As the Sunni Jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham conquer city after city in northern Iraq and as black-clad soldiers from Shiite military muster to repel them, it is tempting to blame the chaos there on ancient religious hatreds. But the strife in Iraq today is less the mystifying product of of primordial grievances than the predictable result of very modern power politics.
The US shouldn't repeat the mistake made two decades ago, when a generation of Western leaders explained away the wars that ripped Yugoslavia apart as the result of primeval ethnic hatreds. Then as now, such resignation is an easy way to avoid hard thinking. Hatreds Bred by Power Politics, Daniel Benjamin (Wall Street Journal, June 28-29, 2014)
Benjamin, a former US State Department coordinator, is right on both counts: politics fundamentally drives the crisis in the Middle East and simplistic, but convenient explanations for the catastrophic events supplant any real analysis.
Apologists in both Parties and the supplicant media want to pass off the blame to the victims of the quagmire that the US and its allies have created in the Middle East. They insist that it is not a malignant foreign policy designed to advance US corporate interests and install puppet governments lurking behind the violence and chaos, but tribal and religious animosities, disdain for “human rights,” and ignorance of “democratic” values that thwart the “civilizing” mission of the US and the EU. Just as US ruling elites evaded the lessons of defeat in Vietnam, their twenty-first century counterparts revive the same chauvinistic, self-serving explanations for the hatred and mass slaughter they perpetrate.
To his credit, Benjamin insists on more nourishing explanations. As an insider and participant in shaping US policy, he knows better; he knows that interests-- economic and politic interests-- play the decisive role in shaping the events now spinning out of control in Iraq. He concedes, regarding “the demons of sectarianism,” that “[a]t key points, the US has even unintentionally abetted them...” [My italics] While this confesses far more than most of the US foreign policy commentariat wants to admit, it falls far short of the truth.
As I argued in a previous article (The Shame of Iraq, ZZ's Blog June 22, 2014), Western nations, especially the US and Israel, have devoted enormous resources and attention towards re-directing a decidedly post-World War II secular trend in the Middle East by courting religious fundamentalism. They have, with some success, quashed secular movements and promoted religious zealotry in its place. It is not difficult to discern their motive: in the calculus of imperialism, encouraging backwardness-- ethnic and religious frictions-- often overwhelms the struggle for economic independence and social justice that usually finds fertile soil in secularism.
That I did not make this point clearly was underscored by several critical comments received. It was not my intention to portray Nasserism, the early Ba'ath Party, the brief leadership in Iran of Mosaddegh, or even the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan as paragons of national sovereignty, unity, or socialism. Nevertheless, they were part of a healthy anti-imperialist, pro-independence movement worldwide, a movement that gathered momentum after World War II. In Central and South America, this trend was associated with leaders like Peron, Goulart, Bosch, Fidel, and Arbenz. While they were not all untarnished exemplars of social progress or even radical democracy, they all sought to eke out an independent path for national development, a path that drew the attention and ire of the US and its allies. Similarly, Nkrumah, Kenyatta, and a host of African leaders joined Nehru and Sukarno in Asia in using the opportunity offered by the Cold War stand-off to escape subservience to Western capitalism. In most cases, the escape was thwarted through assassination, CIA coup, covert corruption, or division. In the Middle East, the primary tool was the fueling of the ever present, but dormant, ethnic or religious sectarianism.
With the demise of the Soviet Union, that opportunity is gone and the road to political and economic independence is far rockier.
In understanding the Iraq debacle, context-- historical context-- is everything, a truth that the former State Department official, Daniel Benjamin, fully understands. Scornful of the patently nonsensical explanations that begin and end with alleged Middle Eastern pathologies, he insists that “The spark behind today's fires sprang from the 1979 Iranian Revolution.” Certainly, the Iranian Revolution is a handy scapegoat for those unwilling to fully expose the critical role of the US in fueling, igniting, and stoking the “fires” burning throughout the Middle East.
Yes, the overthrow of the Shah, both a reliable puppet and guardian of US interests, unleashed a firestorm of fundamentalist zeal. But it is impossible to imagine the religiously fomented revolution without grasping the decades of violent and complete repression of the secular Iranian left, beginning with the US- and UK-instigated coup against the moderate, secular and democratic Prime Minister, Mohammed Mosaddegh, in 1953.
While Benjamin insists that we ask credible questions about the Iraqi catastrophe, he purposely directs us away from credible answers.
Nothing exposes the complete bankruptcy of US policy in the Middle East more dramatically than the widespread “surprise” accompanying the sweeping offensive of ISIS across a huge segment of Iraq. Despite decades of intense scrutiny and the most sophisticated technologies, US security services were caught completely off guard by the speed and success of the offensive. Equally embarrassing and “surprising” was the complete collapse of the US-trained, financed, and armed Iraqi military faced off against ISIS.
But US policy makers were equally “surprised” by the treachery of their fundamentalist surrogates who launched an attack on the US in 2001 after undermining a revolution in Afghanistan.Of course, they were also "surprised" by the chaos in Libya after the US and NATO waged war on Gaddafi, creating destruction, death, and instability. They are “surprised” that their sponsorship of an insurrection against Assad in Syria has drawn mercenary armies bent on creating a fundamentalist Caliphate (ironically, challenging the US puppet government in Iraq). They will be “surprised” when the puppet government in Afghanistan also collapses in the next few years.
At the same time, US rulers, wrapping themselves around the banners of human rights and democracy, readily accept the greatest abusers of human rights and of democracy, countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Colombia, in their crusades against “terror.”
What does this callousness to peace and stability, this unprecedented hypocrisy, tell us?
Surely, it leaves no doubt that US policy in the Middle East, like its policy toward Cuba, Venezuela, and many other countries, is disconnected from high-minded values. Instead, it is deeply embedded in US interests, not the wholesome interests of the US people, who consistently show their disapproval of US intervention in polls, but the interests of US corporations and their courtesans.
One can only wish that this truth could permeate the nearly impenetrable corporate media filter that denies access to all but inane entertainments and surreal politics.
But that doesn't excuse the quiescence and inaction of the broad US left. Even if most cannot bring themselves to utter the word “imperialism,” they must surely see the pattern of violence and destruction that is the constant companion of US policies. They cannot escape the human toll of unrelenting, perpetual war since the phony “war on terror” was birthed. They cannot ignore the contradiction of massive resources devoted to destruction and domination while infrastructure, services, and welfare starve for funding in the US.
The only plausible explanation for this ubiquitous meekness in confronting imperialism is a groveling subservience to the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party. I say “groveling” because no other word could capture an allegiance that only stiffens in the face of a Democratic Party leadership that is completely contemptuous of the Party's “left” and even more contemptuous of the left in general.
If the Democratic Administration that enjoyed a rousing mandate from US voters, inherited a congressional majority, and spoke of urgent change, fails to deliver a cessation of aggression, then there is little prospect for it doing so in the future. Therefore, remaining mute in the face of the murderous Iraqi debacle, not voicing an objection to US engagement is tantamount to groveling before morally corrupt Democratic Party elected officials.
Certainly some have spoken up, organized, demonstrated, but too few to challenge the media fire wall. We need more to join with UNAC or the ANSWER coalition into assembling local actions. Or for those whose ideological purity is threatened by rubbing elbows with different shades of the radical left, organize your own rally. But public renunciation of the march of imperialism cannot be set aside for electoral opportunism.