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Power Holds on to the Bitter End

Borders Without Scruples

by NORMAN BALL

“International borders are never completely just. But the degree of injustice they inflict upon those whom frontiers force together or separate makes an enormous difference — often the difference between freedom and oppression, tolerance and atrocity, the rule of law and terrorism, or even peace and war.…Accepting that international statecraft has never developed effective tools — short of war — for readjusting faulty borders, a mental effort to grasp the Middle East’s ‘organic’ frontiers nonetheless helps us understand the extent of the difficulties we face and will continue to face. We are dealing with colossal, man-made deformities that will not stop generating hatred and violence until they are corrected.”

—from “Blood Borders: How a Better Middle East Would Look”, Armed Forces Journal (AFJ), June 2006”, by Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Peters

What is a nation-state ever but a crude perimeter around a discrete subset of man and his manmade “deformities”? Both in her radically reconfigured 2006 map known as the New Middle East (such an Americanism not unlike New Improved Tide!) and her prescribed manner to achieve it (via ‘constructive chaos’ i.e. war; ah, the banal evil of euphemistic abstractions!), U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sought a solution to the problem of poorly-drawn, and thus violence-prone, borders through the violent imposition of, well, new borders. Alas, when the cure is the disease, the syndrome is a circle. For whiter whites, rinse, wash, repeat.

Aptly timed and doubtless coordinated, Lt. Col. Ralph Peter’s (ret.) 2006 book (quoted above) echoes the non-virtuous circle that Rice’s fruitful chaos rushes to complete. Peters’ ‘ineffective tool’ of statecraft, war, can only be mitigated, it seems, by more application of same. That’s right, only war can stave off war. No doubt this cogent piece of Orwellian doublethink was music to the tanks of the military industrial complex. The fact is poverty, income disparity, sectarian and tribal divides, not to mention the West’s propensity for regional machinations (of which border-fiddling is one) form an underlying, indigenous and highly complex disease pattern to which border overlays are, at best, a surface irritant. Depending on the depths of one’s cynicism, it could be argued all those grinding and seemingly intractable social ills (has anyone ever really tried to render them more tractable?) promise a surfeit of what the West really seeks: prolific, inexhaustible and lucrative regional frictions.

If one looks even further between the lines, there lurks a more profound non-indigenous disease trudged in on the heels of arriving Westerners. This smallpox of the psyche, one might call Freudian transference. Indeed the planks in our own eyes never cease to amaze with their ability to parse the specks of sawdust in the eyes of our distant brothers. Though the western tendency to impose itself travels under a host of socioeconomic terms—mercantilism, colonialism, cultural hegemony, the Crusades—(such macro deflections are routinely invoked by the aggrieved individual as a means to salvaging personal dignity and honor) what we really seek is an expunging of our sins on the backs of rude and swarthy savages. Furthermore the colonized, who must live the indignities every day, feel the shadowy impartation of which economic exploitation becomes but one lurid and visible feature. What were the Crusades after all but the Superego arrived to hunt down and redeem the Id?

This oddest of maladies might best be called expansionist xenophobia as it involves quarantining ourselves from the imagined diseases borne by third-world strangers (or are they the personification of disease itself?), an especially tall order since it is we who have sought historically to inflict ourselves upon them. Ultimately then, the fault lies not within our lines, but within ourselves. Hence the Sunni’s recourse to “‘psychological warfare” specifically the tactic Conflict Forum’s Alistair Crooke refers to as “exhausting and vexing” the interlopers by holding up a mirror upon which the latters’ inherent contradictions must be gazed at and ultimately retreated from. To the extent we are not who we think we are, we become even less self-recognizable (Conrad’s Kurtz might say) in the estranging embrace of faraway lands. Hegemony is an “elaborate mechanism” (Crooke) which, among other things, elaborates our alienation, itself the very animus compelling our escape to places unknown. (See ‘The Inevitable Has Happened In Egypt’; by Alastair Crooke, Al-Monitor; August 18, 2013)

