Yesterday two Israeli soldiers were killed and seven others were wounded by a Hizballah rocket attack from across the Lebanese border. On January 6, three Saudi border guards were killed by an ISIS suicide squad just inside Saudi territory. What, if anything beyond the militarily obvious, do these two incidents have in common?
Plenty. Three things (why is it always three?) come readily to (my) mind.
First, and of least importance, is the oft-noted fact that American mainstream media habits have devolved into providing mostly context-free information points, so that little to no background is provided to help readers turn information into knowledge. It was not always so, but it is so now. We generally get only dots, not lines or shapes, and certainly not useful three-dimensional displays. But both the recent Israeli and Saudi episodes have backgrounds that do enable information to become knowledge. More of this background anon.
Second, of considerable importance, is the fact that both attacks were perpetrated by networks operating beyond the usual habits and constraints of Westphalian states.
Hizballah is an Iranian proxy operating for many years now in and out of Lebanon and, more recently, in Syria. Its past forays have extended all the way to Buenos Aires, and not long ago to Bulgaria. It is part of an Iranian-supported, and in many cases Iranian-directed, network that also includes several murderous Shi’a militias operating on Iraqi territory. What is novel is that in recent months Iranian forces themselves, mainly from the Al-Quds Brigades, have gone expeditionary and are now present physically in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq (in rather large numbers), and soon if not already very likely in Yemen, perhaps Sudan, Afghanistan (first in and around Herat), and, in due course, even Turkey.
ISIS is engaged in a state-building enterprise as a quintessential premodern “revitalization movement” (Anthony F.C. Wallace, 1956), but it is trying to do so on the dying corpses of several Arab states. These states centrally include Syria and Iraq, but in accordance with the Islamic State’s “survive and expand” annexation strategy, it now also arguably encompasses ill-defined but real chunks of Yemen, Libya, Egypt (Sinai), Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. For all anyone knows, the second-largest city in France, Marseilles, is next. In IS parlance, there is now a vilayet, or province of the State, in each of these proto- or para-Westphalian units (and, as I have argued before, they were never really any more than that).
Once pointed out, this is obvious; but unless and until it is pointed out to Western readers, it is an insight too often shrouded in occlusion. It matters in rough proportion to the extent we misunderstand, ignore, or avoid its implications. The Obama Administration seems to think that after its “strategy” prevails against ISIS there will again be the familiar territorial-state entities we have come to know as Syria and Iraq. Never mind that there is no strategy and that the half-strategy we are pursuing will not prevail; but even if by some happy inadvertence it were to prevail, it would still not bring forth Syria and Iraq anew as of old, so to speak. What we are witnessing is not just a sectarian conflict between Shi’a and Sunni, although we are in the burgeoning thick of that. What we are witnessing is not just the collapse of a state sub-system—sometimes a little misleadingly called the Sykes-Picot system—although we are also witnessing that. We are witnessing the collapse of states themselves, amid thunderous pressure on the coherence of the state worldwide. The weakest ones—weak for reasons I have described before—are usually the ones to crumble first.
What is replacing these Arab states and the state sub-system they summed to? Nothing very solid, yet. Things are, as the Einsteinians used to say in a different context, in general flux. But something historically characteristic usually happens at times like these: As existing units fracture, they reassemble, slowly and clumsily, in units both smaller and larger than the ones that have plummeted headfirst toward the historical grave. In the Middle East and its Muslim surrounds, this means in the first instance downward to an amalgam of overlapping tribal and sectarian political units, and in the latter instance upward to ambitious but fragile, and hence usually evanescent, efforts to establish trans-territorial utopian, even prophetic, entities.
Such entities may seem strong at first, largely because they are expanding into a crushed and crumbling institutional void. But they themselves are under-institutionalized. That is what the fall of ISIS-held Kobane to Kurdish forces a few days ago means, among other things. General flux, remember?
Sometimes the smaller and the larger manifestations of structural collapse manage to intersect, as with Alawis in Syria being a somewhat inadvertent part of a neo-messianic Shi’a impulse emanating from Tehran, if not from Qom. To those used only to Westphalian and Weber-qualified modern states interacting with one another, this sort of thing can be confusing. It can even lead people in the State Department and other recesses of government to try to shove events, movements, forces, and foreign peoples into familiar cognitive grids where they just won’t go. It can get ugly.
This is not a new problem, just a larger and more dangerous one these days. As a case in point, there has been plenty of media coverage of the death of Saudi King Abdallah and the quick coronation of his brother, now King Salman. We know a lot about who was and is crown prince, and deputy crown prince, and how the family seems to work in succession events, and so forth. But U.S. media misunderstanding of Saudi Arabia has been near constant for more than half a century, and what is critical to putting all these details into context invariably goes missing in the MSM.
