The Middle East’s “World War”

The Editors

“WE SEEM TO be setting out on an uncertain mission with unclear objectives on an unknown timetable using ambiguous methods with unreliable allies.”  Those are the words of a supporter of president Obama and a prominent advocate of what’s called humanitarian intervention, columnist Nicolas Kristof (New York Times, September 18).

Kristof is hardly the only one among Obama’s friends who feels that way. Meanwhile, from the right wing, which wants to destroy this president, come demands for full-scale war complete with those infamous “boots on the ground” — as if the last U.S. invasion of Iraq, and Afghanistan before that, hadn’t already left enough boots under the ground.

In case you weren’t aware that U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen etc. have been governed by a doctrine of avoiding civilian casualties — fictional as that’s been in practice — that policy has been dropped for the new campaign over Iraq and Syria. ( The result can only be to draw more layers of the population toward the murderous “Islamic State” (aka Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shams, or ISIS).

There is one piece of good news — the deep hostility of the U.S. public toward another war limits the options available to this president, and the next one. The rest of the picture is disturbing and frightening: the new-old war in Iraq and Syria, an open-ended disaster, is likely to last for years with regional and global repercussions. And there are other conflicts with potential to explode into serious warfare — at the worst possible moment, when global attention needs a laser-like focus on the multiple catastrophes of environmental destruction and climate change.

The stated reason for the U.S., British and French bombing campaign is that the rise of ISIS is a genocidal threat. Tens of thousands of dead Guatemalan victims of U.S.-supported terror from the 1960s through the 1980s, if they could talk, would have something to say about genocide and its enablers. In any case, the real ISIS story is a hideous lesson in how imperialism creates crises that it can’t solve.

The meltdown of Iraq was brought about by the neoconservative myth of unlimited U.S. power (which militarist Democrats like then-Senators Hillary Clinton and John Kerry happily endorsed). That myth is now colliding with the cold realities of limited power. Under the Bush-Cheney gang, U.S. imperialism launched a war-of-choice in Iraq on the fraudulent pretext of WMDs and lies about Saddam Hussein’s involvement in 9/11.

That war was driven by ideology, domestic politics and opportunism (the delusion of dominating Middle East oil and strategic position on the cheap) more than by vital imperial interests. It was a criminal enterprise, arrogantly conceived, stupidly executed, disastrous for the United States and catastrophic for the Middle East. Now, after creating a vacuum that’s been filled by brutal sectarian warfare, imperialism confronts a fundamental crisis that it can neither control nor ignore.

Unlike those triumphal neocons who saw Afghanistan post-9/11 as the opening for a grand military-political Middle East adventure, president Obama wants to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS without U.S. ground combat troops. Where George W. Bush promised a quick and easy victory in Iraq that would be paid for by Iraqi oil (in essence, imperial tribute), Obama openly admits that the current military operation requires years — a bit of honesty, at least. But beyond bombing and tactical improvisations to save the all-but-collapsed Iraqi army, what the U.S. plan might be, or even if there is one, remains obscure.

Vacuum of Strategy

Obama’s “mission” cannot avoid “creep” by the very nature of the quagmire imperialism has created. In attempting to construct a “coalition” where the United States supplies air power and regional allies are supposed to do the heavy lifting, the president is giving the U.S. public basically what it wants — yet people have no confidence in it, for good reasons. The near-certainty of escalation and wider involvement is virtually built into the situation. The Obama plan of extricating the United States from such entanglements is dead and buried.

In fact, there are no strategic regional allies. There are tactical allies for the U.S. campaign against ISIS, but they all have their own conflicting agendas. Some of them including Saudi Arabia, the Gulf petro-kingdoms and Turkey, have abetted the rise of ISIS in the first place, as vice-president Biden imprudently blurted out.

As this statement is written early in October, Turkey is blocking Kurdish fighters who are trying to join the heroic defense of Kobani, the border town whose population faces annihilation if ISIS captures it. Kobani, whose fate will probably be known before this issue of Against the Current reaches our subscribers, looks like a sacrificial pawn in a regional power game. The Turkish regime is happy to see the Kurdish struggle weakened, and also eager to blackmail the United States into a campaign to bring down the Assad regime in Syria — another open-ended war with its own ominous implications.

Iran and Russia, while certainly threatened by ISIS-inspired Sunni jihadist forces, are also the key supporters of the Assad dictatorship that has massacred well into six figures of its own population, and they’re also pleased to see the United States stuck in Middle East quicksand. Iran must play a role in reconstructing the shattered Iraqi army — yet for the Iraqi army to take the shape of a Shia militia would only reinforce the Sunni jihadist narrative.

The United States badly needs to come to a regional understanding with Iran, yet the government of Israel is consumed with its twofold mission of crushing Palestinian aspirations and forcing the United States toward a disastrous confrontation with Iran. Israeli prime minister Netanyahu is pushing the line that “ISIS is Hamas, and Hamas is ISIS” — an absurdity sure to go over well in the echo-chamber of Israeli propaganda known as the U.S. Congress, but not in the real world where it further discredits U.S. policy.

