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How to Turn a Region Into a Graveyard

Uncle Sam’s New Backyard

by ALAIN GRESH

When the US decided that its backyard would in future be a greater Middle East –from Pakistan to Morocco –it imagined that it could rearrange the region to suit itself. The results have been disastrous and will be long-lasting.

The United States undersecretary of state, Nicholas Burns, said this year: "Ten years ago Europe was the epicentre of American foreign policy. This was how things stood from April 1917, when Woodrow Wilson sent one million American troops to the Western Front, through to President Clinton’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999. For the better part of the 20th century, Europe was our primary, vital focus." But, he added, everything had changed and the Middle East was now, for President George Bush and his successors, "the place that Europe once was for the administrations of the 20th century" .

President Bush had said much the same a while earlier: "The challenge playing out across the broader Middle East is more than a military conflict. It is the decisive ideological struggle of our time. On one side are those who believe in freedom and moderation. On the other side are extremists who kill the innocent, and have declared their intention to destroy our way of life" .

This broader Middle East is an ill-defined area extending from Pakistan, through the Horn of Africa to Morocco. Since 9/11 it has become the main theatre for the deployment of US military power and the decisive, even the sole, battlefield in what the US sees as a global conflict. The region’s oil resources and strategic position, and the presence of Israel, have made it a US priority, particularly since the French and British began to withdraw after 1956. As Philippe Croz-Vincent has pointed out in a subtle analysis of the "American moment", the Middle East has replaced Latin America as the US backyard (Vertiges de la puissance. Le moment américain au Moyen-Orient, La Découverte, Paris, 2007). But with a major difference: Latin America was never a crucial battlefield in a third world war.

The landscape of the Middle East has been redrawn. This was the objective of Pentagon strategists and the neo-conservatives; but it is doubtful whether the results match their dreams of remodelling the region to secure the lasting hold that the French and British established after the first world war.

Western forces are directly involved in ferocious conflicts across the broader Middle East. Afghanistan has collapsed into chaos, dragging US and Nato troops down with it. It will be hard to heal the wounds in Iraq, where religious and ethnic rivalries and resistance to foreign occupation have caused hundreds of thousands of casualties –more, according to some observers, than the Rwandan genocide.

Lebanon is mired in a silent civil war between Fuad Siniora’s government and the opposition, centred on Hizbullah and Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement; despite a significant UN presence, the war with Israel could resume at any moment. Colonization and repression have accelerated the geographical and social fragmentation of Palestine, and the possibly irreversible collapse of the national movement. Since Ethiopia’s US-backed intervention in December 2006, Somalia has been called the "new front in the war on terror". Then there are Darfur, the tensions in Pakistan, a "terrorist threat" in North Africa and the possibility of a new confrontation between Syria and Israel.

All these conflicts have been subsumed into a US world view that projects a specific meaning on to them. During and after the cold war, the US (like the Soviet Union) viewed any crisis in the light of the East-West conflict. So the issue in Nicaragua during the 1970s and 1980s was not the Sandinista struggle against a brutal dictatorship in an attempt to build a fairer society, but the danger that the country might become part of an "evil empire" . This cost the people of Nicaragua a decade of war and destruction. The US is indifferent to the problems of the Palestinians, the crisis in Somalia or the sectarian conflict in Lebanon; it is fixated on a global confrontation between good and evil. And this discourse feeds al-Qaida’s vision of a continuing war against Jews and crusaders.

This dichotomy has turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, which local forces have exploited for their own ends. Somalia’s transitional federal government –corrupt, incompetent warlords –persuaded the White House that international terrorism was at work. The US responded by encouraging Ethiopian military intervention in an attempt to expel the Union of Islamic Courts forces that had seized Mogadishu six months previously . Global preconceptions eclipsed the real internal situation. Christian Ethiopia’s invasion of its Muslim neighbour served only to enhance the credibility of ultra-radical Islamist groups.

Lebanon is a fragile entity that depends upon a subtle sectarian alchemy. By deciding to support one side against the other, the US and France made any internal resolution more difficult. Lebanon has become a battleground where the West and its allies can confront Iran and Syria. And any compromise, however necessary, is in danger of being perceived as a victory for the "forces of evil".

As they have multiplied, the conflicts have become interrelated. Weapons, combatants and skills move across porous frontiers, sometimes in the wake of hundreds of thousands of refugees driven into exile by the fighting. Over the past two years combat techniques pioneered in Iraq have spread to Afghanistan –the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against troop transports, and suicide bombings, which were unknown during the Soviet occupation (and which have now also spread to Algeria).

