Unsurprisingly enough, the first big story of the year is coming at us from the Middle East. That constantly troubled region was already troublesome enough for the rest of the world, what with civil wars breaking out in Syria and Libya and Yemen and elsewhere and the refugees spilling into the west in unmanageable numbers and ballistic missiles test being conducted by aspiring nuclear powers and terrorist attacks occurring from Paris to San Bernardino, but now we’ve got that whole Shi’ite versus Sunni thing coming to a head with increased tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The Shi’ite versus Sunni thing goes back more than 1,400 years, and so far as we can tell has something do with whether Mohammad’s family or closest friends should have inherited his spiritual authority, but we’ll skip ahead to the present day when Iran is the most powerful Shi’ite country and Saudi Arabia is the most important Sunni country and the old hatreds still persist. The two countries were already fighting proxy wars in Yemen, where Iran-backed rebels had overthrown the Saudi-backed government, and in an even more complicated war in the former portions of Iraq and Syria that are now controlled by the Islamic State, which is Sunni but threateningly crazy even by Saudi standards, where the Saudis’ ineffectual fighters are also opposed by the Iran-backed Syrian regime and their suddenly dominant Russian ally, but now the tensions have again been significantly increased. After a couple of decades of imprisonment the Saudis chose the date of January Second to execute, by beheading or firing squad, 46 crazy-even-by-Saudi-standards Sunni terrorists and one prominent Shi’ite cleric. That lattermost execution seemed calculated to inflame Shi’ite sensibilities and quickly led to an arson assault on by an angry mob on the Saudi embassy in Iran, which was clearly tolerated by the otherwise repressive Iranian regime. Since then there’s been a suspension of diplomatic ties and talk of outright war, as well as the usual diplomatic dissembling.
It’s enough to roil the international stock markets and recall Iran’s past assaults on its guest embassies and spur conspiracy theories about how the plunging price of oil is provoking a mutually beneficial war, and it’s bound to affect the ongoing politics of the United States of America. Even such harsh critics are ourselves won’t blame the Obama administration for the more-than-1,400-year-old Sunni versus Shi’ite thing, but even the administration’s most determined apologists can’t muster an argument that the past seven years of American foreign policy have worked out well. The retreat from Iraq is looking very much like a mistake, even if America’s entry into the country is so widely regarded as a mistake that even the leading Republican candidates feel obliged to say so, and that awful deal giving Iran $150 billion and no meaningful restraints on the nuclear weapons program they’ve been flouting ever since it went unsigned is looking more awful than ever, the planned retreat from still-troublesome Afghanistan now looks as if it might await another administration or two, and even modern liberalism’s exquisitely well-intentioned guiding principle about abandoning traditional allies and extending open hands to traditional enemies is now clearly called into question.
The Republicans will be challenged to come up with a plausible solution to this more-than-1,400-year-old mess, and we have little confidence they will, but we expect that even the most stridently xenophobic and reactionary policies they propose will seem more plausible than whatever the Democrats can come up with. The Democrats are by now obliged to pretend that whatever ails the world surely has nothing to do Islam, and that whatever more-than-1,400-year-old problems do seem to be occurring can surely be blamed on George W. Bush’s crazy cowboy ways, and that at any rate climate change is the more pressing concern, so we expect they’ll find themselves in a defensive position by Election Day. There’s no telling what will happen between now and then, but another terror attack on the west seems more likely than an outbreak of peace.
We have little regard for the terror-supporting and theologically totalitarian but not quite so crazy as Islamic State regime of Saudi Arabia, and none whatsoever for the terror-supporting and theologically totalitarian and soon-to-be-nuclear-armed regime of Iran, and at this point our only rooting interesting in the region is for democratic and humane Israel and the last of the Christians and Yazidis and Zoroastrians and secular agnostics and other religious minorities in that dismal part of the world, and we won’t pretend to have solutions to this more-than-1,400-year-old problem. Something different is obviously called for, however, and one way or another we do expect that will eventually occur.
— Bud Norman