Mid-East Upheaval: What the Empire Sees


The US left and progressives have been preoccupied about what we can do to impact events in the Mid-East, particularly obsessing about what we can do to counter US intervention.  In general, it is good to want to act, not just talk or analyze, in a crisis situation.

However, despite the valiant and necessary efforts of the anti-war forces to mobilize against the increasing military intervention by the US and its imperial allies, our effect will be limited until we have an adequate understanding of the fundamental forces now in play in the Mid-East.  Much of our current slogans and agitation are recycled from previous battles, of limited relevance to a new and unfolding reality.

There seems to me too much focus on legalistic and procedural issues.  What did the UN Security Council really approve?  Did Obama exceed his constitutional authority in not consulting Congress?  What does the Arab League really support?  These are valid questions in certain contexts, but they avoid the more fundamental issues: What’s moving the Mid-East masses into rebellion?  What are their prospects for making fundamental change?  What are the main obstacles to their success?  These are the questions we must have a grip on if we are to effectively mobilize because they are the questions that activists in an anti-intervention movement will ask themselves.  Further, we need to have answers to them in order to meet the powerful challenge of the liberal imperialists who are promoting military intervention in the name of humanitarian concerns.

We have to do more serious analysis, even though it may not have immediate action consequences.  At least we can help educate each other, and reach out to a broader layer of people who might want to understand what is happening and get beyond the sloganeering, jingoism, and hypocritical and self-righteous humanitarianism that characterize mainstream discussions.

One of the things that are missing from most of the discourse on the broad left is a clear view of the top US policy makers’ general understanding of the situation.  The US and its imperial allies are the main obstacle to fundamental change in the Mid-East, and we must understand their basic outlook.  The strategic framework that guides the US government and business elite is long-standing and well thought out.  They are fitting recent events into this framework and acting coolly and deliberately in accord with their understanding.  Of course, there are, as always, tactical differences, some of which might become quite sharp, but in order for us to understand such differences we must first understand the common framework they agree on.  I offer the following broad sketch.

1. The long Mid-East arc stretching from Algeria to Pakistan has been a focus of US geopolitical and military domination since WW2.  With the breaking of the Egyptian-Soviet alliance in the 1970s, the US established its Great Power political hegemony in this arc and has successfully crushed, or at least contained, all challenges to its domination.  It has set up and sustained a system of states and principalities through which it has ruled for 50 years.  It is one of the great historic successes of imperialist rule and the US has no intention of relinquishing it.

2. The four pillars of US rule in the region are Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.  The core political concerns are continued stability and unchallenged US hegemony in these states.  The US was undoubtedly caught by surprise by the initial upheaval in Tunisia and the removal of its long-time ally from the presidency, but Tunisia is not a key player.  The upheaval in Egypt was much more serious and threatening and the US had to handle this much more decisively.  The decision was made, after some back and forth, to sacrifice Mubarak, whose corrupt and oppressive rule had united the entire population against him.  They concluded that such a decision could be made because the Egyptian military, out of which Mubarak had come and which was his power base, was united, had the situation in hand, and it would remain in control of a new, slightly broader and sanitized Egyptian regime.

It appears that both Saudi Arabia and Israel, because of their vulnerabilities, were opposed to abandoning Mubarak.  Saudi Arabia, a mafia family regime awash in oil money whose rule is dependent on the most powerful apparatus of political and social repression in the area, sees any concession to popular sentiment as a weakness to be avoided at all costs.  It also feels threatened by Iran.

Israel correctly saw Mubarak as a crucial ally in its suppression of the Palestinians, and in particular in sustaining its lockdown of Gaza, with which Egypt has a long border.  The lockdown of Gaza along with the expansion of settlements into the West Bank are the heart of Israel’s campaign to destroy the Palestinian resistance, and there is major concern in Israel that a new Egyptian regime will relax the border controls, undermining the lockdown.

The US, with a broader view of its interests in the area, was prepared, in this case, to ignore Saudi and Israeli concerns just as they had done in earlier periods when they, for example, blocked the Anglo-French-Israeli attempt to seize the Suez Canal.

3. The issue of oil is a fundamental one and control of oil underlies much of US policy in the region.  It was certainly a central reason for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.  However, US concerns are broader and more generally geopolitical, and it is a mistake to focus single-mindedly on oil.  Oil concerns do not directly dictate US policy toward Israel or Pakistan.

4. Iran represents a particularly complex policy issue for the US.  Iran, under the Shah, was a main pillar of US hegemony in the region, and the overthrow of the Shah and his replacement by a fundamentalist regime hostile to the US was the greatest defeat suffered by the US in the Mid-East.  Its continued existence represents a humiliation as well as challenge that drives a deep overall US hostility to it.