Technology adds its own porosity to the business of borders. Affordable handheld devices are prying things open. Universally condemned and feared by the powerful, Wikileaks shines a light on the most verboten state secrets. Twitter is street-level spirit armed with global reach. As journalism expires in corporate gulags, citizen cellphones inherit the Fourth Estate. There are shards of light peeking through power’s shuttered corridors. The House of Saud is in conniptions over a blogger who offers detailed descriptions of one corrupt business dealing after another. These are the shots heard round the world that can usher in world-changing events. Against these asynchronous eruptions, power does its frantic best at playing whack-a-mole. Whether in the form of suitcase nuke baggage handler or brave freedom fighter, the danger of one man becomes incalculable. While humanity fears the first, Power, it should be noted, can tolerate neither. All this has the potential of becoming good news for the People, except Julian Assange cautions about the digital footrace underway right now between state surveillance and the progressive cyberpunk culture. From one small room within London’s Ecuadorian Embassy, the future looks, let us say, very sanguine indeed.

This over-here, over-there bifurcation creates a scattershot of Cartesian planarities and two-dimensional partitions: roadmaps to peace, arcs of influence, red lines, green zones, pre-1967 borders, 38th parallels, etc. If you listen closely you can hear the NFL trope of 1st and ten within the red zone rattling in amidst the geo-politesse. The home crowd wants to roar so badly its hurts. Alas the Middle East clock never runs down. It’s been fourth and inches for centuries. No less, the American mind yearns to trade pens on an aircraft carrier with a contrite foe. And should you fail to report to the main deck like a proper good sport by God we’ll send our own man and declare victory all by ourselves. America will not be deprived of its pomp. Hell, half the reason we do this shit is for the self-congratulatory pats on the ass at mission’s end. Such bad cricket that the world will not allow us to make a game of it!

Hubris as always is the team captain. One people cannot paint a line across another as no border can stand when the human spirit is so moved. Humanity conforms more to the wavelike spirit of quantum—wind, water, love, intentionality—whereas borders signal a departed world of Newtonian fixities: barbed-wire, gates, towers, checkpoints. Of course the world of fixed addresses provides at the very least devils the State knows, if not outright familiar comforts:

“We are no longer talking about a fight against groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, which have established addresses for an Israeli military response and discernible targets against which Israel could wage war. The new terror groups, collectively known as global jihad, are operating along the country’s borders as small autonomous cells without permanent addresses or a supreme leader.” —from “Israel’s New Adversary: Global Jihad”, Al-Monitor, August 23, 2103 by Shlomi Eldar

Birds of a feather prefer contending together. Nations seek the comfort of their own, the better to exchange their bombs and forge their alliances. How existentially vexing it becomes fighting a stateless foe especially when said foe is an infectious idea borne by men, one example of which Crooke has recently taken to calling the borderless ‘idea’ of Salafist Jihadism against whose main tactic of nation-state “vexation and exhaustion…Saudi Arabia now [seems most] ripe.” So much for the death of ideas, or at least their programmatic amalgams, ideologies; global jihadism ‘survives’ as an idea only because it is conceptually dead on arrival. Jihadism is the negation of thought. It is nihilism.

In that “colossally deformed” region (Peters), the Middle East, the nation-state constructs of Sykes-Picot did not pretend a social contract in any chaste Lockian sense. Everything about them screamed top-down imposition (not least of all the geographic composition of the Agreement’s signatories: Britain, France and Russia). In fact, they are overtly cynical ‘antisocial contracts’ established between a West eager for corruptible footholds and a Western-trained third-world elite only too eager to oblige. There’s never a shortage of well-heeled aspirants and latent megalomaniacs ready to take up the reins of reign. Who wouldn’t want to run a bleedin’ country? Think of the perks! Once statehood is assigned, a lockbox is opened to which IMF loans can safely be deposited; a national anthem’s composed, a nice flag’s stitched, a comfy chair at the UN is secured; then, photo ops galore with Leaders of the Free World, a state jet, lethal new toys and cooperative military exercises i.e. all the swank accoutrements of ‘Western arrival’. Corruption is the lingua franca of these contrived realms. Banish all talk of cleaning things up.

Borders are the common man’s trap whose jaws he eternally mistakes for a protective embrace. Marx was at his most adroit skipping over them entirely to address workers of the world. The nation-state makes the game a bite-sized, can-do business, each with a teller window (an IMF-approved Central Bank) complete with stateside on-the-hook peons surrounded by menacing border guards with strip search privileges demanding stamped travel papers—and that’s when you’re trying to leave. Defensible borders are an indefensible trope-made-flesh through the power of manipulated fear. Jingoism eats and sleeps borders. Ruinous national debt makes it bones in war, really, the lucrative harvesting of the friction between borders.