So instead of learning what is critical we get “news” shows that are downright risible, as for example a television atrocity I saw Tuesday evening featuring the inevitable Gary Sick and some professional human rights one-trick-Johnny whose name mercifully escapes me. This was not the guests’ fault; in the wake of the President’s journey to Riyadh, all the media could come up with to focus a feature on was “human rights” in Saudi Arabia. So there was Professor Sick and what’s-his-name saying that the Saudi human rights record was among “the worst in the world.” (Really? Worse than Syria’s, whose regime has killed some 200,000 of its own people over the past three years or so? But never mind.) Both guests admitted, however, that we have little leverage on this matter; so why belabor it, then, unless one is a diplomatic masochist? It never occurred to either guests or media hosts to comment that the concept of “human rights”, no less than concepts like “free speech”, “loyal opposition”, and several familiar others, are Western concepts that simply do not resonate in places whose historical experiences are so different from ours. So the American media whips itself into a righteous froth to criticize other cultures for not being more like us, and then they (and some of the rest of us) wonder why we get a reputation for being preachy, insular, arrogant, and generally clueless.
So this “human rights” blathering wastes time and irritates people, but, worse, it functions as an opportunity cost that gets in the way of explaining the aforementioned critical aspects of Saudi reality. There are two, and they are interlinked.
First, contrary to what most Westerners think they understand, Saudi Arabia from the start has been a ruling biumverate: The Al-Saud has worked the temporal, political side, and the Al-Wahhab has worked the spiritual, religious side. Each respects the others’ domain. We care about the Al-Saud because we see succession in the Al-Saud part of this arrangement, but we don’t know the names of and don’t pay any attention to changes in the Al-Wahhab part. Big mistake. We simply project our own frame of reference onto other peoples, like almost everyone does. We don’t have a state that is a more-or-less binding functional partnership between a secular domain and a religious movement, so it doesn’t occur to us to imagine that anyone else does either.
Why do we do this? Because we don’t understand that Saudi Arabia is not a normal state, even for an Arab Sunni Muslim state. Saudi Arabia’s origins lay in, yes, a revitalization movement—a revolutionary, puritanical, “fundamentalist” movement that dates from approximately 1760. It is not older than that, and that, by Middle Eastern standards, is not old. So Saudis are not “traditional” Muslims. They do not abide by the medieval synthesis that reconciled Islam with both political realities and the philosophical currents of that time. They do not respect the capacious jurisprudential responsa that evolved over a dozen centuries, a responsa that made peace between religious principles and changing times. Wahhabi Islam was a radical Abrahamic, Protestant-style movement that viewed all of this accommodation with reality to be distortive accretions on the true, pure faith of Islam; it had to be excised from the hearts of men, even if their heads had to be cut off in the process.
Yet ever since roughly the end of the 18th century Wahhabi-Saudi Arabia has been going through the same agonizing process of accommodation that Islam itself went through starting in about the 8th century. It is today a denatured fundamentalist movement spun down into no little cognitive dissonance and confusion. The reason, put bluntly, is that dreams of permanent revolution are just that, dreams. The first Muslims learned that the hard way. The Wahhabis are learning it now, however slowly and awkwardly. So will the dreamers of the Islamic State come to learn it, those left alive, that is. So, for that matter, did Trotsky until an icepick parted his skull back in 1940.
If you grasp now what is essential about Saudi reality, and consider the circumstances in which the Saudi bi-elite now finds itself, several things come clear.
First, the Saudis are considered the leader of the Sunni world not because they are traditionalists, but because their occupation of Mecca and Medina and their outsized wealth (and willingness to use it abroad) have transformed the balance of power within the Sunni world over the past forty years. Al-Azhar in Egypt used to be the intellectual center of that Sunni world, Damascus was its beating heart, and Baghdad was its fortress. No more. This leadership role is not second nature to the Saudis, and their capacity to carry it out is weak compared to these predecessors. They do not have natural allies, religiously and culturally speaking, in the rest of the Sunni Arab world; until about 1979, Saudi Arabia was a problem for other Sunni Arab societies, especially the non-bedu hadhari (sedentary) societies, not an ally or a model to emulate. So they are nervous in Riyadh. Like the Israelis, they are professional worriers.
Second, the Saudi elite fears the mullahs’ Iran because they, too, are the vanguard of a revolutionary, puritanical, “fundamentalist” movement—only a heretical Shi’a version. Takes one to know one: The Saudis know exactly how the mullahs think, and it scares the dishdashes off of them.
And lastly for now, the Saudis see crumbling Sunni Arab states everywhere they look. They not only have but few allies (the UAE, Kuwait, Jordan), they have wards (Egypt) and homeless schizophrenics (Libya, for example) to manage—and one incredibly irritating gadfly (known as Qatar) to swat away. Into this cloud of institutional dust have come the Iranians—to prop up the hideous minoritarian regime in Damascus, to buttress the U.S.-abetted overthrow of Sunni dominance in Baghdad, to destroy the Yemeni state on behalf of the Houthis, to undermine the dependent minoritarian Al-Khalifa Sunni dynasty in Bahrain, to hold Lebanon hostage via Hizballah, and even to infiltrate into the Shi’a minority concentrated in al-Hasa province inside the Kingdom. To his credit, the President knows that this is not the moment to lecture the new Saudi king about “human rights.”