President Erdogan of Turkey has made the same kind of equation between ISIS and the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) — an even more absurd claim, since the PKK is not an Islamist movement at all. In fact, it was PKK fighters who rescued the trapped Yazidis on Sinjar mountain, and the allied Syrian Kurdish YPG that’s defending Kobani from annihilation.

In this hornet’s nest of contradictions, the United States appears to lack any coherent strategy. Its imperial wars in Vietnam and Iraq, for all their hideous brutalities, had definable borders, objectives (albeit reactionary and unwinnable), and a definition of victory or defeat. The current campaign has “none of the above” — a war without borders, with objectives that are undefined and perhaps not definable, with no clear criteria for “victory.”

ISIS may be contained (though it cannot be eliminated) by air power and ground auxiliaries, but the conditions that produced it are actually worsened by U.S. bombing. The one force that’s clearly standing against the spread of ISIS power is the Kurdish militias — partly the official peshmergas of Iraqi Kurdistan, but much more the volunteer Kurdish forces in Syria and Turkey streaming to the defense of Kobani. The Kurdish forces have the right to receive military aid from wherever they can get it, to defend their own right of self-determination and to resist a genocidal threat to their own people and to minority Yazidi, Christian and other communities.

Facing the Nightmare

The antiwar movement and the left cannot downplay the threat of ISIS as just one more reactionary force, indistinguishable from the rest. ISIS is a distinctive synthesis: Its driving ideology is the same “Salafist” or “Wahhabi” doctrine that rules Saudi Arabia; it’s a jihadist successor to al-Qaeda, and has captured a world-class arsenal along with the military expertise of Baathist officers purged when the U.S. occupation disbanded the Iraqi army.

Its wealth has come from Saudi and Gulf petro-billionaires and then from black market oil sales and mafia-type extortion. And it’s a deadly threat to populations it captures — even though we can’t forget that the Syrian regime has killed more people, and the United States has murdered millions from Vietnam to Iraq.

ISIS slaughters Shia, Yazidis, Christians — or Sunni Muslims who don’t follow its orders — as a matter of ideology and self-promotion. It kills not just for political reasons, to eliminate opposition or to suppress democratic aspirations, but for the sake of killing in itself and as a theatrical recruitment pitch. ISIS may begin to lose support if it no longer looks like a winning army on the march, but it can’t be “defeated and ultimately destroyed” until the Sunni populations turn against it.

It appears that U.S. intelligence and the corporate media apparatus may have invented something called the “Khorasan Group” terrorist plot aimed at the United States (see In any case the imminent threat is not to “the homeland” but to the people living right now under ISIS attacks, under U.S. bombs and under the Syrian regime’s ongoing massacres of its own population.

What do we, the left, have to say? First, we have to emphasize the truth that the Middle East disaster is a direct result of the U.S. idea that it could dominate and reshape the region, and that it cannot be resolved by military intervention with or without “boots on the ground.” Second, while it would be absurd to oppose specific acts of rescue of communities (Kurds in Syria, Yazidis and Christians, etc.) facing mass slaughter — just as we don’t oppose earthquake or flood relief — this is not a humanitarian war and will not have a humanitarian outcome.

Third, we need to focus on the U.S. enabling of Israel’s permanent war against the Palestinian people and develop our support of BDS (boycott/divestment/sanctions) and ending U.S. aid to Israel. Israel’s latest war, even after the cease-fire, continues to claim lives as hundreds of desperate Gazans are among those drowned along with north Africans in capsized refugee boats trying to reach southern Europe.

Finally, while the spreading horror in the Middle East might truly be called that region’s “world war,” it is far from the only global calamity. Beyond the scope of this brief statement, there’s the unresolved war in eastern Ukraine, which has killed civilians on roughly the scale of Israel’s massacre in Gaza, with uncertainties hanging over Russian natural gas sales to Ukraine and Europe for the approaching winter — and with NATO moving assets and training exercises deep into its post-Soviet eastern European members.

There’s the devastating Ebola outbreak in west Africa, which might have been more readily contained if recent civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone hadn’t wrought havoc with their public health systems — and if the World Health Organization hadn’t been drastically underfunded in recent years while military spending increases. (The United States is sending troops and equipment to Liberia; Cuba is sending doctors.) Women, as family caregivers, are disproportionately dying in the affected countries. As we also know too well from the examples of ISIS and Boko Haram, women are victims of war by rape or kidnapping into sexual slavery.

There are the Pacific region territorial disputes involving China and neighboring states — Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines — dangerously escalating, partly as a product of rival militarist nationalisms, partly as a scramble for underwater oil and gas to be fracked, partly over which countries get to exploit already-depleted fishing grounds.

Here as elsewhere, wars and rumors of war intersect with the destruction of nature on which human life ultimately depends. We must emphasize the ways that war, and the treasures expended on it, accelerate the destruction of the environment and global catastrophe.

We’ve known for many decades that a global Third World War would mean the incineration of civilization. It’s not as if World War III as previously imagined is on the agenda. We face instead, perhaps, the prospect of multiple “world wars” which, taken together with environmental collapse, could point toward a similar conclusion.

[For further discussion of the historical background and the threads connecting the imperial carveup of the Middle East from World War I to the present, see Yassamine Mather’s article on “Imperialism’s Bloody Wreckage” in this issue.]

November/December 2014, ATC 173