clear that we were in the presence of two gracious, witty and informed intelligences, and the seriousness of the conversation between them that followed did nothing to reduce our pleasure in the event. Daveed called it “easily the best experience I have ever had as a speaker.”

    I’ll highlight some quotes from each speaker, with the occasional comment:

    Amb. Haqqani:

    None of the countries except Egypt, Turkey and Iran, none of the countries of the Middle East are in borders that are historic, or that have evolved through a historic process. And that’s why you see the borders a straight lines. Straight lines are always drawn by cartographers or politicians, the real maps in history are always convoluted because of some historic factor or the other, or some river or some mountains.

    You’ll see how neatly this fits with my recent post on borders, No man’s land, one man’s real estate, everyone’s dream?

    And now that whole structure, the contrived structure, is coming apart.

    Then most important part of it is, that this crisis of identity – who are we? are we Muslims trying to recreate the past under the principles of the caliphate .. or are we Arabs, trying to unify everybody based on one language, or are we these states that are contrived, or are we our ethnic group, or are we our tribe, or are we our sect? And this is not only in the region, it’s also overlapping into the Muslim communities in the diaspora..


    If Amb. Haqqani emphasized the multiple identities in play in the Arabic, Islamic, Sunni, Shia, Sufi, and tribal worlds in his opening, Daveed’s emphasis was on the failure of the post-Westphalian concept of the nation state.

    Daveed G-R:

    In the economic sphere there’s this thing that is often called “legacy industries” – industries that fit for another time, but are kind of out of place today. Think of Blockbuster Video, once a massive, massive corporation.. that’s a legacy industry. So when Ambassador Haqqani talks about how it’s not just in the Middle East that we have this crisis of identity, I think the broader trend is that the Westphalian state that he spoke about, the kind of state that was encoded after the Peace of Westphalia, looks to a lot of people who are in this generation of the internet where ideas flow freely, it looks like a legacy industry.

    Why do you need this as a form of political organizing? And what ISIS has shown is that a violent non-state actor, even a jihadist group that is genocidal and implements as brutal a form of Islamic law as you could possibly see, it can hold territory the size of Great Britain, and it can withstand the advance of a coalition that includes the world’s most powerful countries including the United States. And what that suggests is that alternative forms of political organization can now compete with the nation state.


    The Ambassador then turned to the lessons we should take from 1919’s US King–Crane Commission, reporting on the break-up of the Ottoman Empire — they concluded that it gave us

    a great opportunity — not likely to return — to build .. a Near East State on the modern basis of full religious liberty, deliberately including various religious faiths, and especially guarding the rights of minorities

    — down to our own times.

    Amb. Haqqani:

    What we can be sure of is that the current situation is something that will not be dealt with without understanding the texture of these societies. So for example, when the United States went into Iraq without full understanding of its sectarian and tribal composition, and assumed that, all we are doing is deposing a dictator, Saddam Hussein, and then we will hold elections and now a nice new guy will get elected, and things will be all right -– that that is certainly not the recipe. So what we can say with certainty in 2015 is .. over the last century what we have learnt is: outsiders, based on their interests, determining borders is not a good idea, and should certainly not be repeated. Assuming that others are anxious to embrace your culture in totality is also an unrealistic idea.

    The sentence that follows was a stunner from the Ambassador, gently delivered — a single sentence that could just as easily have been the title for this post as the remark by Daveed with which I have in fact titled it:

    Let me just say that, look, he ideological battle, in the Muslim world, will have to be fought by the likes of me.

    Spot on — and we are fortunate the Ambassador and his like are among us.


    Daveed then turned to another topic I have freqently emphasized myself.

    Daveed G-R:

    The power of ideas – we as Americans tend not to recognize this when it falls outside of ideas that are familiar to us. So one thing that the US has been slow to acknowledge is the role of the ideology that our friend and ally Saudi Arabia has been promulgating globally, in fomenting jihadist organizations.

    And one of the reasons we have been slow to recognize that. I mean one reason is obvious, which is oil. .. But another reason has been – we tend to think of ideas that are rooted in religion – as a very post-Christian country – we tend to think of them as not being real – as ideas which express an ideology which is alien to us –as basically being a pretext, with some underlying motivation which is more familiar to us. That it must be economics, or it must be political anger. I’m not saying those are irrelevant, they’re not – but when Al-Qaida or ISIS explains themselves, taking their explanation seriously and understanding where they’re coming from – not as representatives of Islam as a whole, but as representatives of the particular ideology that they claim to stand for – we need to take that seriously. Because they certainly do.


    Amb. Haqqani:

    The world is not a problem for Americans to solve, it’s a situation for them to understand.

