As Shibley Telhami watches chaos and violence blaze across the Middle East, his thoughts return again and again to America’s fateful decision to invade Iraq more than a decade ago.
Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, contends that the invasion triggered much of today’s strife in the war-torn, seemingly rudderless region. He argues that if the United States had focused on crushing as-Qaeda in Afghanistan instead of invading Iraq, the region might not now be confronted with the terrifying prospect of the Islamic State (also referred to as ISIS and ISIL).
The group, a descendant of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq — whose tactics were deemed too brutal even for al-Qaeda — consists of battle-hardened Sunni militants who spent years battling U.S. forces during the war. Alienated from the Shiite government that the U.S. installed, they have now used their military prowess to help seize large tracts of Iraq and Syria.
The Iraq War “has been disastrous in more ways than one,” Telhami told The Diplomat in a telephone interview from Morocco, where he was speaking at a conference on the rapidly changing Arab world. “It led to the disintegration of the state. When you have no central authority, it creates the perfect home for non-state actors, including terrorist groups.
“Even if it comes back, Iraq is not going to have the kind of weight that it used to have,” he added.
Telhami, who is among America’s leading experts on the difficult but critical task of polling Middle Eastern opinion, said the U.S. government underestimated the far-reaching implications of overthrowing Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein and opening the lid on sectarian animosity between the country’s minority Sunnis and majority Shiites.
The Sunni-Shiite fault line is now tearing the region apart, as Iran and Saudi Arabia compete for hegemony and the Arab world’s unprecedented experiment with democracy falters amid clashes between Islamists, secularists and old-guard autocrats. Telhami said the Arab Spring that began in late 2010 — a period of intense upheaval that continues in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere — might have resulted in a true renewal of the region’s sclerotic regimes if the Iraq War had never happened.
“If the Arab uprisings had emerged and we hadn’t had the Iraq War, and we had recruited our allies to defeat al-Qaeda and had different relationships with the rest of the world, our ability to respond would have been different and al-Qaeda and its allies would have been weaker,” he argues. “Instead, it has unleashed a process that is very difficult to control.”
Of course, while Telhami can’t help but think of what might have been, the professor, political scientist and international lecturer is fully engaged in the present. His second full-length book, “The World through Arab Eyes,” was published last year and Foreign Policy magazine described it as “a masterful summation of more than a decade of [Telhami’s] systematic public opinion research across the Arab world.”
Telhami’s best-selling book “The Stakes: America and the Middle East” was selected by Foreign Affairs as one of the top five books on the region in 2003. He’s written multiple other academic publications and also often appears on C-SPAN and NPR, as well as on public affairs television programs such as “This Week” and “Nightline.”
Telhami was born into an Arab family in Israel and is fluent in Arabic, Hebrew and English. While the language proficiency allows him to navigate the complexities of the Middle East, his vast experience in Washington has helped him cultivate a reputation as the rare expert who can bridge the sometimes-daunting gap between East and West. Telhami has served as advisor to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, as well as to Democratic Rep. Lee H. Hamilton and special envoy George Mitchell. He has been a member of the U.S. delegation to the Trilateral U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian Anti-Incitement Committee and the Iraq Study Group, and is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Today, Telhami is once again concerned that the United States is heading down an unpredictable and perilous path in the Middle East as President Barack Obama vows to “destroy” the Islamic State.
“The U.S. has the power to reshuffle the deck in the Middle East, but not the power to decide where the cards will fall,” Telhami warned.
In an address to the nation from the White House the day before the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, President Obama spoke about America’s comprehensive strategy to eradicate the terrorist group, while vowing that the country won’t get dragged into another ground war.
The strategy Obama outlined includes additional non-combat troops to help train Iraqi and Kurdish forces (bringing the number of American troops in Iraq to roughly 1,600) and a systemic campaign of airstrikes in Iraq and, more recently, Syria. The plan also calls for military assistance and training for moderate rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; a counterterrorism offensive to cut off funding for the Islamic State, counter its ideology and stem the flow of foreign fighters joining the group; humanitarian assistance to the region; and building a coalition of more than 40 allies to help in the effort, including a more inclusive Iraqi government and Arab partner nations.
“Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy,” Obama said, using an alternative acronym, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Telhami said he was uncomfortable with the president’s speech, noting that it possibly raised more questions than it answered. He objected to Obama’s use of the word “destroy” to describe his goal. The professor said he didn’t object to Obama’s desire to destroy the terrorist group, of course, but to what he said might be the creation of an unrealistic expectation. Indeed, some experts point out that the term “destroy” suggests a comprehensive military victory, which might not be possible with enemies like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, whose strength may be diminished but whose ideology remains very much alive.
“I’m very uncomfortable with words like ‘destroy,’” Telhami said. “You can weaken, you can degrade and you can minimize the threat. You can do all of that, but destroy — I don’t know what that means. The term sounds strong and decisive in terms of public opinion, but it can come back to haunt you. It’s pretty hard to claim victory because a group can morph into another group. In some ways, ISIL is the morphing of al-Qaeda. It may help [Obama] in the short term and hurt him down the road.”
Obama did, however, caution that it “will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL.”
“We can’t erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm,” he said. “That was the case before 9/11, and that remains true today. And that’s why we must remain vigilant as threats emerge. At this moment, the greatest threats come from the Middle East and North Africa, where radical groups exploit grievances for their own gain. And one of those groups is ISIL.
“ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple,” Obama added. “If left unchecked these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States.”
The president said that while the United States has “not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies.”
“Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners — including Europeans and some Americans — have joined them in Syria and Iraq,” Obama said. “Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”
“Could,” of course, is not the same thing as “will.” Telhami said it sounded as if Obama was changing his tune on his previous criticism of the preemption doctrine of former President George W. Bush, who decided that the United States should depose foreign regimes that represented a potential security threat, even if that threat was not imminent. It was a legal interpretation that Obama himself denounced as a senator.
Telhami told The Diplomat he wasn’t sure if the Islamic State’s rise in the region warranted U.S. military intervention. Experts agree that the group — which may possibly have 30,000 or more fighters — has terrorized civilians and religious minorities, amassed substantial cash and weapons, and held more territory than al-Qaeda ever did. But security officials, including Obama’s own counterterrorism chief, say there’s no evidence the Islamic State is plotting 9/11-style attacks on the U.S., or even capable of doing so.
“He failed to essentially define how ISIL presents a grave threat to the United States of America,” Telhami said of Obama’s speech. “He said they could become a threat to the United States and that is hardly a justification or an explanation.
“In the short term, the main threat isn’t to the U.S.; it’s actually our regional allies,” Telhami added. “It’s a threat to everyone in the Middle East. They [ISIL] say their aim isn’t confronting America per se; it is actually changing rulers in the Muslim world and folding them into a new Islamic caliphate.”
That’s why Telhami argues that the Obama administration should be urging those countries most threatened by the Islamic State to take the lead.
The administration has been working to forge a coalition of partners with more influence on the ground so that it doesn’t appear as if Washington is waging a war against Sunni Islam. Saudi Arabia has agreed to provide a base to train moderate Syrian rebels, although the extent of its military contributions remains to be seen. While the Saudis have recently denounced the Islamic State, their country also gave birth to the extreme brand of Salafism that the group preaches.
Nine other Arab states also pledged assistance — and Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates participated in the initial wave of strikes last month against the Islamic State in Syria. Each ally, though, has its own limitations — Jordan and Lebanon, for example, have been straining under the weight of millions of Syrian refugees. Turkey, which is eager to see Assad go, did not sign the communiqué even though its border with Syria has become a magnet for foreign fighters. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and various Gulf states have also been a major source of funding and weapons for the motley crew of rebels fighting in Syria’s civil war, fueling the bloodshed and bolstering some of the very Islamists who’ve now turned their guns on Iraq. Meanwhile, Iraq’s new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, is essentially cut from the same political cloth as his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, whose Shiite Dawa party marginalized the country’s Sunnis and sent them into the arms of Islamic State militants.
Telhami argues that the entire region has to put more skin in the game to protect its own backyard.
