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Houthis and ISIS

April 1, 2015

Media commentators are confused. On the one hand, they say, we’re on the same side as Iran fighting against ISIS in Iraq, but on the other hand, we’re on the other side from Iran opposing the Houthi rebellion in Yemen. The media confusion has been attributed to policy confusion in the White House.

But I think the Obama policy at work here is perfectly clear.

The Obama position on ISIS has been one of limited opposition – air attacks in Syria and Iraq, modest non-lethal support for the least objectionable Syrian rebels, and more expansive military support for the Iraqi government; but no combat troops on the ground. Our opposition to ISIS in Iraq derives from ISIS’s threat to the democratically elected Iraqi government – not because Iraqi democracy is well established, but on the contrary because Iraqi democracy is so fragile.

Iran also opposes ISIS, but that doesn’t make Iran our friend or ally. There is no reason to think that Iran is at all concerned about Iraqi democracy. Iran is concerned to retain Shiite rule in Iraq, and therefore the threat to Iraq from ultra-Sunni ISIS is a threat to Iranian interests. In other words, the U.S. opposes ISIS because they are terrorists, and Iran opposes ISIS because they are Sunni.

In Yemen, the circumstances are different but the principles are similar. Until 1990, Yemen was two separate countries: the Yemen Arab Republic, or North Yemen, and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, or South Yemen. North Yemen was predominantly Shiite, and South Yemen was predominantly Sunni. The re-united country of Yemen is about 65 percent Sunni.

The president of North Yemen was Ali Abdulla Saleh, a Shi’a who became the president of united Yemen in 1990. He held onto rule until the Arab Spring – a Shi’a tyrant suppressing a Sunni majority by brutal force. In this respect Saleh was the mirror image of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni tyrant suppressing a Shiite majority in Iraq. Saleh’s ouster was one of the great victories of the Arab Spring.

Saleh left power in compliance with an internationally negotiated agreement. He was succeeded by his vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who is a south Yemeni Sunni. Hadi formed a national unity government with the opposition party, but Saleh retained influence – his son, for instance, remains a prominent general in the Yemeni military.

The Houthi rebellion originated in 1992 as a religious movement among northern Shiites. When Saleh attempted to crack down in 2004, the movement became an armed insurgency. The insurgency intensified after Hadi, a Sunni, took power in 2011. Only somewhat ironically, the Houthi insurgency is now allied with Saleh loyalists.

Obama Administration policy is to support the Hadi government and oppose the Houthi-Saleh rebellion. In recent weeks, Sunni governments from Morocco to Pakistan formed a military coalition to intervene on behalf of the Hadi government.

As with ISIS, our motivation is not necessarily the same as the motivation of the others fighting our common foe. The Sunni coalition is motivated to rescue the Sunni Hadi and protect the Sunni majority in Yemen from Shiite Houthi rule. Conversely, Iranian support for the Houthi is motivated by Iran’s desire to promote Shiite power. President Obama is motivated to protect the more legitimate, less brutal and more democratically inclined Hadi government from restoration of the Saleh tyranny.

As with our opposition to ISIS, our opposition to the Houthi-Saleh alliance is limited – mainly drone strikes and reconnaissance, but no ground troops.

So far from confused, situation-specific policy-making, the Obama approach is guided by three clear principles. First, the U.S. has intervened to oppose terrorist groups like ISIS or Al Qaeda. Second, the U.S. has intervened to defend governments with claims to democratic legitimacy, like Iraq and Yemen, from overthrow by less legitimate, less democratic threats. And third, American military involvement has been modest.

It is all too commonplace to say that the Arab Spring accomplished nothing – the notion being that the overthrow of dictators in Libya, Tunisia and Yemen only resulted in the substitution of stable tyranny for unstable civil war. But that’s a stunningly short-sighted view of things.

Democracy does not spring fully developed from the brow of a tyrant. Even our own enlightened founders did not create a pluralistic democracy – it took four score, seven years and a terrible Civil War to end the enslavement of Americans by Americans. Building pluralist democracy is all the harder for a society emerging from decades of brutal dictatorship.

Tyrannical rule breeds social pathologies that don’t just go away with the death of the tyrant. The Arab Spring unleashed those pathologies – pulled the lid off the pressure cooker. Condemning the Arab Spring because four years later there are only two, all-too-imperfect Arab democracies (Iraq and Tunisia) entirely misses the point.

It has already taken a century and a half, and Americans have still not fully healed the pathologies of our slave-holding past. Sunni-Shiite hostility will not die quietly either. But in neither case does that mean we should not start. I believe that ISIS and Al Qaeda and all their ilk are products of those pathologies. The difficulty Shiite Iraqis are having sharing power with Sunnis – the difficulty that Shiites and Sunnis have sharing power anywhere – is another product of those pathologies.

Here’s what’s good about events in the Middle East. Iraqis elected their own government for the first time in 2010. It was disappointing that Iraqi voters chose Nouri al-Maliki over the more secular Ayad Allawi. Al-Maliki excluded Sunnis from power, which certainly facilitated ISIS’s quick blitz into Iraq in 2014. Even al-Maliki’s supporters realized that Shiites could not govern without Sunni cooperation, so they pushed al-Maliki aside after the 2014 elections and selected the more inclusive Haider al-Abadi as prime minister.

Meanwhile, the whole Muslim world has turned against ISIS. The horrific immolation of the Jordanian air force pilot ended all sympathy for ISIS’s opposition to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Iraqi Sunnis who have been freed from ISIS rule are, at least for now, eager to make common cause with Iraqi Shiites.

Another thing that’s good is that Middle Eastern countries are taking the lead in their own defense. The coalition of many countries fighting against ISIS is without precedent where Americans weren’t in the lead. Many Americans say that Islamic terrorism can’t be beaten until Muslims lead the fight. Well, this is what that looks like.

There is no small risk that these fights will degenerate into a region-wide civil war between Shiites and Sunnis. Thus the fourth American principle must be containing sectarian aggression by either Sunnis or Shiites. A good start is our continuing negotiations with Iran, part of a multilateral effort to contain that country’s nuclear ambitions.

I may be in the minority here, but I see lots of promise in developments in the Middle East. But it’s a long game, and Americans are impatient for short-term success. It concerns me that some on the right are once again clamoring for war, this time against Iran. It concerns me that many believe that President Obama’s Middle East policies have failed, suggesting that we need to be either more aggressive or less engaged. I think we’re just where we should be – participating, but not taking point.

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