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Are We Really at War Against Islamic Extremism?

Imagine going to your doctor and being told that, based on an initial examination, you may very well have a serious and fast-moving form of cancer, and then being a handed a referral to see a heart specialist first thing the next morning.

I think you’d agree that a doctor acting in this way is either deeply incompetent or flat out crazy.

Either that, or she has bigger plans on her mind than actually curing you, like say, pumping up the profits at a cardiology practice where she is a silent partner.

I am reminded of this fictional doctor when I consider the actions undertaken in the Middle East by the US and its allies over the last 14 years.

We are told again and again, in both explicit and implicit ways, that we are locked in an existential struggle with Islamic extremists in that region and the rest of the world.

Assuming that this is, in fact, the case, a number of strategic emphases in that battle are—or at least should be—axiomatic.

The first would be a clear priority on attacking those places in the Islamic world where Islamic fundamentalism is most powerful and well financed.

The second would be to actively prop up those governments where the cultures of secularism, and from there, inter-group tolerance, are most highly developed.

So, which country in the Islamic world is the place where aggressive and repressive fundamentalism is most well-financed and well-institutionalized?

The answer is absolutely crystal clear: Saudi Arabia. No other country even comes close.

Moving on to the realm of secular regimes, which countries were most advanced in this regard previous to the new wave of US-led and/or US-supported interventions that began in 2003? Here again, the answer is easy: Syria, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon.

So, which country has the US supported most heartily and unquestioningly in the last 15 years?

The answer, of course, is Saudi Arabia.

If you need any confirmation of this just Google stories related to the funeral of its hereditary dictator King Abdullah in January to see how American officials of the highest rank broke off whatever they were doing at that time to go to Riyadh and snivellingly praise this very brutal ruler.

Or simply register the fact that Saudi Arabia’s nasty and bloody assault on Bahrain in 2011 and its present bloody assault on Yemen barely get any press coverage in this country or Europe. Nor do we hardly see any mention of the fact that, in addition to providing the overwhelming majority of the terrorists that carried off the 9-11 bombings, they are the prime financiers of the constellation of Islamist groups currently fighting in both Syria and Iraq.

And who, in the Arab world have the US and its allies attacked during the same period? The answer here is Iraq (2003), Lebanon (2006), Libya (2011) and Syria (2011-present).

That’s right, we have systematically attacked those societies where women can walk around uncovered in public and drive cars, where you can have a beer or a glass of wine when you want, and where Christians and other non-Muslims have lived fairly freely for centuries, while at the same time giving virtually unlimited and unqualified diplomatic and military support to the country where almost none of these things are possible.

A case of craziness?   A case of rank incompetence?

The clear tendency among those very few that even take note of this paradoxical behavior, is to chalk it all up to the “missteps” made by the people running the strategic show in Washington.

While I am the first to point out the generally low level of historical intelligence and thoughtful introspection among those running the foreign policy ship in both Washington an explanation based on such a reality truly beggars belief in this matter.

It is one thing to commit minor inconsistencies within a stated and widely presumed policy-making frame. It is quite another to consistently voice a desire for Outcome A while assiduously following policies that can produce no other eventuality than Outcome B.

So what’s going on?

In the light of history, it’s not all that hard to figure out.

All powerful and aggressive empires prize control over everything else. And their policy elites know that the biggest potential stumbling block to exercising control over the resources and/or strategically located territories they covet comes in the form cohesive polities—secular nation-states in our era—located on top of those precious materials and key pinch points.

Conversely, they understand that they can actually exercise more control of the things (both material and strategic) they desire when such places are mired in internecine conflicts which, of course, eventually engender the creation of “failed states”.

And as this that is exactly what they foment.

Lest this all seem all to neat and conspiratorial take a look at this summary from the Federal Register of the proposed aims of the Task Force on Precision Compellence of the Defense Science Board on March 13th, 2002, in the midst of the planning for the invasion of Iraq which occurred almost exactly one year later:

At these meetings the Defense Science Task Force on Precision Compellance will survey the focused use of force so as to alter regimes’ behavior, and in ways that are most promising to isolate regimes of concern from their populations and supporting organs and bureaucracies. …..Of particular relevance are the cleavage planes, where the discriminating use of force might divide the interests of different strata, political, ethnic or religious groups, or even personal rivalries. (highlights are mine)

Translated: Pentagon planning for ways to rule by divide and conquer.

The strategic planners know quite well that few parents would be willing to offer up the life of their child, not to mention the trillions that could be used to educate and clothe those same children, as well as the children of those children, for the pursuit of these classic imperial maneuvers

The answer?

Ply us with constant stories about the terrible, unprecedented (heard any good Hitler parallels lately?) dangers of Islamic extremism and assume that, in our state of induced fear and thrall, we won’t catch on to the grotesquely contradictory nature of their policies.

So far, I’d have to say they guessed right about our aptitude for basic critical thinking about these matters.

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Thomas S. Harrington is a professor of Iberian Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of the recently released  Livin’ la Vida Barroca: American Culture in a Time of Imperial Orthodoxies.

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