An Idée Fixe and a Vicious Circle

TeleSur English, September 11, 2014

Unmentionable Blowback

History has a nasty way of repeating itself when its lessons go unprocessed. Take the US Global War on Terror, formally sparked by the al Qaeda jetliner attacks of September 11, 2001. By early 1998, seven years after Washington inflicted a one-sided imperial slaughter of Iraqis known in US History texts as “The First Persian Gulf War” and seven years into a US-led campaign of “economic sanctions” that killed at least half a million Iraqi children, the Pentagon had installed 35,000 military personnel in the Persian Gulf region.  US soldiers, Marines, and airmen stood ready for action in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Diego Garcia, and Turkey. The deployment included more than 300 combat aircraft and 30 ships.  The US Fifth Fleet patrolled the Persian Gulf and the US naval presence included two giant aircraft carriers – the USS George Washington (with a crew of 5,500) and USS Independence (5,000),  each loaded with more than 4.6 million pounds of “air launched missiles, laser-guided bombs, general purpose bombs and ammunition.” According to the Washington Post in February of 1998. “the 100 [US] aircraft based in Saudi Arabia for patrols over southern Iraq” included “two dozen F-15 and F-16 fighter jets [in] Bahrain…12 F-117 stealth fighter jets [in] Kuwait, three B-1 bombers [in] Bahrain and 14 B-52 bombers [on] the island of Diego Garcia.”

Along with Washington’s massacre and murder of Iraqis and the United States’ long and transparently petro-imperial history of arming, funding, and otherwise supporting brutal and absolutist Middle East regimes (the Saudi despotism above all) and the racist anti-Arab/anti-Muslim occupation and apartheid state of Israel, this US military deployment in close proximity to Muslim holy sites helped explain the al Qaeda jetliner attacks of September 2001. Like earlier al-Qaeda actions, 9/11 was clearly and explicitly directed at Washington’s provocative and openly imperial presence in the region. It was a predictable and to some degree predicted form of imperial “blowback.”

None of this could be remotely acknowledged in reigning “mainstream” US political and media culture, which portrayed the 9/11 attacks as being all about Muslim terrorists’ alleged hatred and envy of US “freedom.” A reigning “orientalist” Islamophobia purported to explain the attacks in terms of supposed ingrained “anti-modern” characteristics of Islamic culture and religion. This racist “understanding” was encouraged by a US government that,  as the brilliant Lebanese scholar Gilbert Achcar noted, was “unwilling to give the true answer to the much-asked question: Why do ‘they’ hate us?” As the venerable US foreign policy dissident William Blum noted in 2005:

“The fires were still burning at Ground Zero in New York when Secretary of State Colin Powell declared: ‘Once again…we see terrorists, people who don’t believe in democracy’….Here is the president more than a year after September 11: ‘The threats we face are global terror attacks…And the more you love freedom, the more likely it is you’ll be attacked.’….This idée fixe – that the rise of anti-American terrorism owes nothing to American policies – …postulates an America that is always the aggrieved innocent in a treacherous world, a benign United States government peacefully going about its business but being ‘provoked’ into taking extreme measures to defend its people, its freedom, and its democracy.  It follows …that there’s no good reason to modify US foreign policy, no choice but to battle to the death this irrational international force that hates the United States…(emphasis added).

The Vicious Cycle Recurs

Filtered through this Empire-denying mindset, 9/11 provided – as Osama bin-Laden hoped it would – Washington with a great pretext (the “new Pearl Harbor” that neoconservatives like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had dreamed of) to dramatically expand and intensify its  military presence in the Middle East and the Muslim world.  The escalation included the arch-criminal US invasion and occupation of Iraq, an attempt to extend US global hegemony by deepening Washington’s grip on the global oil spigot. Bearing the all-too appropriate acronym “OIL,” “Operation Iraqi Liberation” (quickly changed to “Operation Iraqi Freedom”) was only the most spectacular chapter in what the perceptive US empire critic Tom Engelhardt calls “a kind of American jihadism, …an attempt to establish what might have been considered an American caliphate in the region…In the process,” Engelhardt notes, “the U.S. effectively dismantled and destroyed state power in each of the three main countries [Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya – P.S.] in which it intervened, while ensuring the destabilization of neighboring countries and finally the region itself.”

And so here we are again. By early this August, the US had assembled a massive force of eight ships and more than 100 aircraft in the Persian Gulf for the launching of an air campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), whose beheading of a US journalist in the region was provocatively described by the White House as “a terrorist attack on the United States.” The US re-escalation is underway and likely to expand. At one level, this might seem ironic.  ISIS poses a grave threat not just to the US-sponsored regime in Baghdad (a government that opens Iraq’s abundant oil resources to US petroleum corporations) but also to the Syrian Assad regime, to which Washington is fiercely opposed.  ISIS battles and terrorizes Shia Muslims throughout the region, identified with Iran, the leading US regional enemy state and an ally of Assad.

But the menace posed by ISIS and the resurgence of jihadism across the region is not limited to Syria and Iraq. It also threatens, in the words of the incisive US Left commentator Glen Ford, to “consume the kings, Emirs and Sultans the US depends on to keep the Empire’s oil safe.” With the rise of the new Caliphate, Ford notes, “The pace of (US) imperial decline just got quicker.” The peril ISIS presents to what has always been Washington’s primary concern in the region – the great “strategic prize” of Middle Eastern oil – raises the specter of the US having to re-send large military deployments.

