New Eastern Outlook
by Salman Rafi Sheikh
Since at least 1980, the US has been invading, occupying and bombing the Middle East. The rhetoric invented to give justification to this adventurism was and still is based upon notions of promoting democracy and ensuring peace and stability. However, what we see on the ground today are wars and protracted violence, authoritarianism and fast spreading militancy, which has grown so formidable as to threaten the Post-Ottoman order created by European imperialists — chiefly the British — after World War I.
Contrary to the invented rhetoric, oil — not freedom, democracy or human rights —actually have always been defining the principal US interest; and, military power has since then been offering the most suitable means by which the US could attain this goal. In straightforward political terms, this strategy meant dismantling a country with the aim of erecting something more preferable — “regime change” as a prelude to “nation building.”
Contrary to the US’ expectations, the policy of regime change has, over the years and time and again, proved to be disastrous. Instead of becoming vessel states for the US, new regimes directly resulted in creating deep power vacuums. Iraq offers a glaring example. Although studiously ignored by Washington, post-Gaddafi Libya offers a second. And unless the gods are in an exceptionally generous mood, Afghanistan will probably become a third example whenever the US and NATO combat troops would finally depart.
The central question needing our attention here is: has it ever been the US’ aim to promote democracy and peace in the world? A look at the US policy, since at least the end of the Second World War, would suffice to prove that the US has actually been playing with ideas of democracy and peace; while, instability and destruction of politico-social fabric have been the underlying purposes as well as consequences of her adventurism. This logic of the US becomes evident when one keeps in mind the neoconservative plan of financially occupying the world. Roots of this plan can be traced back to the immediate post-war era. George Kennan, who is often regarded as one of the key architects of the US grand strategy in the post-war period, gave following recommendation to the US leadership. To quote Kennan,
“We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships, which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We should cease to talk about vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”
While the US has largely been trying to avoid these ‘straight power concepts’ for five decades, it has now become the only vehicle through which it can maintain its dominance. Indeed, Kennan’s term of ‘straight power’ is the appropriate description of current US geopolitical unipolar maneuvers. The idea of unilateral domination of the world was propounded by the Project for a New American Century, founded in Washington in 1997. The origin of PNAC can further be traced to a controversial defence policy paper drafted in February 1992 by the then Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and later softened by Vice President Dick Cheney which states, without mentioning the European Union, Russia, and China, that the US must be sure of “deterring any potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.” The document released by PNAC gives a better understanding of the US’ unilateral aggressive foreign policy, and shows that this manifesto revolves around a geo-strategy of the US dominance—-stating that “no other nations will be allowed to challenge the US hegemony.” This idea helped George Bush to expound his own doctrine, known as Bush Doctrine. This doctrine was practically executed with Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and still continues to plague the entire region.
Success of this unilateralism, however, also depended, apart from military power, upon virtual control over the global economics’ life line, that is, oil. Necessity of controlling the world required control of global economy, which in turn could not have been possible without control over the flow of oil from the Middle East and the region surrounding it—hence, oil wars. For example, with its undeveloped oil reserves perhaps even larger than those of Saudi Arabia, Iraq had already become an object of intense interest to Cheney and the Bush administration very early on, that is, much before 9/11. But the war came when Iraq’s authoritarian regime under Saddam Hussein decided to pursue the idea of ‘national development,’ according to which state institutions would have had full control over the extraction, production, and sale of oil—hence, the US invasion and the change of Iraqi regime.
As a result of this ‘unipolarism’ and regime change policy, what the US sowed was mere instability and devastation; and, by inadvertently sowing instability, the US is now playing directly into the hands of anti-Western radical Islamists, who are bent upon supplanting the European-imposed post-Ottoman order with something more to their liking. Although it cannot be denied that the US might itself have triggered the current phase of conflict, and that the re-make of the entire Middle East might actually be the US’ own plan, it can also not be denied that the onus of responsibility for wars and violence is on the US.
For example, and as a matter of fact, the so-called caliphate which the ISIS is trying to establish in the Middle East and beyond is qualitatively not much different from the caliphate that Osama bin Laden once yearned to create. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that this so-called caliphate is a miniature of Osama’s ideal. The rise of the ISIS in Iraq could have been prevented if the US had done something constructive with regard to Iraqi military. The Iraqi army created by the US was never designed to be strong enough to tackle such threats. Similarly, the Iraqi government put in by the US was never meant to ‘govern.’ In simple words, the power vacuum, that was left largely and practically unfilled even after the US had put in a puppet government, was bound to result in the emergence of such groups as the ISIS, which is now vying for power, threatening to play havoc in the entire region. As a matter of fact, almost all major powers in the Middle East, such as Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabi, are now directly involved in the conflict. While these states continue to fight the ISIS, they are also engaged in countering one another’s interests, notwithstanding their so-called ‘Islamic’ identity as members of the ‘Muslim’ world.
On the other hand, the US also continues to play with the conflict. Considering that the ISIS does not pose a direct military threat to the US or any of its allies in the West, her engagement in the war is not so deep as it should have been if the US is seriously interested in containing the ISIS. Consider the case of Kobane, where a fierce fight took place between the ISIS and Kurdish groups. While the US has expressed its ‘deep’ concerns over the fall of another Iraqi city to the ISIS, it was never aim of the US to save Kobane at all from falling into the ISIS’ hands. Instead of bombing the ISIS fighters, the US declared that saving Kobane was “never part of strategy.” The US foreign secretary said that the current focus of strikes is to be Iraq. Does it mean that the US is deliberately allowing the ISIS to weaken the Syrian army so that Syria also falls? It can be possible given that the US has been trying, for at least two years now, to implement its usual “regime change” policy in Syria also, but has been unable to achieve this objective.
Now, if Syria falls and with it also falls Asad’ regime, wouldn’t it be a strategic victory for the US and its allies? Wouldn’t it result in the achievement of a long cherished dream of the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE? It certainly would. Given this difference in the US’ strategy of handling the ISIS differently in Iraq and Syria, one cannot expect the US led coalition to actually contest the ISIS. In fact, this even does not seem to be their aim. Instead of comminting itself directly, the US is playing an indirect game. For example, in a latest development, the US officials are reported to have told that Turkey has agreed to provide training to the “moderate” fighting groups in Syria. This seems to be the policy of creating another “ISIS” to fight the old ISIS. While Turkey is officially opposing the ISIS and limiting its support to merely accommodating Syrian migrants, a number of Turkish-Kurds are already reported to have joined the Kurdish fighters in Kobane to contain and roll back the ISIS.
As a result of these developments and the ethnic and sectarian colors this conflict is assuming, it becomes evident that the conflict is going to engulf the entire region directly or indirectly. The recipe for an implosion seems to be in the making; for, where the ISIS has divided countries against one another, it has also become a reason for greater internal unity among such ethnic minorities as Kurds. Their success, if they succeed, against the ISIS would give them enough confidence to fight, that is launch an armed struggle against Turkey, Iran and Syria, to create their own separate homeland in the Middle East—hence, more conflict and more loss of life and property.
Already, the Israeli government has expressed its open support for a separate Kurdistan. The creation of a separate Kurdistan is not merely creation of one state only; it involves a drastic re-make of many states in the Middle East; and, the US and its allies would do everything possible to make it happen. It is perhaps for this reason that they are neither seriously committing their forces to contain the ISIS nor are going to do it in the near future. For them, the best course is to play the game through their regional allies and pave the way for a re-structured Middle East that would more suitably serve their geo-political and economic interests.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.