It’s complicated and there’s a history. The problem has been around a long time and others have tried to solve it. Why do you think you can? But you believe you can. Because you think you have the answers, and you feel the need to help. So you try, and fail miserably. Despite your good intentions and hard work, the situation has gotten even worse. And now you are even receiving considerable blame for the current environment.
There, very briefly, is a summary of the United States’ efforts in Iraq, Syria and the Middle East over the past twenty years. (Some of you may realize that this is also a summary of your efforts in situations you have dealt with personally.) In the Middle East, it’s very complicated, and there’s a long history. And that doesn’t make for an easy solution, which we Americans so often quickly embrace. We have been reminded of that there is no easy solution with the most recent ISIS terrorist attack in Brussels, Belgium.
There are a few reporters and commentators on TV news that when I see them, I stop and listen. Richard Engel is one of them. Engel is the chief foreign correspondent for NBC news. He has basically lived in the Middle East the past twenty years, and knows the territory. In his recent book, “And Then All Hell Broke Loose,” Engel reviews his past twenty years there and gives insight into why the Middle East has been such a center of turmoil. (Remember, library cards are still free.)
Engel wrote of the long history of strife in the Middle East. We westerners look at a Muslim as a Muslim. But just like a Protestant Christian is not a Catholic Christian, a Sunni Muslim is not a Shiite Muslim or a Kurdish Muslim. (These are the three major Muslim factions in the Middle East.) And the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Kurds do not get along. That’s an understatement. They have been fighting each other for over a thousand years, with each side being the oppressed and the oppressor at various times.
At the end of World War I, France and Great Britain were in control of the area. They divided up the Middle East and created countries as they saw fit. One of the countries was Iraq. The problem is the country they formed has a large minority population of Kurds and Sunnis, and is about 65 % majority Shiite Muslim.
After the end of World War II, the United States became the major outside player in the Middle East. This was due to the U.S. now being the dominant world power, keeping the Soviet Union out, and access to Middle Eastern oil. The main way we tried to stabilize the area was to support strong leaders in those countries, who would often use force to stay in power, support the U.S., and keep the oil flowing.
This worked pretty well, at least for the U.S. and those strongman leaders, until the U.S. led takeover in Iraq in 2003, which disposed of the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. Hussein was a Sunni Muslim. The Sunnis were in power, even though the Shiites were the majority. Hussein put Sunnis in positions of power in the Iraqi government and in the military, and slaughtered thousands of Shiites whom he thought might oppose him.
The U.S. leaders, led by President George Bush, believed that we could bring democracy to Iraq, and that it would be an example to the rest of the Middle East. The Shiites in Iraq thought otherwise. We hailed the elections in Iraq as a victory. For the Shiites, it was a chance to get revenge with the Sunnis.
The Shiite majority took over and now the Sunnis were being oppressed. And where would all those former Sunni Iraqi military end up? Many would end up involved, and using their military expertise, with a then small Sunni radical religious group called the Islamic State. Yes, that’s ISIS, and that military expertise is one of the primary reasons it has grown so fast.
Since then, one by one, the strongman leaders of other countries of the Middle East have been overthrown. But, due in a large part to the inconsistency of the Obama U.S. foreign policy, they have been replaced by less stable and more radical leadership. And, because of that, we are living in a less stable and more radical world.
Richard Engel probably explained it best when he wrote, “But between President Bush’s misguided military action and President Obama’s inconsistent and confused action, the United States managed to destroy the status quo in just fifteen years, plunging the region (the Middle East) into chaos and exposing the rot that had long been festering within.” And we will be dealing with it for a long time. But, from what I’ve seen so far, I’m sure the next president will do a better job. I’m feeling safer already.
Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at [email protected]