The War on Terror Spectator

In Search of a Strongman

The Middle East likes leaders that talk tough and stand pat.

By 6.19.14

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A Middle Eastern proverb tells of a Bedouin chief who believed that consumption of fowl would increase his masculine dignity and bought a turkey. One morning, he found his turkey was gone from its usual place outside his tent. The chief called his sons together and told them that his turkey had been stolen by bandits. "Find my turkey!" he told them in rage, but they laughed and departed.

The next morning, the chief awoke to find that his camel had been stolen. His sons came to his tent of their own accord to make a plan for its recovery, but the chief just told them, "Find my turkey."

The next day, the leader's daughter was raped, and his sons descended upon his tent in rage. "How could this have happened?" they asked. He replied, "None of this would have happened if you had found my turkey."

The political landscape of the Middle East lends itself to tough rhetoric and headstrong leaders. Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini is famous for his unreasonable tirades. Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi had nothing if not personality. The Egyptians just replaced a U.S.-educated politician with a strong-handed military general. Even Benjamin Netanyahu is rather famous as a gruff hardliner, and the Israelis seem to like it. This is partly why Obama and his vacillating red line in Syria haven't gone over well.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki tried to add himself to the list of Middle Eastern strongmen Tuesday. He once again defied repeated orders from the United States to dialogue with moderate Sunni groups. (Admittedly this was hardly a new development.) He also laid the blame for ISIS's murderous rampage across his country on neighboring Saudi Arabia, accusing the Gulf state of "genocide" for encouraging violent Sunni extremism, according to Reuters.

Leaders in Saudi Arabia, who may have hoped no one would notice their financing of the Sunni rebel groups in Syria that spawned ISIS, could hardly fail to respond. By all accounts the Sunni guardians of Mecca see Iran as an ideological nemesis, the "yin" to their Sunni "yang," to put it politely.

So the Gulf state declared that foreign powers should not intervene in Iraq’s “full-scale civil war,” a pointed warning to Iran. The statement on Wednesday, coming from Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, coincided neatly with Iran’s strongest warning yet that it would not hesitate to use force against “terrorists and killers” who threatened Shiite holy sites. 

The proverb seems to be holding true in the case of the unchecked bandits in ISIS, who attacked Baiji, a refinery responsible for one quarter of Iraq’s oil output. Government forces told Reuters they still hold just one quarter of the refinery's assets, and oil prices have risen in response.

Perhaps recognizing that his bluff had been called, Maliki spent Tuesday night in talks with leaders of the Kurdish and Sunni factions and his Shiite predecessor. The next morning, the group appeared on national Iraqi television to urge unity across sectarian lines. The slumber party did little for anyone’s mood; Reuters called the appearance “frosty" and the leaders walked away from each other in silence when the broadcast ended. 

Hours later, Maliki requested air strikes against ISIS from the United States. Will Uncle Sam will throw his hat into the ring? If so it will be joining a circle of stubborn leaders who are, perhaps, more interested in being strongmen than achieving democracy and peace.

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About the Author

Lucy Schouten is an editorial intern at The American Spectator. She is a senior studying journalism, Arabic, and Middle East issues at Brigham Young University in Utah. She can be reached via Twitter @lucyjcomms.