Last week Foreign Policy magazine published a piece by Robert Kaplan which argued that an upsurge in violence in the Arab World was the outcome of a decline in ‘America’s great power role in organizing and stabilizing the region’, as well as a legacy of Ottoman and European imperialism. ‘Imperialism may have fallen out of fashion,’ the subheading read, ‘but history shows that the only other option is the kind of chaos we see today. ’ Such apologetics for US imperialism are common in mainstream discussions of the rise of ISIS. Similarly, at the beginning of 2014, the New York Times attributed violence in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria to ‘the emergence of a post-American Middle East in which no broker has the power, or the will, to contain the region’s sectarian hatreds.’
Has US power in the Middle East declined, and if so is this responsible for increased violence? New Left Project’s Tom Mills spoke to Gilbert Achcar, Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, University of London) and the author, among other books, of The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising.
Is US control over the Middle East weakening?
Yes indeed, it has been weakening for years. The peak of US influence in the region was reached in the wake of the first US war on Iraq in 1991. On the backdrop of the Soviet Union’s terminal crisis, the US seized the opportunity provided by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait to stage a massive military deployment in 1990 and launched a large-scale war in the region. Even the Syrian regime, which up until then had been for the most part a client of the Soviet Union, took part in the US-led war on Iraq. This is an episode, by the way, which those who believe that the Syrian regime is ‘anti-imperialist’ tend to forget – just as they forget its repeated onslaught on left-wing and Palestinian forces and refugee camps in Lebanon during the 1975-1990 war there.
The peak in US hegemony over the Middle East was thus reached in the early 1990s. Bush senior and his administration, which presided over this moment, attempted to consolidate it by addressing what was, and still is, seen as a major source of tension for US interests in the region: the Israel-Palestine conflict. For this they set off the so called ‘peace process’, which started in Madrid, Spain in the autumn of 1991. It was taken further by the Clinton administration with the Oslo Accords between the PLO and Israel, signed in Washington in September 1993.
There were, however, two major weaknesses in this configuration. One perceived obstacle to complete US hegemony was Iran. The other, despite the 1991 war, was Iraq, because the United States had not been in a position to invade and occupy the whole country, including its capital, and had no immediate alternative to Saddam Hussein. So they kept him in power, allowing him, soon after the cessation of their onslaught in the same year 1991, to crush the rebellion that unfolded in southern Iraq. This uprising was seen as a Shia rebellion and therefore one which could be exploited by Iran. At that time Washington also allowed Saddam Hussein to crush the Kurdish insurgency in northern Iraq. So the US left Saddam Hussein in power, albeit under a very criminal embargo which was meant to keep him under control and prevent him from rebuilding his military forces.
During the Clinton presidency, the CIA tried more than once, through covert operations, to foster an alternative to Saddam Hussein. But they failed miserably. The pressure started rising in the United States for a new and more complete invasion of Iraq, a pressure spearheaded by the same people who were later to join the George W. Bush administration – the people involved in the Project for the New American Century. The rest of the story is familiar: the 9/11 attacks provided a pretext which was seized on by the Bush administration, with lies about connections between Iraq and Al-Qaeda and about weapons of mass destruction, in order to invade and occupy Iraq in 2003. This went ahead despite the warnings of advisors within the US and British establishments. The George W. Bush administration’s hubris led to unintended negative consequences. The invasion and occupation – which were intended as part of a scheme to establish full unhindered control over the Gulf region because of its strategic importance due to oil – backfired completely. Quite soon after the invasion, beginning in 2004, the occupation became a major problem for the United States. In 2006 the country exploded into a sectarian civil war which the US was unable to control.
So 2004 was the point when US influence began to decline?
Yes, the turning point was the Fallujah massacre perpetrated by US troops, which enabled Al-Qaeda and other elements in the Sunni insurgency to recruit a lot of people. It signalled a clear shift in Iraq’s Arab Sunni areas against the United States, which built up to a disastrous situation for Washington in 2006. That’s when the Bush administration was forced to change its strategy under pressure from the US foreign policy establishment backed by Congress. The Baker-Hamilton Commission, a bipartisan congressional commission, devised a new strategy – the so called ‘surge’. In light of this new strategy, the US occupiers bought off Sunni Arab tribes, removing most of the constituency on which Al-Qaeda and similar groups were drawing. And they managed indeed to almost eradicate Al-Qaeda from Iraq in 2008, preparing the ground for US withdrawal from that country, as its occupation had become deeply unpopular at home.
