MISTAKES MADE out of lack of knowledge, typical of callow youth, weigh less on the moral scale than mistakes made out of careless indifference to well-known dangers. These errors are the province of a cynical maturity that, alas, has come to characterize American responses to the firestorm sweeping the Middle East and Africa.
The events of 9/11 took place a long time ago. A callow United States showed itself to be grossly ignorant in its indiscriminate striking out at Islamic targets, as if there were no differences between Al Qaeda and the Taliban, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan and Iraq. Naive Washington was suckered by bin Laden, whose real agenda had more to do with purifying the House of Islam than toppling the Great Satan.
But the deeper ignorance was America’s utter blindness to the long-simmering conflict between Sunni and Shitte Muslims, a tension rooted in seventh-century succession disputes, but that, in the explosive aftermath of US interventions, has blown up into an omnidirectional intra-Muslim civil war, with fronts on multiple continents and ad hoc recruitment centers in cities across the world.
“God created war,” Mark Twain is said to have remarked, “so that Americans would learn geography.” And much else. Now we know that Iran, which is Persian, not Arab, is a mainly Shia nation, along with Iraq, Bahrain, Azerbaijan, and, by most estimates, Yemen. Syria is a majority Sunni nation, although the Alawite sect on which the Assad government depends is Shiite. Syrian rebel groups are mainly Sunni. The other Gulf States, along with Egypt, Jordan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, are mostly Sunni, although now the Sunni Arab nations are engaged in the war against the so-called Islamic State, which is also Sunni, controlling territory in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Nigeria. Yemen, where Shiite rebels — Houthis — have destabilized a Sunni government, is the latest front in this conflagration.
Observers in the West commonly draw the analogy between this Islamic sectarian killing and the brutal religious wars that wracked Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Christians, too, slaughtered one another by the millions in the name of God, complete with beheadings, scapegoating of women, and the torching of places of worship. Islam, it is said, is going through its own Reformation — but with one huge difference, which condescending Western pundits seem not to notice. Premodern Protestants and Catholics had at each other without an outside third party instigating the conflict, fanning its flames, and assuring the rapid escalation of firepower by a steady supply of weapons that wind up arming all sides. The internecine Islamic war would not be the globe-threatening catastrophe it has become without the profoundly cynical complicity of just such a third party — the United States of America. Our feckless initiating interventions may not be the worst of our blunders, for the Middle East has now become a huge American arms bazaar. What began in ignorance continues in greed.
“Sale of US arms,” read a New York Times headline last week, “fuels the wars of Arab States.”
The Pentagon has long tossed weapons systems to the winds, price tags attached, as a way of seeking influence and control over regional military forces. But now US arms corporations see in the Arab states a game-changing instance of what the Lockheed Martin CEO recently called “growth markets,” oil rich nations whose urgent new purchases of bombs, missiles, helicopters, drones, and advanced fighter jets will keep US defense plants humming, even as the American military budget is downsized. In the last year alone, just two countries, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have spent over a hundred billion dollars on arms — which are being rained now on the Shiite enemy in Yemen. Last week, an indignant Washington deployed a flotilla of warships to protest Iran’s arming of its client in Yemen, as if American-supplied weapons were not already pummeling them.
Most of the weapons being sold by US corporations in the Middle East are for use not, as the mythic Cold War ethic had it, in defense of democratic liberalism, but in anarchic sectarian conflict, and in the shoring up of antidemocratic dictatorships. As the last decade has made plain, the outpouring of American arms does not achieve its goals in any case. Our “growth market” financial windfall might seem like squeezing lemonade out of the lemon we created, but no. Soon enough these American weapons will be turned against Americans again. We won’t be able to say we did not know.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.