The Iranian regime itself appears deeply divided on the US.  There is a wing that seeks a rapprochement with the US and an end to economic sanctions that have a serious negative impact on life and the regime’s rule in Iran.  There is another wing that believes that US hostility promotes religious zeal and cements its rule, as well as strengthens Iran’s international influence.  At the moment the anti-US wing has hegemony but its continuing dominance is not assured.

One factor at play there is a powerful dissident movement in Iran based on the educated and secular layers of the middle class.  This movement is pro-West and the US and its allies undoubtedly funnel significant resources to it and have great influence within it.  While this movement is currently repressed, the rulers appear unable to liquidate it, and it remains a threat to theocratic rule.  At least some top US policy makers believe that the US can forge an alliance between the moderate wing of the regime and the dissidents strong enough to overthrow the hard liners and constitute a new regime that will seek a modus vivendi with the US.

The final complexity in US relations with Iran is that the US and Iranian interests in Iraq and Afghanistan in fact greatly overlap.  Definitely the US-installed Maliki regime in Iraq and somewhat less obviously the Karzai regime in Afghanistan both need the toleration and forbearance of the Iranian leadership to survive.  Thus, while the US has leverage in Iran through its influence on dissidents, the Iranians have leverage in Iraq and Afghanistan, the hottest, most sensitive areas of US involvement in the region.

The neo-cons, Cheney, Bolton, etc, egged on by the Saudis and Israelis, wanted to and still want to march the troops from Baghdad to Tehran, and crush militarily the sole remaining opponent of the US in the region.  They wave the supposed threat of Iranian nukes as they waved Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction — if a lie worked once why not again?  The saner heads among the ruling policy makers, however, have prevailed, seemingly for more than the moment.

5. Much of US strategy in the region, in particular its relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia, is impacted by its relations to the forces of Islamic fundamentalism, which goes back a long way and again is very complex.

Initially the US was favorable to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, seeing it as an ally, or at least a tool, in its struggle with the Soviet Union over control of the Mid-East.  The brutal Zia military dictatorship in Pakistan, which came into power in 1977 overthrowing a corrupt and ineffective secular regime, based whatever ideological legitimacy it could muster on a professed allegiance to fundamentalist Islam.

This became more than words when a left-wing, Soviet-backed regime came to power in Afghanistan shortly afterward.  Heavily backed by the US, Zia and the Saudis mobilized fundamentalist forces, both in Afghanistan and more generally in the region, for a holy war against the left-wing regime in Afghanistan.  Brzezinski, President Carter’s most influential foreign policy advisor, saw this as a chance to draw the Soviet Union into a disastrous military black hole.  Building up fundamentalist forces, he argued explicitly, was a small price to pay for this.  He later gave this policy, and of course himself, credit for bringing down the Soviet Union.

Further the Israelis saw in the rise of Islamic fundamentalism a chance to split the Palestinian resistance that had been led by secular national forces under Arafat.  While officially Israel denounced Hamas as a terrorist organization, strategically they welcomed its challenge to the PLO, and in fact its rise has accomplished all the Israelis could wish for.  The PLO has been fatally weakened and is politically and economically dependant on the West for its continued relevance, while Hamas is locked away in the open-air prison called Gaza, shunned as a pariah by the “international community.”

Islamic fundamentalism did present a problem for the US, in that it took some fancy footwork to condemn it in its Iranian form while promoting it in its Saudi/Afghan/Pakistani form, but this dilemma was eased because the two forms of Islam, the first centered in the Shiite sect, and the second among Sunnis, could be easily turned against each other.  Thus began the era of the freedom-loving Sunni fanatics, totally different on US television from the democracy-hating Shiite mullahs . . . and it lasted a while.

When Bin Laden led al-Qaedaout of the US-led alliance, presumably because his grandiose plan to initiate an Islamic caliphate throughout the region met with US opposition, it wasn’t at first taken too seriously by the US.  However, his capacity to initiate violence against US holdings and whip up anti-American sentiment did begin to generate concern.  Finally, with the destruction of the Twin Towers and part of the Pentagon by his followers in 2001, it became convenient for the neo-cons to use him as the temporary number one enemy in their long prepared “War against Terror,” though their real initial target was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

6. Today’s US strategy in the Mid-East is guided, more than its framers are willing to admit, by the experience in Iraq.  In a moral universe the initiators of the invasion and the occupation of Iraq, primarily the neo-con clique around Bush 2, would burn forever in hell for the death of, at minimum, hundreds of thousands and the displacement of millions.  The centrists who own the Democratic Party and provided crucial backing would join them there also.

