The close of the Second World War saw the rise of Arab nationalism, a movement that promised to unite much of the Middle East around independence and social advancement. The imposition of a Jewish theocratic state in the midst of Arab homelands no doubt accelerated this movement, as did later imperialist meddling such as the Suez intervention of 1956.
Both Nasserism and the Ba'ath Party were early vehicles of a growing nationalism centered on an Arab identity. Nasser's engagement with non-alignment in the Cold War, his secularism, his advocacy of land reform and Egyptian socialism resonated with the Arab masses. Similarly, the pan-Arab Ba'ath Party organized around unity, independence, and socialism-- all with a decidedly secular tone. Islam, rather than the basis for identity, was second to ethic national identities that proudly offered Islam to the world as a gift from the Middle Eastern peoples. This secular trend grew rapidly, resulting in a unified United Arab Republic in 1958, a development that was soon terminated by a coup in Syria.
Of course there were counter trends, reactionary trends in the Arab world that worked against the progressive, secular movement. Centered on the oil-driven dynasties, these forces, frightened by Arab nationalism, aligned themselves with the imperialists, and were vigorously anti-socialist. They offered an ideology counter posing rigid Islamic fundamentalism to secular nationalism. Of course their Western partners shared their hostility and were eager to exploit their influence and resources against Arab nationalism.
The opportunities were forthcoming with the humiliating defeats of Arab military power by the Israeli armed forces. Tarnished by these defeats, afflicted with corruption, and covertly impaired by Western and Israeli security services, the leaders of Arab nationalism began to lose support among the Arab masses.
Israel and its Western imperialist friends contrived a strategy of encouraging fundamentalism and religious sectarianism as an alternative to the Middle Eastern Enlightenment. Once the lightening rod for Arab unity and secular progressivism, the Palestinian Liberation Organization fell victim to this strategy when the Israelis disparaged the leadership of Yasir Arafat, rebuffing his concessions and mocking his weaknesses. At the same time, they sought to vitalize the influence of the religious-based Hamas among Palestinians. This strategy, like so many similar strategies, backfired when Hamas launched the Intifada that struck back effectively against the Israeli occupiers. Envisioned as a classic divide-and-conquer maneuver, the courtship of Islamic fundamentalism underestimated the deeply ingrained hostility to imperial intrigue. It was one thing to undermine Arab unity and secularism, but quite another to scorn Arab independence.
The US embraced the same tactics in its support for Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan. As an answer to the assumption of power by a secular, anti-imperialist, socialist movement and its support by the Soviet Union, the US, along with its Gulf allies, raised, armed, and assisted a merciless, sectarian fundamentalist insurgency openly contemptuous of the human rights that the West pretends to cherish.
The backfire-- or “blowback” as some have dubbed it-- came quickly and often, culminating in the deadly coordinated attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September of 2001. Thousands of innocent civilians in the US died because US policy makers, through ignorance and irresponsibility, sponsored religious zealots against the tide of democratic, secular, and progressive movements in the Middle East. While the tactic succeeded in turning back the tide of secularism in the Middle East, the tacticians failed to understand that their erstwhile Islamist allies deplored imperial manipulation as much as they hated secularism. In other words, they weren't the dupes that their “masters” wanted them to be. As the divide-and-conquer strategy collapsed, generating anti-Western violence, the Western puppeteers could only react in panic: “Terrorists!” The liberal apologists for this dangerous game offered their own term of derogation: “Islamo-fascists!”
And nothing was learned from the unholy alliance.
Once again, policy makers thought they could ride the tiger of religious sectarian intolerance and create a loyal satrapy to US interests. The US fabricated outlandish excuses to invade Iraq in 2003, though not so outlandish as to nonetheless seduce nearly the entire US intelligentsia, as Frank Rich recently recounted in a nastily angry, bitter article in New York magazine (The Stink of Baghdad, June 2-8, 2014). Rich reminds us of the hysterical reaction to absurd claims about the dangers supposedly latent in the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Cobbled together by League of Nations mandate, the British had established the country as a semi-colonial kingdom that lasted until its independence in 1958. Its brief life as a republic was afflicted with internal ethnic, religious, and political divisions. Through brutal repression of these many divisions, Hussein was able to establish a reasonably stable country, a country to be counted as one of the most outwardly secular in the Middle East at the time of the US's unprovoked massive invasion.