Driving through West Virginia recently, I encountered a billboard, God Bless Our Troops: They’re Fighting for Our Freedom, to which I immediately thought God bless the mountain folk, my Scotch-Irish kin, decent to a fault, and to the children they unquestioningly offer up time and again. One wonders, what will happen first, exhaustion or insight? Yet, how much greater the chance of being taken out by a domestic drone patrolling Interstate-81 than the Charlestown arm of al Qaeda, much less an amphibious battalion of Taliban? For God’s sake, wake up Lil Abner! Map lines are not painted on the ground. They’re painted on the mind. So how do you perceive them, comrade—as a moat to lock invaders out or a wall to lock good people in?

But enough of Appalachian credulity and moonshine as a far better buzz can be had shuttling oil, guns and drugs around the world stage. There’s that cousin of Freudian transference, cognitive dissonance (itself a variant of doublethink), which allows newly constructed bridges in Bagdad courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers to happen alongside crumbling infrastructure in Charlestown. Hegemony may be, as Zbigniew Brzezinski argues, old as man himself. But we must try to starve the beast at home, especially as it’s doing all it can to starve us out of house and home by indulging ruinous international (mis)adventure. What exactly is this unhinged will-to-power monstrosity that offers no clear benefit to the populations of either side?

Localism hardly argues for the erasure of national borders but merely a right-sizing of them, i.e. returning the international stage to appropriate scale. The daily tenor of my life, your life, the average Egyptian’s life is most profoundly affected by local phenomena: weather, traffic, air quality, the safety of our streets and schools. Look at the massive commonalities that are being deliberately concealed from us, all to maintain a credible war footing. Frankly if Americans at-large have ever reaped the benefit of any of these hegemonic exercises, I am at a loss for them.

Fair enough, but we’ll have better luck revoking oxygen than reforming the currency of hegemony’s greasy handshake. The venality of secular empire-building sits perhaps with singular awkwardness on Islam’s shoulders, as the latter is more poor man’s Rio Grande than usurious bastion of Ponzi-led prosperity. Nor is this a membership drive for Islam. Lefties and economic determinists may be right to call it yet one more brand of opiate. What Islam furnishes though, at the present moment, are the particularities of a universal human aspiration for dignity and some semblance of self-determination. Entrenched power perennially demonizes today’s more vocal particularities in the hopes that the perennial, underlying and universal grievances which inform all temporal particularities are averted yet again. With all due respect to devout believers (and, again, with no comment to offer on Islam’s truth-content), political Islam is, at the very least, a potent narrative vehicle for expressing the grievances of the region’s poor. What other vehicle do they have, Egypt’s ADHD version of democracy?

Near-universal aversion to political Islam (best displayed in the utter silence to the brutal crackdown on Egypt’s MB) is a telling clue the broadest status quo perceives an elemental, clear-and-present danger in it. There isn’t one accretion of power (barring of course the hapless Erdogan) that holds nothing but contempt for the Muslim Brotherhood: The Egyptian Deep State, The Gulf Monarchies, Russia and China (each with its own domestic ‘Muslim problem’), more radical elements of Egyptian Islamism, more moderate elements of Egyptian Islamism, the Copts, the predominantly Shiite Persians, Syria’s Assad, The Palestinians (nursing a sense of betrayal over Morsi’s Israeli sympathies). An especially shameful calling-out goes to the so-called ‘liberal’ secularist groups in Egypt who discarded all that democracy rot to throw their support behind the coup. My God, is anybody left? Oh yes, we Americans or at least that great American proxy-specter, the CIA. Of course American cynicism may be so fatuously self-assured at this point that we accept whoever ascends to the top of the heap, knowing any top dog must invariably do the IMF shuffle (a banking euphemism for ‘our bidding’). Certainly Morsi was up to that as will be, most likely, the Egyptian military (though Sissi is a fascinating wildcard for reasons to be discussed in subsequent outings). So in an odd sense, do we really count anymore in such quaint parochial matters as abetting the right thing? America’s profound dispiritedness and military-economy cooptation is truly a painful thing to behold.