“It is more of a threat to them and they should be the ones doing the fighting and asking the U.S. for help, but we turn it around,” Telhami lamented. “When we enter this as if it’s an American-led coalition and we make it a priority to win and we have a political stake to win, we take the heat off of the very countries we are trying to get on board.
“It does the work they are supposed to be doing and America becomes the target instead of them,” he added.
In fact, getting Americans to overreact — and expend blood and treasure — is a hallmark tenet of al-Qaeda’s strategy. The Iraq War was in part predicated on the naïve assumption that Americans would be welcomed by Iraqis as liberators; instead, they were targeted by insurgents and viewed with skepticism by the people.
Telhami said his extensive public opinion polling in the Middle East shows that while America may have high-minded objectives for the region, most of its inhabitants don’t trust our intentions.
“The public just doesn’t trust America,” he said.
Telhami said Obama’s much-vaunted 2009 speech in Cairo, in which he aimed to reset U.S. relations with the Arab world, was overblown.
“The speech itself was hyped too much,” he said. “My own personal feeling from a historical perspective is that it was only a reflection of where the U.S. wanted to be.”
Telhami said Arab public opinion toward the United States was little changed by the speech because people in the region saw it as simply words rather than deeds.
“Obama has never actually received a majority of favorable views in the Arab world at any time,” Telhami pointed out. “They were somewhat neutral. He made more positive impressions than negative. A plurality in Egypt was really neutral about him, but people were comparing him to George W. Bush, whose [public opinion rating] was overwhelmingly negative.
“Bush was even less popular than the prime minister of Israel,” Telhami added.
Telhami also said the global reaction to the so-called Arab Spring (a term he doesn’t particularly like) has been overblown.
“I think a lot of people misinterpreted what the Arab uprising was all about,” he said. “The label ‘Arab Spring’ was wrong not because I’m pessimistic, or because there is no element of spring, but I don’t think what we’re seeing is seasonal. I think what we’re seeing is something more profound than people realize.”
In “The World Through Arab Eyes,” Telhami tries to show how the forces that shaped the Arab uprisings have been brewing for decades and stem from complex dynamics and history. He said the “demand for dignity” went beyond the struggle for food and individual rights against corrupt dictators; it grew from the collective respect Arabs “crave from the outside world” and the resentment many felt after decades of perceived humiliations at the hands of the West, especially in the face of America’s lopsided support for Israel.
Telhami said he noticed Arab apprehension and anger “about an impending era of American dominance” during a trip to Iraq in 1990. “When I started this work,” he wrote, “most political scientists and foreign policy analysts discounted the importance of public opinion because the countries of the region were dominated by authoritarian rulers. Then the 2010 Arab uprisings arrived, seemingly from nowhere, and suddenly the attitudes of ordinary Arabs were inarguably the driving force across a large swath of the Middle East…. In a way I felt vindicated. Mostly, though, I wondered — and still do — whether and when this awakened giant will find its bearings.”
Telhami says that while many of the historical grievances he encountered back in 1990 are just as palpable today, the turmoil in the Arab world is also being propelled by a new age of technology that can’t be contained.
“This is mostly a function, not entirely, of information and a revolution that is expanding and it’s not going to go away. What we are seeing is something profoundly important and in the long term, something very positive,” Telhami told us. “In the same way that the Industrial Revolution in the West transformed politics and society by empowering the new individual who was a wage earner, and giving that individual a choice at home in society and politics, you find that the information revolution [in the Middle East] has a similar effect on the power of individuals and in raising expectations and creating a sense that people will not accept the status quo.
“People do want freedom,” the professor exclaimed. “They do want their voices heard. That is real and it is not going away. No counterrevolution is going to stop it and no new authoritarianism is going to shut it down.”
But Telhami also warned that just because information is empowering people, that doesn’t mean it will bring any kind of rapid consensus in an incredibly complex region characterized by ancient sectarian divisions.
“This new element is absolutely real, profound and enduring,” Telhami said. “That doesn’t mean that is going to be a quick transformation, or even that it will be predictable. The fact that you have the public empowered … doesn’t mean that the public has one voice. People are different. They don’t always want the same thing. They want freedom but they have different agendas.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.