Remapping the Middle East


As the Bush Administration beats the war trumpets against Iraq, a remarkable similarity can be discerned between the Middle East today and eighty years ago. The important question is whether the United States is likely to succeed in reshaping the strategic landscape in this troubled region more than did the British. There is a legacy of imperial domination, trickery, un-kept promises, and double-speak, all of which have combined to undermine the notion that any progress or healthy transformation, could ever emanate from dealing with the West, be that at the military, diplomatic, or economic levels.

Arab lands have been conquered military and through diplomatic means under presumed peace conditions. Military campaigns were disguised as humanitarian missions designed to bring democracy and human rights to supposedly un-enlightened and backward societies. In fact, during the past two centuries, Western empires have mapped and re-mapped the Middle East repeatedly. They appointed, promoted, demoted, and dethroned local leaders to suit their strategic interests. One thing remained consistent and was omnipresent in their successive attempts to readjust borders and consolidate hegemonies: the availability of local demons to justify the frequent strategic reshaping and remapping.

One hundred and seventy years ago, Mohamed Ali of Egypt was declared a threat to free trade and was overthrown in favor of weak successors. Four decades later, Ahmed Urabi was removed from office and Egypt became a British occupied country (1882). A long line of successors, who pursued an independent course, provided the empire the necessary pretext to intervene. All the way from Sa’ad Zaghlul during the First World War period, to Saddam Hussein, with Rashid Ali Kilani, Nasser, Ben Bella, and Qaddafi, in between, a sense of threat kept the West busy fine tuning the empire to insure the perpetual dependency of the natives. Irrespective of their level of rationality, the Arab demons were declared a threat either to their own people, to their neighbors, to regional; stability, to America’s standard of living or even to US national security, if not to the heart of American cities. Nasser was declared a mad man bent on wanting to throw the Jews in the sea. Reagan described Qaddafi as a mad dog, a terrorist and a looney tune. George W. Bush described Saddam Hussein as a “nuclear holy warrior.”

The present build- up against Iraq can be understood against the background of this imperial legacy. It is time to reshape the empire, to reallocate power, including “ending states,” in the words of Paul Wolfowitz, and not only to create “regime change.” If the people of the Arab world are incapable of effecting a circulation of elites, we will do it for them. Never mind the tyrants, whom we created, sponsored or kept in power to look after western interests-all the way from Nuri al-Said in monarchical Iraq, to the Saudi dynasty, the Hashemites, the Shah of Iran, Sadat and Mubarak. We treated them just as we treated Marcos, Mobutu, Suharto, Pinochet and the Vietnam generals. And we are prepared to depose them just as we deposed Noriega, Diem and are now threatening to depose Saddam. It may even be time to bring about a regime change in our favorite countries such as Saudi Arabia and may be Egypt, since their leaders are no longer presumed to be assets and became liabilities. These two countries are likely to be destabilized in the event of a war against Iraq.


Fighting a war in Iraq has nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction, but it has everything to do with re-drawing maps and reallocating resources. It is not untypical of the imperial reshuffling which has taken place over the past eight decades. Let us review briefly eight principal episodes during the past eight decades:

1. After World War I, the old empires-Britain and France- carved up the region into spheres of influence in blatant contradiction of solemn promises to grant the natives independence. Instead of sovereignty, the Arab people were subjected to a protectorate status or League of Nations mandates. Moreover, the post-war re-mapping bestowed legitimacy on a colonial settler movement, depriving the indigenous Palestinians of their right to their land and their ancestral home.

2. The Second World War arrangements brought additional suffering to the region as the destiny of its people was linked to the competition between the two new superpowers. Meanwhile, the new map showed the disappearance of Palestine and the creation of Israel in its place, with immediate blessings by the superpowers.

3. Less than a decade later, the old empires challenged the new geo-political realities and tried to reassert their hegemony. Britain and France, together with Israel, invaded Egypt in 1956 trying to defeat Nasserism, which promised the unity and independence, which eluded the Arabs after WWI. They were ordered out of Egypt by the new superpower, not out of love for Nasserism, or out of respect for Arab aspirations for independence, but as an assertion of America’s imperial role.

4. What Israel had failed to do, with Anglo-French collusion in 1956, it was able to achieve eleven years later, when it changed the maps of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Palestine in but six days. What had remained of Palestine outside Israeli control in 1948 was conquered in 1967, making the entire area laying between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean an exclusively Jewish colonial state. Meanwhile, the 15 year- old achievements of Nasserism would be undermined in accordance with US wishes. The three components including Arab unity, Arab socialism and non-alignment, seen as a threat by Washington, were largely removed from the agenda by Israel’s proxy war, which anticipated the Nixon doctrine: “We (US) provide the hose and water, while they (our Vietnamese, Iranian and Israeli surrogates) provide the firemen.” The problem with that strategy was the inability of the Iranian surrogate to carry out its duties or to even survive. With the demise of the Shah, the US concluded that its empire-building in the Middle East requires direct intervention to augment the proxy role.

