Sometimes you just know that you are in the hands of fools. President Barack Obama almost made it to the end of his second term without repeating George W. Bush’s disastrous errors in redesigning the tortured religious, political and ethnic landscape of the Middle East. But then he dove, headfirst, into that sweltering quagmire—and I do mean headfirst, as in a thoughtless plunge without gingerly testing the turbulent waters in which so many others possessing Nobel Prize intentions have drowned.
Obama got into this mess after Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) and other hawks on both sides of the aisle baited him mercilessly with the charge that he was failing to back the moderate rebels in Syria. The problem was, there were no moderates of significant courage and numbers to topple Bashar al-Assad’s secular but authoritarian regime. This Mafia-style family enterprise had maintained order for decades, just as dictator Saddam Hussein had done in Iraq before Bush decided to remake Iraq in the image of a Texas oil boomtown that U.S. companies like Dick Cheney’s Halliburton could exploit with wild abandon.
Say what you will about the Middle East’s homegrown tyrants, they’ve known how to keep the lid on a bitter theological schism that’s gotten lots of innocent folks killed since A.D. 632. When the prophet Muhammad died unexpectedly that year, outliving his male offspring, Muslims were divided over who should rightfully succeed him as their temporal and spiritual leader.
Those who believed Muhammad didn’t name a successor ultimately became the vastly larger Sunni sect. Shia Muslims, on the other hand, believe that Ali ibn Abi Talib—the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law—was his legitimate successor. That’s how the internecine feud started, and it had endured for more than 1,300 years before Bush and his successor, Obama, felt obligated to stick their noses into it.