    This makes a nice DoubleQuote with Gabriel Marcel‘s more general aphorism:

    Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.


    Toward the end of the discussion, Daveed touched on some ideas of recurrent interest to Zenpundit readers..

    Daveed G-R:

    Looking at the US Government, questions that I ask a lot are: Why are we so bad at strategy? Why are we so bad at analysis? Why do we take such a short term view and negate the long term?

    He then freturned to the issue of legacy industries and nation-states:

    Blockbuster is a legacy industry. And the reason why legacy industries have so much trouble competing against start-up firms, is because start-ups are smaller, it’s more easy for them to change course, to implement innovative policies, to make resolute decisions – they can out-manoeuver larger companies. And so larger companies that do well adapt themselves to this new environment where they have start-up competitors. Nation-state governments are legacy industries. Violent non-state actors are start-up compoetitors.

    — and had the final, pointed word:

    We’re a legacy industry ina world of start-up competitors.


    Having offered you these tastes, at this point I can only encourage you to watch the whole hour and a quarter, filled to the brim with incisive and articulately-stated insights:

    When win-win games get gamed

    Monday, August 3rd, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — a paradox I’m currently chewing on, courtesy of Richard Landes]

    I want to take something that Richard Landes has been saying, abstract it from those conflicts to which Richard applies it, simplify it by removing one technical term that’s part of his detailed breakdown, and present it in as bare-bones a manner as I can manasge. You can see two of Richard’s own versions of the issue below.


    The basic question, as I understand it, is this:

    How does a non-zero-sum move look to a zero-sum player, and vice versa?

    Let’s suppose your entire background and upbringing revolves around the idea of zero-sum, you-win-I-lose games. If you see any sign of your adversary gaining an advantage in a negotiation, that’s proof positive that you’ve been bamboozled: somehow, you must have lost. Your job is to make no concessions — to be the winner in a winner-takes-all contest.

    Now suppose your background and upbringing have revolved around the idea of non-zero-sum, win-win games, in which both sides of a negotiation make some concessions so that both can emerge as winners. You offer concessions in good faith, and in return you expect similar concessions.

    What happens when a zero-sum game player and a non-zero-sum game player meet in play?

    It’s Landes’ suggestion that any generosity on the part of a win-win player offering his winner-take-all opponent a concession will be taken as evidence of weakness,. and the opponent, far from making a corresponding compromise, will press on and demand more — making further nmoves which will offer so little that the win-win player will be at a loss to explain why such a promising start to bnegotiations fell apart so badly.

    A further supposition: so-called honor-shame societies are geared for zero-sum, winner-takes-all gameplay, while societies which rely on an innocence-guilt reading of human behavior will be no less inclined toeards playing non-zero-sum, win-win games.

    That’s the idea expressed in game-theoretic terms, as simply as I can put it. To my mind, these game considerations are worth thinking through in their own right, absent the specifics to which Richard Landes brings them.


    Here is Landes making the same point, in the context of Israeli relations with the Palestinians, the Arab and Muslim worlds, and European liberalism –all of the above broadly speaking:

    And a text version, Cognitive Egocentrism, for those who find words fly home faster in print…


    Help me think this through.

    Iran: The Debate We Should Be Having

    Friday, July 24th, 2015

    By T. Greer

    Major religions in the Middle East
    Image Source: Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 Project

    I am not a specialist in arms control or nuclear technology. I must rely on the judgement of others with relevant expertise to assess the viability of the new agreement with Iran. This makes things difficult, for the opinions of experts I trust are divided. Lawrence FreedmanCheryl Rofer, Aaron Stein, and the other folks at Arms Control Wonk all support the deal. Most do so with great enthusiasm.  Thomas Moore and Matthew Kroenig, on the other hand, oppose it with uncharacteristic harshness. Over at the excellent blog Zionists and Ottomans, Michael Koplow sticks to the middle ground. He accepts that the provisions of the JCPOA will successfully deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but worries that this focus on Iran’s nuclear program misses the forest for the trees. As he writes:

    It is difficult to see how this deal advances conventional peace and stability in the Middle East over the next decade even as it pushes a nuclear Iran farther away. Contra the president’s assumptions, Iran is almost certainly going to use the money in sanctions relief to continue fighting proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and continuing its general covert war with the Sunni world, not to mention its sponsorship of terrorism against Israeli and Western targets. By all means celebrate a temporary victory on the nuclear front, but the idea that this will bring peace in our time or stability to the Middle East is ridiculous. The impetus for the deal from the administration’s perspective has clearly been a conviction that Iran is changing socially and politically and that the regime cannot go on forever, and that a nuclear deal will empower moderates, create pressure from below for change, etc. This view is hubristic; I know of nobody who can accurately predict with any type of certainty or accuracy whether and when regimes will collapse, or how social trends will impact a deeply authoritarian state’s political trajectory (and yes, Iran is a deeply authoritarian state, liberalizing society and elected parliament or not). Certainly providing the regime with an influx of cash, cooperation on regional issues, and better access to arms is not going to hasten the end of the mullahs’ rule, so much as I find it hard to condemn the deal entirely because of some clear positives on the nuclear issue, I find it just as hard to celebrate this as some clear and celebratory foreign policy victory. [1]

    Koplow is not the only person to express such concerns. In a thoughtful write up for the Brookings Institute, Tamara Coffman Wittes warns that this deal “will not stabilize a messy Middle East.” Kenneth Pollack’s recent testimony to the House of Representatives explores these themes in even greater detail, and should be required reading for anyone who wants to contribute to these discussions. (And of course, throw-away lines about Iranian plans to destabilize the region have found their way into almost every speech given by those who oppose the deal). [2]

    This is an important turn in the debate. For many the finer points of technical issue like uranium enrichment centrifuges or IAEA enforcement policies have been eclipsed by broad questions about Iran’s role in the regional order. These questions will only became more prevalent  as the newness of this deal wears away with time.

    This is not a conversation Americans are prepared to have. The mental model most American observers–and if their statements are to be taken at face value, American officials–use to make sense of Iran, America’s allies in the region, and America’s role in upholding the regional order are faulty and simplistic. You can see this quite clearly in comments like these:

    Iran’s nuclear program—for obvious reasons—has been the most important issue in that country’s relations with the West, but it is very far from the only issue. Iran remains one of the most prolific state-sponsors of terrorism in the world. It has and will certainly continue to seek hegemony in the Middle East, to deliberately destabilize its neighbors and other states in the region, and to promote ballistic missile proliferation and human-rights abuses throughout the Near and Middle East and beyond.

    Only a comprehensive strategy, led by the United States and supported by our major allies, can neutralize Iran’s malign activities, and this will take time. In particular, that program must take into account the views and interests of U.S. allies in the region, including Israel and those Arab States that understand and fear Iran’s ambitions and capabilities.[3]

    The role played both by Iran and “U.S. allies in the region” is far more complicated than this. Each plays a part in the instability now wrecking the Near East. Like America, Iran’s relationship with other actors in the region is convoluted and sometimes contradictory. By simplifying the region’s geopolitics into a narrow contest of good and evil we do ourselves a great disservice. A more accurate narrative would recognize that there are two separate conflicts  threaten the stability of the Near East. These conflicts are related but distinct. The failure to distinguish between them is the root problem behind much of America’s flawed commentary and confused policy.

    The first of the two contests is the strategic rivalry between Iran and her regional enemies, Israel and the Saudi led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). As with the great geopolitical contests of the last century, this rivalry has a hard ideological edge that makes compromise difficult. However, the ambitions of its central players fall squarely within the realm of traditional power politics. The roles each claim are as old as Thucydides, with today’s Persians playing the part of rising challenger to the existing order, and their opponents acting as its main defenders. This is a war of the shadows, waged through sabotage, assassination, espionage, terrorism, and the occasional full blown insurgency. The instability caused by American intervention in Iraq and the Arab Spring has raised the stakes of this competition. Now Tehran and Riyadh both desperately scour the region, ever seeking some new opportunity to tilt the balance of power in their favor.  It is the civilians of the smaller powers caught in the middle that suffer most. That is where the proxy campaigns are fought. For the most part it is also where they end.  But just below the surface remains the constant fear that these endless maneuvers in the shadows might lead to open war in the light.

    It is to prevent such a war that analysts like Mr. Pollack—whose testimony to congress I urged you to read above—favor a strong U.S. presence in the region. This has been the traditional role of the United States since the ‘80s, with America acting as a guarantor of sorts of the existing order. Under such conditions Iran and the United States are natural enemies. When upstart dictators like Saddam Hussein don’t call attention to themselves, “maintain the regional order” is short hand for holding back the tide of Persian hegemony. It is important to realize, however, that no matter how hostile Iran and its proxies may be towards America, their power to harm American citizens and servicemen will always be proportional to how invested America is in the region. This was Ronald Reagan’s central insight when he ordered the withdrawal of American troops from Lebanon in 1984. Americans are only a target in the shadow war if they decide to participate in it.

    This does not hold true for the second conflict that roils the Near East. (more…)

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