This summer, in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon, hundreds of fighters, many of them foreigners who fought in Iraq, held out for more than three months against the Lebanese army. There are thousands of Arab, Pakistani and central Asian combatants now on the loose, all trained in Iraq. Others, trained by the US and Pakistan to resist the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, migrated to terrorist groups in Egypt, Algeria and elsewhere, as well as into al-Qaida. All these wars have encouraged a profitable trade: weapons handed out to the Iraqi security forces are now in the hands of Turkish criminals.

All this, on top of decades of dictatorship and corruption, has helped weaken states in the region. Some, like Afghanistan, have collapsed. The current break-up of Iraq is not due solely to the present conflict. A 13-year embargo (1990-2003) undermined the state and opened the door to Salafist (Sunni) influence, which filtered in along clandestine routes from Jordan with food, medicine, weapons and radical ideas. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Syria, unable to ignore the instability on their borders, are all directly or indirectly pursuing their own agendas within Iraq. Attempts to rebuild central authority in Lebanon have fizzled out. The Palestinian Authority is dependent upon foreign military and economic aid, and the support of the Israeli government. Areas like Iraqi Kurdistan and Gaza are becoming autonomous and feeding the separatist ambitions of Turkey’s Kurds and the Baluch of Iran and Pakistan.

The unprecedented influence of armed groups makes any negotiation more difficult. They hold the whip hand in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Hizbullah dominates Lebanon; Hamas controls Gaza. They have proved formidably effective against the US in Iraq and against Nato in Afghanistan.

In Lebanon, Hizbullah held out for 33 days against the Israelis and changed the rules of the game: for the first time since 1948-49 a significant number of Israeli civilians were forced to abandon their homes. Despite being holed up in Gaza, Hamas is still capable of launching rockets into Israel. (On October 7 a Katyusha-type missile, more accurate and of longer range than the Qassam, was fired from Gaza into Israel.)

Rudimentary, but effective and easily replaceable, munitions (IEDs, Qassam rockets, anti-tank weapons) define the limits of US and Israeli military power.
The late Ze’ev Schiff, military correspondent of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, gave a realistic assessment: "Even if we declare dozens of times that Hamas is under pressure and wants a ceasefire, it will not erase the fact that in the battle for Sderot, Israel has in effect been defeated [it] is experiencing something in Sderot that it has not experienced since the war of independence, if ever: the enemy has silenced an entire city and brought normal life there to a halt" .
The political impasse in Palestine, the fragmentation of states and US military interventions have created a suicidal sense of despair and lend weight to the extremist assertions of al-Qaida.

On August 31, 2006, following the kidnapping in Gaza by an unknown group of two Fox News journalists, the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan published an article on the third generation of Islamist militants emerging in Palestine to challenge Hamas and Islamic Jihad. They were described as having no mass support, rejecting any compromise, refusing to play by the rules of the political game, not targeting just Israelis and not limiting their demands to Palestine. The ability of groups claiming allegiance to al-Qaida to develop in Iraq and Afghanistan, to penetrate the Palestinian camps in Lebanon and establish themselves in North Africa and Somalia demonstrates the pressure that ideological extremism is capable of exerting on fragile borders.

The nationalism that has structured the broader Middle East since 1918 is now under threat from the resurgence of ethnic and religious identity –a process encouraged, consciously or not, by General David Petraeus, the current US commander in Iraq, who led the 101st Airborne Division that captured Mosul in 2003.

One of his first decisions was to create an elected council to represent the city, with separate polls for Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens and Christians. No mention of Iraqis. By reducing the region to a mosaic of minorities, US policy forces everyone to identify with their community, to the detriment of any national or other loyalty. This undermines national cohesion and fosters conflict in Iraq now and possibly in Syria and Iran tomorrow. It encourages outside regional or international parties to intervene, manipulating local factions in pursuit of their own interests. Israel has been particularly guilty of this since the 1980s.

During Bush’s first term, the neocons developed the doctrine of "constructive instability" in the Middle East . As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said while Israel was bombing Lebanon in July 2006: "What we’re seeing here is, in a sense, the growing –the birth pangs of a new Middle East; and whatever we do, we have to be certain that we’re pushing forward to the new Middle East, not going back to the old Middle East."

The cynicism of her remarks provoked caustic comments at the time, but she was, in a sense, right: since 9/11 we have witnessed the emergence of a new Middle East that bears no resemblance to anything that US politicians might have envisaged, and which has become a major and lasting destabilising factor in the world.

ALAIN GRESH is editor of Le Monde diplomatique and a specialist on the Middle East

Translated by Donald Hounam

Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair write: This article appears in the November edition of the excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features one or two articles from LMD every month.