As America emerged as a superpower in the late-1940’s their strategic thinking was understandably dictated by the lessons they had learned in the global war they had just fought. The outcome of World War Two had hinged primarily on the results on the Eastern Front where Germany had struggled and committed blunders in an effort to secure the fuel they needed to advance towards Moscow. In the context of the emerging Cold War, it was clear that the Soviet Union had ample fuel supplies. Western Europe, on the other hand, had little outside of Norway and off the British Isles.

For this reason, there was a sound military rationale for the USA to forge strong relationships with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, which could provide fuel in the event that the USSR invaded Western Europe and cut off some of its limited supply.

How this was done in practice, however, aroused intense resentment in the Arab and Persian populations, and in 1979 we saw two events that have reverberated to this day. On November 4th, the Iranian Hostage Crisis began. On November 20th, the Grand Mosque in Mecca was seized. In both cases, the underlying motivation was a seething anti-Americanism.

Yet, the outcomes were completely different. In Mecca, the rebellion was eventually put down, while in Iran, the revolution was successful. Ever since, the USA and Iran have been engaged in a Cold War. But, the crisis in Mecca brought the House of Saud and America closer together.

It was also in (December) 1979 that the Soviet war in Afghanistan began in earnest. American policymakers saw the war as an opportunity to pay the Soviets back for Vietnam, while the Saudi kingdom saw it as an opportunity to off-load restless religious fanatics.

This segment of an interview that Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski gave in 1998 should provide some granular context here:

Q: The former director of the CIA, Robert Gates, stated in his memoirs [“From the Shadows”], that American intelligence services began to aid the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan 6 months before the Soviet intervention. In this period you were the national security adviser to President Carter. You therefore played a role in this affair. Is that correct?

Brzezinski: Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.

Q: Despite this risk, you were an advocate of this covert action. But perhaps you yourself desired this Soviet entry into war and looked to provoke it?

Brzezinski: It isn’t quite that. We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.

Q: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn’t believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don’t regret anything today?

Brzezinski: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.

Q: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic [integrisme], having given arms and advice to future terrorists?

Brzezinski: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?

Q: Some stirred-up Moslems? But it has been said and repeated: Islamic fundamentalism represents a world menace today.

Brzezinski: Nonsense! It is said that the West had a global policy in regard to Islam. That is stupid. There isn’t a global Islam. Look at Islam in a rational manner and without demagoguery or emotion. It is the leading religion of the world with 1.5 billion followers. But what is there in common among Saudi Arabian fundamentalism, moderate Morocco, Pakistan militarism, Egyptian pro-Western or Central Asian secularism? Nothing more than what unites the Christian countries.

I quote this interview at length despite the fact that it raises several tangential issues because it makes quite clear that American foreign policy at the time saw the rising Muslim fundamentalism as a weapon to be used against the USSR rather than a threat to its allies in the region or (eventually) to itself.

The reaction to the siege of Mecca within the kingdom was to export many of its radicals to foreign battlefields and to placate those that remained at home.

Saudi King Khaled however, did not react to the upheaval by cracking down on religious puritans in general, but by giving the ulama and religious conservatives more power over the next decade. He is thought to have believed that “the solution to the religious upheaval was simple — more religion.” First photographs of women in newspapers were banned, then women on television. Cinemas and music shops were shut down. School curriculum was changed to provide many more hours of religious studies, eliminating classes on subjects like non-Islamic history. Gender segregation was extended “to the humblest coffee shop”. The religious police became more assertive.

This, then, created the context for the ensuing Sunni/Shi’a split, with the USA increasingly allied with predominantly Sunni powers (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt) against predominantly Shi’a powers (Iran and Syria). But, with respect to Islamic fundamentalism or politicized Islam, America would remain implacably opposed to it in Iran but content to rely on its Sunni allies to keep it in check and/or channel it in productive directions (i.e., against the Russians and not Israel).

So, given this history, it’s not surprising that the region expects America to take the Sunni side in the sectarian conflict that erupted in Iraq and is quickly consuming Syria. It’s also not surprising that Israel expects the same, as does much of America’s foreign policy establishment.

In fact, in reading Hudson Institute fellow Michael Doran’s opus on President Obama’s Middle East foreign policy, it’s impossible to miss his disgruntlement over Obama’s refusal to see the conflict there in these sectarian terms.

This element of the president’s thinking has received remarkably little attention, even though Obama himself pointed to it directly in a January 2014 interview with David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker. The Arab states and Israel, Obama said then, wanted Washington to be their proxy in the contest with Iran; but he adamantly refused to play that role. Instead, he envisioned, in Remnick’s words, “a new geostrategic equilibrium, one less turbulent than the current landscape of civil war, terror, and sectarian battle.” Who would help him develop the strategy to achieve this equilibrium? “I don’t really even need George Kennan right now,” the president responded, alluding to the acknowledged godfather of the cold-war strategy of containment. What he truly needed instead were strategic partners, and a prime candidate for that role was—he explained—Iran.

For Doran, it is unforgivable for the president to see Iran as anything but an implacable foe, and his behavior constitutes a deep betrayal of our allies who stuck with us during and after the 1979 anti-American uprisings. Additionally, Doran seems to share Benjamin Netanyahu’s deluded paranoia about Iran posing an “existential threat” to Israel.

There is much more to write on these topics, but, in my opinion, President Obama’s single greatest foreign policy contribution has been his willingness to see the Middle East through an entirely different lens. Our foreign policy establishment doesn’t know how to look at the Middle East in a way that won’t exacerbate the sectarian nature of the conflict and lead to open war with Iran.

The president, at least, has been trying.

[Cross-posted at Progress Pond]

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at