Obama was elected with a promise of withdrawal from Iraq, which was completed by end 2011, even though none of the key goals of the 2003 invasion had been achieved. The main objective was not the removal of Saddam Hussein – that was the easy part; it was long term US control over Iraq and its oil. And that was not achieved. Nouri al-Maliki’s government, put in place in 2006 under Bush, turned out to be as much, if not more, subordinate to Tehran than to Washington. And with the departure of US troops in 2011 the balance tipped decisively in favour of Tehran. In sum, the US left Iraq under the control of its main enemy in the region. That was a miserable failure indeed: it discredited US power in the whole region and emboldened opponents of US hegemony everywhere. In 2011, therefore, US influence in the region reached its lowest point, as the withdrawal from Iraq was carried on while the Arab uprising was unfolding, bringing down key allies of the United States, notably Mubarak in Egypt. The United States has not yet recovered from this low point. Its brief ‘leading-from-behind’ adventure in Libya ended up in another blatant fiasco that only aggravated this weakening.
Which brings us to the question of whether this decline in US influence has led to greater violence in the region, as many commentators claim.
Violence in the region is not new, alas. If anything, the peak of violence coincided with the peak of US hegemony. Think of the violence of the US onslaught on Iraq in 1991, which turned that country back to the Stone Age in the words of the UN special reporter. Think of the devastating embargo imposed on Iraq thereafter, which caused the death of 90,000 people, by UN estimates, every year for twelve years, while the country was under almost continual bombing. And then think of the shift after 9/11 and the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Think of the level of violence reached in Iraq soon afterwards, especially the brutality of US occupation. The idea that it is the decline of US influence that led to increased violence will then appear what it truly is: a completely absurd proposition.
The fact is that the United States is mainly responsible for the levels of violence reached in the Middle East. This is not to say that the US has sole responsibility, nor to exonerate the Arab regimes, nor even to overlook the failing by the progressive movements in the region in providing an alternative. But the main responsibility is definitely that of the United States.
First of all, the United States has been cultivating despotic regimes in the region for several decades, thereby sowing the seeds of violence; and it has been cultivating the most extreme type of fundamentalism through its alliance with the Saudi kingdom, by far the most repressive, reactionary, antidemocratic and anti-women state on Earth. The United States played a major role in defeating the progressive, secular ,Arab nationalist regional radicalisation that was led by Nasser’s Egypt, fostering Islamic fundamentalism as a major weapon against it. Washington is also responsible for very high levels of violence through its unconditional support for the State of Israel. In fact, a decisive turning point in the levels of violence in the region was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. We could go on. In so many ways therefore, the US has been sowing the seeds of violence in the region – a violence it directly contributed to with the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, the torture at Abu Ghraib and the attempts to use sectarian cleavages to control the country, thus creating the conditions for everything we are witnessing today.
All this provided the most direct background to the rise of ISIS. The spread of the most reactionary brand of Islamic fundamentalism, and the degree of violence in Iraq under US-British occupation: these are the two main factors at the roots of ISIS. But you also have the fact that the United States refused to arm the mainstream Syrian opposition as it emerged after the first few months of the uprising, when the uprising started turning into a civil war in response to the regime’s murderous onslaught, fully backed by Iran and Russia. The United States refused to provide the initial Syrian mainstream opposition with the defensive weapons it was requesting, above all anti-aircraft weapons, and even forbade its regional allies from providing such weapons. This led to what we have been seeing: an extremely ruthless regime with a total free hand to use air power in the most devastating and cruel way against the population, along with a full range of deadly weapons, including chemical weapons. Obama’s so-called ‘red line’ when it came to chemical weapons was only meant to reassure Israel. But Washington just contemplated Syria being destroyed, creating a sharp feeling there that the United States and Israel are both very happy to see Syria torn apart. The Iran-assisted Syrian regime’s violence was the major reason for the growth of ISIS in Syria, and was complemented by the anti-Sunni sectarian policy of the Iran-sponsored Maliki government in Iraq. Shocking violence breeds shocking violence through a rise to the extremes that leads into what I called some years ago ‘the clash of barbarisms’, a clash in which the United States is the main culprit and protagonist.
Tom Mills is a researcher at the University of Bath and a co-editor of New Left Project.