With the senseless slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the shearing of a fragile social fabric, and the wholesale destruction of the country's infrastructure, the US invaders and their compliant allies succeeded in sowing chaos and instability never before seen in a land once celebrated as the cradle of civilization. Quite an accomplishment for the twenty-first century super power heralding itself as the paragon of democracy and human rights!
The vandals could not leave without creating a mock democracy to accompany a massive military and security apparatus constructed to hold the bloody mess together. In 2006, the US vetted potential leaders and permitted the Iraqi parliament to “choose” the hand-picked prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. In the last week, President Obama now wants to fire him; rather, he wants the parliament to fire him and select another hand-picked prime minister. This process passes for democracy, with the scribes populating the major media in the US.
In the last month, the massive military/security apparatus has crumbled in the face of a well coordinated offensive by a ruthless, dedicated band of zealots seemingly more welcome in some parts of Iraq than the former invaders. The only thing that the warring factions in a once stable country can agree upon is their animosity towards those who pretended to liberate them from the Saddam Hussein regime.
It is a supreme-- but cruel-- irony that a country with a tenuous hold on nationhood, a country still barely beyond the legacy of colonialism, a country enjoying a rare period of secular culture and stability, was pushed back into barbarism and destructive sectarianism by a supposedly enlightened, advanced country flexing its muscles under the absurd banner of a “War on Terror.”
There is not a Hall of Shame large enough to accommodate the talk-show propagandists, witless syndicated columnists, and mindless news anchors who cheer-leaded the Iraqi debacle; but surely Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, deserves a seat near the front row. His enthusiasm and repeated mistaken projections of final victory are well documented. One of his most recent columns tells us that our attention should shift from the bloody confrontation currently bringing death and displacement to Iraq to the conflict of “the extremists vs. the environmentalists in the Middle East” (The Real War of Ideas, NYT, 6-10-14). Demonstrating his ignorance again and again, he announces that he has uncovered the environmentalists' secret: “The environmentalists think of this region [the Middle East] without borders...” He seems to overlook the important fact that all of the existing borders are largely irrational products of colonial governance, borders designed to exploit tribal and religious animosities to the benefit of colonial masters. For Friedman, history and context are nothing weighed against his latest conversation in a whirlwind tour of a region.
For another journalistic scoundrel deeply implicated in the Iraq debacle, we can turn to John Burns. In the words of Michael Munk: “As chief of the NYTimes Baghdad bureau during much of the war, [John] Burns was a notorious cheerleader for the invasion and occupation. He now blames his failure to understand how 'deeply fractured' Iraqi society was. I guess you failed to notice, John, that it wasn’t fractured before the invasion, and as Naureckas observers, 'Is it typical for countries to respond to unprovoked military invasions by becoming strong, stable democracies?'”
Burns, without a hint of contrition, now says: “I think the mistake we made was–I'm talking here about myself as well as some of my colleagues, not just at the New York Times but many publications–was not to understand how deeply fractured that society was, how strongly held those animosities were, and how they would not likely relent under any amount of American tutelage and encouragement.” (quoted by Naureckas above)
This is exactly the wrong conclusion to draw, a conclusion exposing both dishonesty and servility to US government policy. Iraq was not, as Munk reminds us, a fractured society until the US fractured it.
Moreover, Libya was not a fractured society, nor was Syria a fractured society, until the US joined with others in fracturing them. It was no coincidence that, like Iraq, both were among the most secular countries in the Middle East with relatively high standards of living, high educational levels, and developed social safety nets. Today, Libya is largely ungoverned and ungovernable, a failed state. And Syria is in the throes of an ugly civil war stoked by the US, EU, and the Gulf states.
Put simply and clearly, Iraq is not an honest mistake, as Burns would have it, but an instance of a systematic, aggressive foreign policy designed to divide and conquer the Middle East, a policy designed to use religious fundamentalism and tribalism, formerly on the wane, as an instrument against independence, nationalism, and social progress. It is the foreign policy of imperialism.
It is not only the policy of Bush, as Democratic Party stalwarts want us to believe. It is not only the incompetence of Obama, as the Right shouts. It is not the over-reach of super patriots or chicken hawks. It is not only an arrogant, unrestrained military, as many pretend. It is the willful, unwavering program of a US ruling class determined to shape the Middle East to meet the interests of elites and corporations in the US and with its allies.
The failure to face this truth guarantees that the Iraqi debacle and many more like it will bring shame to the self-styled democracies and the hypocritical bastions of human rights.