Policy revision in Washington, however, has nothing to do with such moral judgment.  The only criticism by the current policy-making elite of the neo-con scheme of military takeover, first Iraq then Iran, was that it violated the first principle of strategy.  A good strategy divides your enemies, so that you can take them on one at a time.  The invasion of Iraq united Shiite and Sunni fundamentalists, along with secular nationalists, in a hatred of the US.  It raised up all the widespread fears, articulated both by leading political figures and ordinary people throughout the world, that the US, as the dominant world military force, was out of control, and that it was bent on imposing its political will everywhere through naked military violence.

The current American policy makers are concerned about the deep and broad popular hatred of America, or more precisely its ruling establishment, generated by the Iraq adventure.  They are concerned because this hatred makes it difficult for US hegemony to operate openly, functioning as a matter of habit and general acceptance, and makes US policy implementation depend more and more on secret deals with dysfunctional corrupt regimes and despised leaders.  Hegemony that can articulate itself clearly only behind the scenes tends to be weak and unstable, relying too heavily on gross violent repression, and is much more fragile under conditions of popular uprising.

I think this concern is what differentiates the Obama approach to the Mid-East, which remains a work in progress, from the neo-con one.  It accounts for the extremely complicated handling of the current crises, in particular the Libyan aspect.  All the maneuvering to bring in the UN Security Council, the Arab League, and the NATO to hide the fact that the US is in command, the effective though incredibly hypocritical effort to highlight humanitarian concerns, the simultaneous assertion and denial that the current air campaign is intended to remove Qadaffi from power, all bear on this concern.  Of course, Obama also has short-term domestic political considerations.  He faces a difficult re-election campaign in 2012, with a stagnant economy, still engaged in two unpopular wars and occupations, and little domestic support in initiating a third unilaterally.  Yet I believe his approach is genuinely different, not in ultimate aim but in basic features from that of the neo-cons, and not just rooted in electoral opportunism.

The current Obama approach has both its strength and weakness.  The strength ultimately lies in its apparent reasonableness, its de-emphasis on violence and unilateral American action, which gives it an opportunity to pacify both national and international fears.  The recent historic model for this is the Clinton administration’s pacification of the Balkans.  Seemingly confused and indecisive at first, it succeeded ultimately in lifting the siege of Sarajevo, thus defeating the Serb threat to Bosnia, in driving the Serbs out of Kosovo, and in its final aim of liquidating Milosevic’s rule.

The weakness in the emerging approach is that it lacks the clarity and seeming decisiveness of the naked militarism and jingoism of the neo-cons.  It is not clear that the experience of dealing with the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s can be the model for how to handle the more profound unrest currently underway in the Mid-East.  Further, the 1990s were clearly the high point of US international dominance, with the collapse of the Soviet Union leading to talk of an end of history, optimism among imperialism’s defenders and despair among its opponents.  Clearly the imperialists can have no such illusion or confidence today.  A policy whose success depends a great deal on successful maneuvering among a great many disparate forces, and which appears obscure and often opportunistic in a context where confidence and trust are still missing, has great risks.  An unexpected shock or setback can shatter a delicate alliance, leaving the US standing alone and isolated.  Under Bush such a situation could be toughed out.  Under Obama it could have disastrous consequences.

There are two points I want to emphasize which I hope emerge from the comments above.  While humanitarian concerns are important to an authentic left, they can be misleading and divisive — as they seem to have been in the present Mid-East crises — when they obscure the real politics and geopolitical calculations of the ruling policy makers.  Humanitarian concerns are taken seriously only in terms of tactics and rhetoric by the ruling elite and then only when they impact their power to rule, and in particular, as in the present case, when they can provide a cover for military intervention.  Humanitarian concerns are thus purely instrumental, a matter of spin, and play no real role in guiding fundamental strategic decisions.

The second point, which may seem the opposite of the first, is that the approach of the current policy makers, the Obama approach, is significantly different from that of the Bush neo-cons.  Their aims, in promoting and sustaining US imperial hegemony, are the same as those of the neo-cons, but they stress the failure of the neo-cons to isolate and marginalize opposition forces through their policy of raw militarism and unilateralism.  A new approach is being tried which we have to understand and confront.

Mel Rothenberg is a retired faculty member from the University of Chicago, and a long-time anti-war and social justice activist.  He is a founding member of Chicagoans Against War and Injustice (CAWI), which organized major demonstrations against the Iraq War, and of the Chicago Political Economy Group (CPEG), which has been active in developing and promoting a massive federal jobs program.  His published work includes a book and recent articles on the transition to socialism, international labor solidarity, and confronting the job crises.


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