by Joe Shea
May 29, 2015
THE HARDEST CHOICE WE'LL EVER MAKE
BRADENTON, Fla., May 27, 2015 -- Like it or not, if the United States persists in not putting ground troops into the fight against ISIS, we will eventually be stuck with either Iran or ISIS as a fixture of the future in the Middle East.
The reason for this is a bit simplistic, perhaps, but nonetheless unavoidable: We will now - meaning under the circumstances that have recently developed, specifically the advances of ISIS - have to decide if what we want in the future is an Iraq run by Iran, as it has been in the past few years (albeit to a lesser degree), or a Fifth Caliphate, probably headquartered in Damascus, that rules most of Syria and all of northern Iraq, including Baghdad.
And what will generate that decision? The simple strategic imperative to fight one and help the other, or fight the other and help the first. If we help - because now we are in a subsidiary role - Iran's Shias defeat the Sunni ISIS, and if we do not commit ground troops, and if ISIS is in fact defeated (which it probably cannot be) then Iran will inherit Iraq, its oilfields and its benighted people. That is a long-term Iranian goal.
If, on the other hand, we do not commit ground troops and ISIS continues to advance against the Iranian and Iraqi Shias who are fighting them, then ISIS will maintain its control of all of northern Iraq and possibly Kurdistan, as well as most of Syria, where Bashar Assad will eventually yield and fall to them.
And what are the consequences of this historic and critical choice? If we choose to continue to fight alongside Iran, we may be able to work out an awkward but doable political and diplomatic detente with them - even amid what are likely to be fierce objections from Israel - and move towards a more stable world.
I spent a little time in Tehran, the capital of Iran, and appeared numerous times on Press TV, Iran's equivalent of Meet the Press; I also wrote extensively in the LA Weekly about Iranians who fled Khomeini in the early 80s, and got to know quite a few of them in Beverly Hills. The ones in Beverly Hills, of course, were Jewish, while those I knew in Tehran were Muslims, mostly in their mid-30's.
Several things were apparent to me through those relationships:
One, they are a great people, with a powerful entrepreneurial drive to succeed, and that they in general seem substantially more intelligent than other Middle Eastern peoples outside Israel. Two, they are not a people in search of freedom and democracy; they are a people in search of rules and control that provides a stable atmosphere for economic progress. Needless to say, I had no interaction with the Islamic zealots who run the country today, and indeed, I feel certain that the days of the ayatollahs are coming to an end.
I have no more information about the fighters of ISIS than the next person, and am just as aware as others that they have an awfully bloody track record. I heard on Fox News the other day a comment to the effect that they are "beheading children," and while I have trouble believing it, it is certainly not out of character.
What impels ISIS, as I wrote in a widely translated (in Arabic, mostly) November 30, 2009, article for this newspaper titled "The War Against the Caliphate," is an idea - the idea of restoring the supposed glory of the previous four Caliphates, ground now into the dust of history. Only another idea can fight an idea; it is a living thing with which an entire nation, a people - or an army - can become possessed and obsessed, and in ISIS, this has happened.
My father was a Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP) officer for the Air Force, which meant that he wrote the strategic battle plans for nuclear war. I have to dig deeply to guess what he might have proposed in this world-changing quandary. But please don't blame him for my ideas!
I have to think that he would overlook the bad press about ISIS - the beheading or execution of thousands of innocent people of many persuasions - and feel that, as I do, the world would be better off with a Fifth Caliphate than with an unending season of war and lesser violence. It would probably be far easier to get Iran to loosen up on Israel than it would be to contain the vicious killers of ISIS, but in fact, it's likely neither would be malleable as long as the ayatollahs rule. As I pointed out in that 2009 article, though, a Fifth Caliphate might engage with the rest of the world in diplomacy, and with it, a moderation of their ultimate aims and acts.
And there's one other key consideration: the Fifth Caliphate would not be able to construct a military infrastructure to rival Iran's for another 50 years, and will never gain the military stature of Israel. Moreover, most of the attemots they might make to improve their military resources - as long as they remain an enemy - would be destroyed by us or by Israel. Neither of us will ever permit the establishment of a new Iran.
A Fifth Caliphate, of course, would not stop trying to enrobe countries like Yemen, Somalia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan under its cloak of crescent moons and stars. Against all but the Saudis, it might very well prevail. There are at least a few countries in Africa that might also fall under their spell, as Muslims everywhere rise to cheer the triumph of a religious idea they have secretly harbored for centuries. It would be somewhat like Catholics embracing the supremacy of the Pope over any secular order - as we once did.
There is no new impulse in the religious world, just long, long cycles of repetition. It is in the nature of things that the secular order is periodically replaced with the religious order, and then transforms again. We live in an era and a nation where the secular and the religious have lived quite comfortably beside one another in a harmony that is probably unique in human history for its duration and underlying design. That will never be said of ISIS, but if it achieves its Fifth Caliphate, it will eventually succumb to those cycles, and there will eventually be a Sixth Caliphate - even, perhaps, a thousand years from now.
Our foremost consideration in respect of all this is our allegiance to the people and nation of Israel, which we will never surrender. And let us remember that Israel, which has never joined in any of our Middle Eastern adventures, nor in this one, is the most powerful player on the board. Excepting Pakistan, it is the only nuclear power, and the only power, including Pakistan, where sovereignty is not an iffy thing because of profound fractures in its government.
Israel is one - a united and forceful and determined nation that will never risk its survival. It will find both choices we have equally detestable and repugnant. That is why whatever our choice, it must be designed around the preservation of Israel as our unshakeable and powerful ally in the Middle East.
Any depredation a Fifth Caliphate or a victorious Iran may presume to make against them will be countered with force and efficiency by both of us. But even Israel cannot make the hardest choice for us; one or the other of the two will prevail, in the near or long term, and history will have to live with it.
AR Editor-in-Chief Joe Shea is a former war and foreign correspondent for New York's Village Voice.