Now, third, since we have just mentioned the President, let us get to what else ties the recent Israeli and Saudi border incidents together: the abdication of U.S. leadership in the face of an exceedingly narrow and futile ambition to normalize U.S. relations with Iran.
Great powers are in the protection business. The United States, as a great power, deserves a more formal and less misanthropic description of the same thing: U.S. grand strategy since the end of World War II has included prominently the suppression of security competitions in the world’s main regions, so as to minimize opportunities for would-be regional hegemons—the Soviet Union in Europe and the People’s Republic of China in Asia—to profit from mayhem. The Middle East got added to the Cold War-era security competition suppression business a little later, as an adjunct to the defense and economic robustness mainly of Europe. But once in that business, it gets dicey to close up shop without alternative arrangements in readiness.
Now, the Obama Administration thought that if it managed its own recession from the Middle East, a new stability would naturally assert itself. That stability, it thought, would be well served by a normalization of U.S.-Iranian relations, bringing Iran in from the cold, sealed by a deal over the Iranian nuclear portfolio. Iran would become a stabilizing balancer against Sunni extremism, allowing us to get out of dodge.
Even under the most benign of circumstances this was unlikely; in recent times the very idea could only have been entertained by clueless academics and others who simply didn’t know any better. We now see the consequences: The abdication of U.S. leadership in the region, particularly the alienation of key U.S. allies to include Israel and Saudi Arabia, has both emboldened the revisionist power in the region—Iran—and in turn led the Saudis in particular to a much more activist (and accident-prone) self-help defense and foreign policy. It has also led them to a far more draconian form of internal security vigilance. King Salman and his court are likely not only to continue these tendencies but to accelerate and deepen them.
The result of a more activist, expeditionary Iranian regional policy colliding with a more aggressive Saudi reliance on self-help (possibly with a Pakistani nuclear deal in their back pocket) is very likely to be a sectarian conflagration of a sort and scale we not only have never before witnessed, but can barely seem to imagine. A second Battle of Karbala approaches, but under vastly different and much harder to contain circumstances.
So, finally, we are in a position to answer our original question. Why did Hizballah attack Israeli soldiers yesterday? It did so in retaliation for an Israeli strike several days ago, on January 19, into the Syrian Golan on a very high-profile and very unusual conclave of Iranian officers and Hizballah leaders. Iranian generals and children of Imad Mughaniya do not assemble near the Israeli border just for the hell of it; they were assembled in that fashion for the first time and they were clearly planning something nasty. The Israelis doped it out and struck first. Then Hizballah harmlessly let fly four missiles; Israel responded by destroying the source of the attack in a pinpoint strike. Hizballah could not let it end with that; it had to draw blood or be totally dishonored. Hence the attack from Lebanon yesterday; and that, in a very small nutshell, is what the media failed to tell you. One hopes that, for a while anyway, this will be the end of it. Israel received a message yesterday via the United Nations that, indeed, this is likely.
And why did ISIS attackers draw blood in Saudi Arabia? For a similar reason. The Saudis have cracked down hard on internal dissent and have gone after ISIS sympathizers inside the Kingdom with real zeal. Blood has been spilled in the process. ISIS could not let such behavior go unanswered; it had to draw blood lest it be dishonored. And that, in a closely related nutshell, is also what the mainstream media failed to tell you.
So what next, you may ask. Before long, Hizballah and ISIS will become each other’s main target, which does not necessarily mean they will lack venom enough left over to again attack Israel and Saudi Arabia. Hizballah will have a powerful state backer, but ISIS will not, suggesting that the former will prevail. But uncertainty and lots of blood yet to be spilled on all sides stand between the present and that outcome. Saudi Arabia will be caught in the middle of this mayhem, opposed to both parties but helpless to stop the fight. Israel will be caught on the periphery, so to speak, the enemy of both antagonists and so desirous of the destruction of both. But Israel has no political entrée or leverage with either side to turn its military power into political achievements. Israel and Saudi Arabia will be in a sense objective allies, bound together by what they do not want, but both the nature of the Saudi state and plenty of political baggage besides will make active collaboration between the two parties difficult—perhaps a bit easier if Jordan and the UAE quietly mediate whatever arrangements become necessary. But any such arrangements will still be sharply limited; there is little either party can do, separately or together, to stop the coming carnage that, before it’s done, may well sweep more Arab Sunni states into the dustbin of history.
And the United States? It’s too late. Having abdicated responsibility to suppress such a major regional security competition, there is no way now to get back to relative stability. Not that it would have been easy or cheap for the Obama Administration to do its duty effectively, and not that its predecessor did not make the situation worse; but abdication is now yielding bad and much more expensive options, whether of passivity or activity, in all directions. At least for the duration of the Obama Administration, respect for American power and trust in American judgment are all but gone. We have made ourselves, in effect, spectators; we are not likely, however, to enjoy the show.