That is something US policymakers do not relish. Smart US planners have learned that direct US military intervention fuels “anti-Americanism” and strengthens the jihadist movement in the long run. The US prefers to dominate the region through proxies (including Saudi Arabia, the Arab Emirates, and Israel) and divide-and-rule. “The problem is,” Ford notes, “the Pentagon’s proxies are evaporating, in flight, or – in the case of Arab Iraq – growing ever more dependent on Iran and (who would have predicted it?) Russia, which is assisting in reconstituting the Iraqi air force.”

A US Frankenstein

The deeper irony is that ISIS, like al Qaeda before it, is largely a US-generated Frankenstein.  It would not have emerged to threaten US power and that of the United States’ proxies in the region had the US not:

  • Invaded Iraq and broken state power there while directly and indirectly killing more than a million Iraqis and displacing millions more.
  • Disbanded the Iraqi army.
  • Stood by while Baghdad was looted.
  • Built military bases all over Iraq.
  • Fueled and exploited sectarian and related ethno-religious divisions in Iraq.
  • Created and left behind in Baghdad the world’s largest embassy, which harbors an army of US military contractors and CIA and other “intelligence” agents.
  • Continued to function as the dominant military power in Iraq through the provision of arms, training, and other “support” to Iraq’s forces.
  • Insisted on US troops’ immunity from Iraqi prosecution for criminal acts.
  • Sponsored an Iraqi regime (Maliki’s) that shut Sunnis out of jobs and political power and shot Sunnis down when they protested.
  • Tortured untold thousands of Iraqis, including current ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was captured by the US military in 2005 and “held in a US-run detention camp in southern Iraq called Camp Bucca, where he remained for several years.

At the same time, the US has given significant high-tech weapons and training to ISIS and allied groups fighting the Assad regime in Syria – weapons and training that have backfired on the US-sponsored regime in Iraq.

“Noble Intentions”

None of this can be seriously acknowledged in the dominant US political and media discourse.  Blum’s “idée fixe”still holds, even if many planners know that military escalation only breeds more jihadis. In the official and public statements and loyal US media reporting and commentary, the rise of ISIS is just all about “thuggish” Islamists’ “irrational” and pre-modern hatred of freedom, decency, and “civilization.”  It’s got nothing to do with US policy – nothing to do with such great examples of US-led “western civilization” as Abu Ghraib, the US Marines’ radioactive near-levelling of Fallujah, and Washington’s barbaric decimation of Iraq, worse than the horrors the Mongols inflicted on Mesopotamia.

US “mainstream” (corporate) media blames “sectarianism” for the rise of ISIS and the broader spread of jihadism, refusing to pay serious attention to the central US-imperial role in the creation of the monster.  The US is portrayed (consistent with the doctrinal norm) as a well-intentioned but innocent bystander, a frustrated umpire who is at worst bumbling and befuddled – never criminal, barbaric, or imperial.  As Michael Parenti noted seven years ago: “Be it the Vietnam War, the invasions of Grenada and Panama, the intervention against Nicaragua, the Gulf War massacre, and subsequent invasions of Afghanistan, US military undertakings are portrayed as arising from noble if sometimes misplaced intentions.  The media’s view is much the same as the view from the State Department and the Pentagon.”

 And ISIS Knows It

This persistent doctrinal denial of US imperial arrogance and criminality in the Middle East does not bode well. It betokens another chapter in the mutually reinforcing cycle of US escalation feeding Middle Eastern Islamist extremism feeding US escalation. ISIS is aware of the vicious circle.  As Engelhardt notes: ISIS militants share Osama bin-Laden’s sophisticated understanding of how US escalation fuels jihadism:

“Don’t consider [ISIS’] taunting video of James Foley’s execution the irrational act of madmen blindly calling down the destructive force of the planet’s last superpower on themselves.  Quite the opposite.  Behind it lay rational calculation.  ISIS’s leaders surely understood that American air power would hurt them, but they knew as well that, as in an Asian martial art in which the force of an assailant is used against him, Washington’s full-scale involvement would also infuse their movement with greater power.  (This was Osama bin Laden’s most original insight.)”

“It would give ISIS the ultimate enemy, which means the ultimate street cred in its world.  It would bring with it the memories of all those past interventions, all those snuff videos and horrifying images.  It would help inflame and so attract more members and fighters.  It would give the ultimate raison d’être to a minority religious movement that might otherwise prove less than cohesive and, in the long run, quite vulnerable.  It would give that movement global bragging rights into the distant future.”

“ISIS’s urge was undoubtedly to bait the Obama administration into a significant intervention.  And in that, it may prove successful.  We are now, after all, watching a familiar version of the escalation follies at work in Washington.”

Imperial Insanity’s Caveat

Albert Einstein once defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  The definition applies well to US imperial policy in the Middle East.  This observation comes with a critical caveat, however. Numerous powerful corporate and military interests have strong selfish reasons to not really want different results in the Middle East.  It’s not polite to say, but permanent war is profitable to the US Deep State military-industrial-complex, including such giant and powerful Pentagon-subsidized entities as Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin. Today, as always, the costs of empire are spread across society as a whole while the benefits accrue to the wealthy corporate and financial few.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy

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By | 2014-09-12T15:57:06+00:00 September 12th, 2014|Articles|