So the MB, a disciplined movement with an eighty-year record of ‘socialized’ behavior, met with no one’s approval, except of course large swathes of the People. Just wait until we get a gander at the nihilistic shadow-form soon to rise from its ashes. The message is patently clear: “democracy will not be making itself available to Islamism—and that’s final”. As Crooke points out, disinviting Islamism from the democratic process only succeeds in inviting jihadist Salafism to discard democracy, hardly a tough pill for the harbingers of a global Caliphate to swallow, yet odd that the secular West should be the prescribing physician.

Maps, and little else, oblige a narrative narrated by states. Thus many bright seekers are to be forgiven for running afoul in Rand-McNally. Viewed in the proper context (i.e. absent the cartographer’s ink-besotted hubris), the House of Saud is little more than a criminal family enterprise with a flag; oh yes, and some vague self-assigned mandate to act as the ‘guardian of Islam’ until of course the family business becomes threatened and huge swathes of Islam, no longer fortuitous pretenses, are deemed the enemy. I mean, you’re Jones, I’m Doe, they’re al Saud. Oh alright, that’s a little disingenuous. How much oil do you have in your basement?

Hegel teaches that internal contradictions, swelled to canyon-esque proportions, become impassable. The momentum of history is a wellspring that brooks no dam. Invariably some dialectic weighs in, often convulsively, to forge a third way. Take us to the bridge, by Georg! The House of Saud is despised by an overwhelming majority of its people. Its in-country ‘friends’ comport the honor of thieves. Imagine if the Peak Oil folks are even halfway right and the Ghawar Field is at peak production. So, with the national treasure more under the bridge than in the ground, 25% of the Saudi population never managed to swim out of abject poverty?! Can anyone say ‘looming fierce populist backlash’?

Radical geopolitical relativism is one way to navigate wholly disrupted narratives. We deserve the veering plot we sow. The death of the author is post-modernism’s own version of nihilism. No action proceeds predictably from another. Planning horizons are kaput. The noosphere only accelerates the incoherence. Perhaps in such environments, the monomaniac is king. Frankly, what does it say of our own moral compass when we forge fair-weather friendships with unwavering nihilists? Or if you’re lost to moral compasses, what does it say of our intellectual compass when we’re seen darting distractedly over the maps of our own muddled making. Keystone Cops need little help trampling their own thin blue lines.

There is a litmus test for human decency which involves seeing only the pejorative in chaos. Indeed there may be no more consummate tyrant than the naiveté of decent men. This New Disorder may front a Weird New Order of the most perverse kind. Have we been reduced to military industrial complex cashiering, a CIA fiefdom here, a DOD fiefdom there, arm sales all round? Are bankable factions the real game i.e. any excuse to mobilize material and fund a revolving cast of Contras becomes gladly entertained? Create a pretense for moving shit around and boxes are bound to fall off the back of the truck. Chaos is money in the bank for someone, not to mention its own meretricious brand of power. If you really want to rob a bank, start a war that necessitates the shipment of billions of palleted dollars. Then, steal the palettes from a Baghdad warehouse. The fog of war meets the Great Train Robbery. How brilliant in the most psychopathic way. As my mother used to almost say, the tail that wags a mad dog is crazy like a fox in the henhouse. Eisenhower couldn’t have imagined the deformations the Complex would ultimately inflict upon the world.

Spirituality deepens with deprivation. Separation of church and state always seemed better suited to milquetoast Episcopalians preoccupied with middle-class striving. A fact-finding Caliph would be right to ask, how does one banish a borderless soul to the perdition of boxed-in Sundays? Indeed in the 1951 book based on his American stay (“The America I Have Seen”), Muslim Brotherhood founder Sayyid Qutb marvels at America’s penchant for building churches even as he cites her people’s shocking remove from the ‘spirituality of religion’. One proselyte’s rather spurious opinion perhaps, and yet cynics without borders wish to pitch an observation: America’s ubiquitous places of worship are owed in no small part to godless fiscal policy and the Free Exercise Clause’s tax exemption boondoggle. Qutb also speaks of the profound nihilistic void he encounters in middle America—and this at a time and place the Tea Baggers, if not most of us, would regard as our golden age!