5. The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon was a typical proxy action coordinated with the US, as Carter had revealed. The mutual goals were: A) to redraw the political map of Lebanon. B) to pre-empt a Palestinian state-in-formation. C) to reduce Syria to manageable proportions. Two of these goals were foiled by a determined Lebanese resistance, while the third relating to the Palestinians, had resulted in shifting the center of gravity to the inside, hence the 1987 Intifada.

Meanwhile, Saddam’s Iraq was aspiring to become a US surrogate when it invaded America’s nemesis, Iran, and was rewarded with generous agricultural credit and a delivery of biological material by none other than Rumsfeld. Ironically, we have to rely on new friends such as Robert Novak and Senator Byrd for such privileged information.

Much to his surprise, the gullible Iraqi tyrant was not able to meet America’s requirements for proxies. His ill-fated attack on Kuwait was to bring about a painful reminder that an ambitious third world leader cannot possibly be accepted by the lone super power as a pace setter in the strategic gulf.

6. Hence, America’s strategy to deal such a crippling blow to Iraq and its potential, irrespective of its leadership, in order not only to reassert its imperial role in the region vis a vis Arabs and Muslims, but to convey to Israel that the serious business of collective security in the region belongs to the superpower. Political talks and the future remapping can only take place at an international conference where even Israel would have to come to terms with its 1967 occupation, despite their strategic alliance.

7. The Bush I strategy was discarded when his successor Clinton adopted the two-pronged policy of pursuing the Oslo charade in Palestine, and containment in Iraq, which, to-gather, turned out to be nothing more than an interlude awaiting the second Bush.

8. With Bush II in power, the father’s strategy was abandoned in Iraq and Palestine. The Oslo process was allowed to die, while containment and coalition became passé. Instead, Sharon, the war criminal “cum man of peace” boards the Bush train of anti-terror, while Sharon’s allies in Washington’s think tanks and the civilian defense establishment begin to plan the next war and the next remapping. The lone voice in the Bush I administration for coalition, Colin Powell, has been silenced. Harry Belafonte described him as the slave whose privilege of living in the master’s house is dependent on good behavior; otherwise he would be banished to the plantation.


Bush I’s concept of coalition and the semblance of multilateralism has become a relic of the past in the White House of Bush I, whose neo-conservative/Zionist mentors have the greatest contempt for such constraints. When the threat was finally real on 9/11, the what- to- do became easier to justify and undertake. The fear and danger associated with it seem to have elevated pre-emption into a moral principle.

Containment now belongs to a by-gone era. It is passé for the Wolfowitzs and Perles of the world. Their world and that of their “boss” is a Hobbesian world, where the landscape is rough and evil all around, calling for a strong hand. Thus you do not wait for evil-doers to attack; you attack first. This is the new national security doctrine for the 21st century-the Bush doctrine, apparently inspired by the very little reading that has been done by George Bush. From Robert Kaplan, author of Eastward to Tartary, the President received an on-the-job-training at the White House, adding pseudo- intellectual content to his gut feeling and unstructured inclinations. This world view of the world has given Bush an incontestable sense of mission, which has been reinforced by the influence of former professor Paul Wolfowitz, who postulated that that there is no need “for proof beyond reasonable doubt.” The emphasis must be on “intentions” and “capability,” says Wolfowitz as he beats the drum of the Iraq war. There is no need for the “proof,” if we know the “intentions” and capability.” You anticipate and act, since “this is closer to a state of war than to a judicial proceeding. Such is the Wolfowitz configuration of the calculus of warfare and the cost ­benefit analysis, which has become acceptable to a hawkish circle, none of whose members has fought in a war, but seems to be ready to commit millions of the underclass to war.

