Thanks to the childishly ahistorical and amnesia-inducing narratives disseminated by dominant US corporate media, the origins of contemporary issues and dilemmas go back much further in time than is generally understood in the United States. Look at the abominable fundamentalist Sunni-Salafist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — also known as the Islamic State group, which holds de facto state power across much of western Iraq and Syria. In reigning US mass media, ISIS is presented as a great cloud of Islamo-extremist evil that mysteriously and shockingly arose out of thin air last year. And that is how it is widely misconstrued in the US.
With its horrifying snuff films, its genocidal practices towards Shiite Muslims, Christians, and “polytheists,” and its arch-reactionary social codes imposed through whippings, limb-chopping, beheadings, stoning, eye-gouging, the shooting of children for minor infractions, and its sexual enslavement of women, ISIS is most definitely extremist and perversely evil. But in reality, as numerous left and other commentators have noted, ISIS, is among other things, a predictable “blowback” consequence of the brazenly criminal, mass-murderous United States invasion and occupation of Iraq between March of 2003 and 2011. “Had the United States and its satellites not initiated their war of aggression in Iraq in 2003,” John Pilger recently noted on TeleSur English, “almost a million people would be alive today; and Islamic State, or ISIS, would not have us in thrall to its savagery.”
Quite so. ISIS, a spin off and mutation of al Qaeda, is very much “the child of war.” As the brilliant British foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn notes, “the movement’s toxic but potent mix of extreme religious beliefs and military skill is the outcome of the war in Iraq since the U.S. invasion of 2003 and the war in Syria since 2011.” The first war collapsed Iraq state authority and took the lid off the nation’s fierce ethno-religious and sectarian divisions. The US fueled those divisions and Sunni uprisings against the corrupt and sectarian Shia government it set up in Baghdad. It produced droves of martyrs killed by US “Crusaders” in places like Fallujah, a Sunni city the US Marines targeted for near destruction (replete with the bombing of hospitals and the use of radioactive ordnance that created an epidemic of child cancer and leukemia) in 2004 – a town ISIS took over last year.
But just as the sectarian war that fed ISIS’s horrific emergence was retreating in Iraq, it was reignited when al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor to ISIS, found new soil in which to blossom in neighboring Syria. The US, Europe, and their Middle Eastern allies (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates) kept a vicious civil war going against Syria’s Assad regime going though it was clear from 2012 on that Assad was not going to fall anytime soon. The US-sponsored war in Syria became the fertile, blood-soaked breeding ground for ISIS’s expansion on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border, something the crooked and incompetent US-backed government in Baghdad was powerless to prevent.
Other recent US policies have fed the extraordinary growth of extreme jihadism modeled on al Qaeda and ISIS. The US-led NATO bombing of Libya in 2011 helped turn that country into a breeding ground for ISIS and related jihadist movements. Thanks in no small part to Obama’s deadly drone, bomb, and other attacks around the Muslim world (the recipient of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize has bombed at least seven Muslim countries so far), the US has helped advance civil war and Sunni, al Qaeda- and ISIS-inspired jihad across the Middle East and North Africa. Washington has generated an expansion of Salafist terror and extremism beyond the wildest dreams of Osama bin-Laden, who was irrelevantly killed by Obama’s beloved Special Forces in May of 2011.
In reality, though, the United States’ complicity, along with its satellites and allies, in the rise of ISIS, goes back at least to the late Cold War era. As Cockburn notes in his indispensable book The Rise of the Islamic State; ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution(Verso, 2015), the key moment for the rise of political Sunni jihad was 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution turned Iran into a Shia theocracy. In the summer of 1979, the Jimmy Carter White House secretly granted massive military support to fundamentalist tribal groups known as the mujahidin, direct forebears of al-Qaeda and ISIS. During the 1980s, a critical and remarkably durable partnership was formed between the United States, Wahhabist Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. This alliance has been a leading prop of US power in the Middle East. It has also “provided a seed plot for jihadist movements, out of which Osama bin-Laden’s al-Qaeda was originally only one strain” (Cockburn, The Rise, p. 100).
Among the many fundamentalist Sunnis recruited to fight in Afghanistan by the CIA and Pakistan’s intelligence agency (the ISI) was none other than Osama bin-Laden. A son of the Saudi elite, bin-Laden was the architect of the 9/11/2001 jetliner attacks, a predictable “blowback” from the United States’ longstanding mass-murderous actions and presence (Google up “Highway of Death” and “Iraqi children killed by US economic sanctions”) in the Arab and Muslim worlds. The al Qaeda attacks on the US “homeland” gave the George W. Bush administration cover and false pretext for the invasion that ironically brought jihadist Sunni rebellion and ultimately ISIS to Iraq (where al Qaeda had no real presence under Saddam). By Cockburn’s expert account, “The shock of 9/11 provided a Pearl Harbor moment in the U.S. when public revulsion and fear could be manipulated to implement a preexisting neoconservative agenda by targeting Saddam Hussein and invading Iraq. A reason for waterboarding al Qaeda suspects was to extract confessions implicating Iraq rather than Saudi Arabia in the attacks” (“bad information” was precisely the point of the torture).
The full history of the United States’ role in the creation of ISIS goes back further. Since the dawn of the Cold War, the United States has lent its considerable power to the defeat of left and secular nationalism across the Middle East. As Left Middle East expert Gilbert Achcar noted nine years ago, “when Arab nationalism, Nasserism and similar trends began to crumble [under US pressure] in the 1970s, most governments used Islamic fundamentalism [with US encouragement and assistance] as a tool to counter whatever remnants there were of the left or of secular nationalism.” Along with this came “the neoliberal turn of the last quarter century” – the spread of alienating capitalist and commercial forces and values. “Neoliberal globalization,” Achcar explained, “has brought about the disintegration of the social fabric and of social safety nets.” This led to widespread social disarray and anxiety, fueling “violent assertions of ‘identity,’ extremism or fanaticism….religious [and/] or political…”
It was an example of what Achcar rightly called “the classic tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Washington “let some kind of genie out of the bottle, but they can’t control it and, after a while, it turns against them.” Further: “The combination of their own repression of progressive or secular ideologies and the subjective failure – the bankruptcy of these ideologies, aggravated by the collapse of the Soviet Union – left the ground open to the only the ideological channel of anti-Western protest available, which was Islamic fundamentalism” – itself long “tolerated and even used and encouraged by the local regimes and by the United States.”
None of this significant history makes it into the “mainstream” US media and politics culture. That makes it impossible for anyone who relies on that culture for information on world events to respond to the rise of ISIS with anything but clueless surprise and astonished horror of the kind that supports yet more of the very imperial US policy that has done so much to create the terrible mess.
The same problem plagues US “mainstream” coverage of the “new Cold War” that has arisen between the US and Russia in connection with the Ukraine crisis. As far as anyone might tell from the usual ahistorical and decontextualized US coverage and commentary, the current crisis dates from Russia’s seizure of Crimea in late February and early March of 2014, widely portrayed in US media as an unprovoked outrage explained by little more than the rapacious imperialism of yet another new “Hitler”: Russian premier Vladimir Putin. There’s nothing in this account about how Crimea’s mostly Russian population voted overwhelmingly to return to Russia a voluntary popular referendum. Or about how the United States masterminded and sponsored a right-wing coup in Ukraine’s capital Kiev in February of 2014, hatching a toxic new pro-US regime that includes numerous highly placed neo-Nazis and relies on neo-fascist shock troops whose leaders call for the liquidation of “the Moscow-Jewish mafia” and “other scum,” including leftists, feminists, trade unionists, environmentalists, and gays. Washington was happy to work with such unsavory elements in its determination to enlist Ukraine in the western-imperial military alliance (the so-called North Atlantic Treaty Organization – NATO), to seize control of Ukraine’s abundant natural gas resources, and to displace Russia as the leading supplier of Europe’s gas. There’s nothing in the US media, of course, about Russia’s longstanding legitimate sphere of national interest in Eastern Europe, especially in Ukraine, or about the long history of foreign military powers invading Russia, with disastrous consequences, through that country.
In reality, the “new cold war” goes back to the early 1990s, when, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a key debate occurred within the first administration of US President Bill Clinton. One side in this debate called for a Russian policy similar to the US Marshall Plan in Western Germany after WWII. It advocated providing significant economic and social assistance to assist Russia on the path to recovery, modernization, and solid reintegration into the world as a proud and independent player in the global community of nations. The other and victorious side argued that Boris Yeltsin’s Russia should still be humiliated and ostracized and treated as a potential enemy and obstacle to America’s quest for “unipolar” global hegemony. This was the position argued by the grand US-imperial geopolitical strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose acolytes in the Clinton White House included US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Anthony Lake. It informed the US decision (contrary to George HW Bush’s promise to former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev) to expand NATO into Eastern Europe, even and even quite provocatively into the former Soviet Baltic republics – no small humiliation on top of an IMF-imposed economic “shock therapy” that slashed Russia’s GDP to a smaller size than the US “defense” (empire) budget.
This naturally generated a nationalist reaction among Russians, who observed that Washington was still treating them like hated adversaries even after they got rid of “communism” – the supposed basis for the United States’ Cold War hostility to Russia. Russian nationalist sentiments only increased with the Balkan Wars and the US decisions to wage a NATO war in Kosovo and to bomb Serbia – this over Russia and China’s opposition and despite Yeltsin’s offer to negotiate a peaceful resolution of the Kosovo conflict.
That was the rich historical die in which was cast the ascendancy of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and a new Cold War marked among other things by a resumed, reckless armaments build up between the two nuclear powers.
There are common threads in this unmentionable history. One is the long shadow of the militant Russia-hater Brzezinski, a key architect behind both the original US Cold War policy of sponsoring Islamic fundamentalism and the “new Cold War” policy of humiliating post-Soviet Russia. Another is US hostility to anything smacking of socialism, social democracy, and independent popular nationalism in other nations, be it in Nasser’s Egypt, Soviet-allied Afghanistan (a bastion of human and women’s rights compared to the periods before and after), Russia (a great nation that developed with some real accomplishments outside capitalism between through the 1970s), Milosevic’s Serbia (which antagonized the US with its resistance to Western dictates of neoliberal privatization and “free market” fundamentalism).
Another common theme is Washington’s endless quest to control global fossil fuel resources, long understood by US policy makers as a strategically hyper-significant form of critical imperial leverage over other nations. The United States wouldn’t have been deeply involved in the Middle East since World War II but for that region’s unmatched oil reserves. Today, US elites lust over the vast gas and oil resources found not just in Ukraine but also in Russia itself, which Washington would love to dismember after somehow collapsing Putin’s regime.
Careful observers will note that the same imperial, anti-democratic, and petroleum-obsessed themes run though US policy towards oil-rich Venezuela, where Washington under Obama as under Bush has recently supported another attempted military and business coup to overthrow the democratically elected Chavista government. The Bolivarian state in Caracas has committed what US policymakers consider the unpardonable sins of national independence, popular democracy, and egalitarian wealth distribution, including the use of fossil fuel revenues for the related purposes of reducing poverty, inequality, and autonomous national and regional development beyond and against the dictates of US planners.
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)
Sources consulted in the writing of this essay include: Patrick Cockburn, The Rise of the Islamic State; ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution (Verso, 2015); Noam Chomsky and Gilbert Achcar, Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy(Paradigm, 2007); Gilbert Achcar, “Interview: New But Still Cold,” LeftEast, December 19, 2014