But, back to that expedience, al Qaeda, less than 300 men before their disaffections were ‘institutionalized’ (Crooke), proliferated and enshrined in a narrative whose Western authors sought a durable bogeyman and a killer payday. Back in the day, you could have probably bought those kids apartments in Boise and they would have become unflappable Episcopalians for life. But that’s why you and I never get anywhere. We don’t think big! Small potatoes, Idaho—given especially what thoroughly useful engines they (and the thousands who bought their poster) have become. They were made to be the cornerstone of a highly elastic terror industry instead; simultaneously on ‘our side’ in Syria and ‘the other side’ in Egypt after doing a stint on ‘the other side’ in Afghanistan before joining ‘our side’ in Libya. So is the U.S. narrative naively contradicted or is it madness by design or simply madness? (As the Arab Spring is one more chapter in a winter of eternal discontent. I call upon all remaining responsible journalists to retire that frostbitten descriptor. There’s little point adding to the narrative miscues.)

Back when NATO’s future zone of responsibility still favored loin clothes (and importantly, well before the Abrahamic faiths, certainly Islam) there were Egyptian, Babylonian, Syrian and Persian civilizations. Even by the tenth century as Benson Bobrick reports in his book, “The Caliph’s Splendor”, London was a veritable “shabby town” while the Andalusian city of Córdoba, under the rule of Caliph Al Hakam II, boasted 200,000 homes, 300 mosques, 50 hospitals and 70 libraries. Thus the very notion of a modern Saudi state (essentially a European colonial invention, though vestiges of prior quasi-states date back to the 18th century) prosecuting war against these ancient empires is truly laughable. The Saudi monarchy would be hard-pressed to defend its princesses against midnight burqa-raids from bloated princelings. As for civil unrest, who would put it down, impoverished Pakistani and Indonesian mercenaries, the militia arm of the Filipina maid brigade? The Sunni Rapid Response Force that Prince Bandar-Bush assembles (Saudi Arabia’s answer to the French Foreign Legion) is a potentate’s pipedream, veritable killer maids astride Maginot Lines. You cannot subcontract yourself out of profound illegitimacy forever, not when human spirit has been so consummately enflamed; not when the maid staff plots to kill you in your beds too.

Absolute corruption is the weakest of all power formulations. What was fanned in Damascus and Cairo by Riyadh will find its way to Riyadh. Bandar’s mission to Russia, the eastbound forging of links with China, Indonesia and Pakistan, the brazen support of a military junta in Egypt against a popularly-elected Islamist government (Before the frantic machinations of manufactured consent, a July 10 Egyptian Centre for Media Studies poll showed 26% support among Egyptians for the coup with 74% opposed or of no opinion.)—all point to a family keenly aware of its own untenable position and, if denial would only allow it, its nearing demise.

Power holds on beyond the bitter end. I’m reminded of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s final 1989 speech before Bucharesters out for blood. Believing his socialist bromides will as always elate the shipped-in crowd, he thanks ‘the organizers of the event.’ The grainy video (available of course on Youtube) plays like Triumph of the Will, Interrupted. His self-belief complete and eerily hermetic, Ceauşescu repeatedly demands calm. But it’s useless. You can feel his power dissipating like a small canister of inert gas. Four days later he’d be dead. The point is even crazy old Ceauşescu had to be seen courting the petticoats of legitimacy. Sham elections are a ritual few dictators will part with. Their own sense of legitimacy craves the rote ballot box and damn it, they want a landslide! Not so the House of Saud, a stupendous vacuum among nations presiding atop a cartographer’s sleight-of-hand. In a sense, all the Saudis really have are borders—with oil wells inside; a House built on sand leached with oil. Thus, there’ll be no speeches, nor late-game gestures to curry legitimacy, assert sovereignty and the like. Legitimacy has never been a vexing point of debate. Make no mistake though. The Kingdom will bring down hell on earth before washing out like a bad dream into the Arabian, nay Persian, Gulf.

Norman Ball is a Virginia-based writer, poet and businessman. His new book is Between River and Rock: How I Resolved Television in Six Easy Payments. He can be reached at returntoone@hotmail.com