Unlike 1991, Israel is not expected to remain in the closet. Bush has already reaffirmed a right of “self defense” for Israel upon meeting Sharon on his seventh visit (October 16). In fact, Israel has been pushing for this war in order to accomplish what it had failed to accomplish in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1978, 1982, and throughout the seven years of Oslo. For Israel, the war on Iraq constitutes a post-Oslo strategy. As Bush II tries to complete what his father left unfinished, Israel will be revisiting 1982 all over again. That is why when the Anglo-American Invasion of Iraq occurs, it will not only be a continuation of the same war, which began in 1990­1991, but a war whose broader agenda includes reshaping the strategic landscape in the Middle East and Central Asia. It will be the war of the civilian hawks in the Pentagon and of their allies in a number of right-wing and pro-Israel think tanks, such as the Hudson Institute, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and the Jewish Institute for National Security (JINSA), among others. It would be a war to create a pro-American regime in Iraq and enable Washington to redraw the Middle East maps of both the First and Second World wars periods. The adventure would aim to deprive Saudi Arabia of leverage over oil prices, intimidate Syria, and manipulate the domestic balance in Iran, with the purpose of eventually dismantling the Islamic Revolution. Its intent further is to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict on terms wholly agreeable to General Sharon, who remains indicted in his own country for the massacres of thousands of Palestinians in Lebanon, exactly twenty years ago.


None of these objectives has anything to do with President Bush’s declared concerns about a threat to the security of the United States. Israel’s supporters in the administration, think tanks, media, and Congress, who beat the trumpets of war, view it as providing cover for Israel to expel the Palestinians (called “transfer” in Israel), which is why the political-military elite in Israel want it and why the parrots from pro-Israel institutions in the administration are pushing so hard for it. The Israeli connection was recently exposed in the Israeli press by a number of respected Israeli analysts. One such person is Meron Benvinisti, the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, who made the link last month in the daily newspaper Ha’aretz between Israel’s advocacy of an American war against Iraq and Israel’s overall objective of ethnic cleansing in the West Bank. Israeli Major Gen. Yitzhak Eitan hinted at the strong connection between a war in Iraq and the war against the Palestinians when he said that such a war would enable Israel to “execute the old Jordanian option – expelling hundreds of thousands of Palestinians across the Jordan River.” Moreover, attitudes of the Israeli leadership were underscored by Israeli public opinion: a survey in the largest-circulation Israeli daily Maariv, conducted in August 2002, revealed that 57 percent of Israelis were in favor of an American attack on Iraq to unseat Saddam Hussein.

The leading war advocates in this country include Richard Perle, head of the Defense Advisory Board and resident fellow of the AEI, his close friend and political ally at AEI, David Wurmser of the Hudson Institute. Mr Wurmser’s wife, Meyrav, is co-founder, along with Colonel Yigal Carmon, formerly of Israeli military intelligence of the Middle East Media Research Institute (Memri), which translates and distributes articles that specialize in Arab bashing. Bush’s advisors pushing this war also include Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Defense Secretary, Douglas Feith, another Deputy Defense Secretary, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Chief of Staff of Vice President Cheney’s Office, Michael Rubin, a specialist on Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, who recently arrived from yet another pro-Israel lobby, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and many others who cannot be included here due to space limitations. Administration hawks pushing this war such as Vice President, Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, are all on record supporting Sharon’s draconian measures in the occupied territories. Rumsfeld is the first senior US public official who used the phrase “the so-called occupied territories” in describing the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Rice defended the Israeli strategy of pre-emption instead of deterrence or containment, and she considers that policy worthy of duplication in Iraq and on a global scale.

As the US and UK maintains almost daily bombing of Iraq, and amidst the constant reports about an imminent full-scale war, the message is clear: new rules of international conduct are being drafted. The proposed and forthcoming war on Iraq, the aerial bombardment of Yugoslavia in 1999, and the full-scale invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 illustrate that the theater of operations for the US military is now world- wide. A single war in these theatres, such as in Iraq, would cost according to the White House economic advisor an estimated $100-200 billion plus additional billions for reconstruction and would place the post-World War II international system in great jeopardy. It is absolutely not true that Iraq constitutes a clear and present danger to the security of the United States. It would be important to ask: whose war this really is?


It would be important to ask whether the US and its principal gendarme would prove more successful than previous ventures of colonization and re-colonization since World War I. It will be prudent to ask whether Bush’s “war on terror” will eliminate or rather generate terror, chaos and destruction. Is it not time for America to review its priorities? Is it not time to re-examine the root causes of the present blowback? Is it not time to let people all over the world to live in freedom and dignity? To organize their lives and societies in accordance with their needs and not to suit the strategic proclivities of major powers? It is certainly time to repair our own inner cities, to improve health, education, public transportation, and to develop real conservation instead of using war as a policy of conservation? Is it not time for regime change– here in Washington?

NASEER ARURI is Chancellor Professor (Emeritus) at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth; Co-author of Iraq Under Siege, South End Press, 2000 and author of the forthcoming book Dishonest broker: America’s Role in Israel and Palestine. South End Press, Jan 2003. Aruri can be reached at: