The Arc of Instability

During the second Democratic primary debate, the moderator asked Hillary Clinton about her record concerning the 2011 NATO war against Libya.  In spite of post-war Libya being effectively a failed state, Clinton regards the invasion as a success model.  Her response to John Dickerson is thus particularly telling: “Now, there has been a lot of turmoil and trouble as they [the Libyans] have tried to deal with these radical elements which you find in this arc of instability, from north Africa to Afghanistan.”

There is no sign of self-reflection by Clinton on her role – and the United States’ more generally – in creating this arc of instability.  Indeed, that North Africa and the Middle East are just lawless places with populations of radical extremists who can’t form decent, civilized societies like in the West is a common theme among journalists and political analysts.

Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rosen similarly comments, “If the Middle East is bent on convulsing itself in costly disasters, as seems unfortunately true these days, trying to play a constructive role from the sidelines rather than getting embroiled directly represents not weakness but prudence.”  An honest, informed reader must be struck by the mischaracterization of the chaos of the Middle East as an intentional, self-inflicted tragedy.  To place contemporary events in the context of decades of American intervention would not invite such ahistorical remarks.  However, it is part of the ideology of imperialism to view its victims as hopeless savages or barbarians incapable of self-determination who require the altruism of a holy, civilizing mission carried out by its conquerors.  Rosen and Clinton’s remarks follow a long line of similar commentary by British imperialists in India and American colonists justifying the extermination of the continent’s indigenous population.

Since the corporate media rarely puts events in their historical context, here is a brief (and incomplete) overview of the US’s role in the arc of instability:


In 1969, Muammar Qaddafi led a coup d’état that overthrew the pro-Western monarch of Libya.  Libya’s government would then do the unthinkable:  it nationalized foreign oil producing companies.  Libya’s vast oil wealth would no longer be siphoned off to fill the coffers of foreign capitalists.  Rather, Libya’s new government began to offer social services to its population.  The result was that by 2010, Qaddafi’s Libya ranked the highest on the Human Development Index, the lowest infant mortality and the highest life expectancy in all of Africa (Garikai Chengu called Libya “Africa’s wealthiest democracy.”  I won’t argue that point, but you can read about it here).

As Francis Boyle laboriously details in Destroying Libya and the World Order, the United States has attempted to overthrow Qadaffi since at least Ronald Reagan’s presidency.  Reagan fabricated evidence of Qaddafi’s complicity in several terrorist attacks.  Using false evidence and in violation of international law, the United States tried to assassinate Qaddafi in a bombing campaign.  It failed, but the vilification of Qaddafi’s regime did not cease.

Fast forward to the Obama administration.  In 2011, Libya, like much of North Africa and the Middle East, began to experience popular pressure to change its government.  Whatever popular elements existed in the beginning of Libya’s Arab Spring soon ended.  The United States and its NATO allies began supplying Libyan rebels with weapons, training, funding and more.  They just needed a pretense to carry out an aerial bombardment campaign.  As Maximilien Forte point out, ten myths were used to justify American intervention.  I will focus on just two: the threat of genocide and ‘responsibility to protect.’

As Forte points out, the genocide myth came from a Libyan deputy Permanent Representative to the UN who defected from Qaddafi.  President Obama, like Reagan before him, quickly accepted any allegation against Qaddafi that served American imperial interests.  The threat of Qaddafi bombing his own people in an act of genocide provided propaganda support for the United States to get the UN Security Council to apply the doctrine of ‘responsibility to protect’ to Libya (in spite of there being no real legal basis for the doctrine in international law).  The UN Resolution did not authorize NATO to carry out regime change in Libya.  Nevertheless, the United States and its NATO allies managed to violate an already illegal military intervention and overthrew Qaddafi.

There was a real threat of genocide.  The extremists that the United States armed, trained and supported targeted and killed Black Libyans.  About 50,000 Black Libyans would ultimately be massacred.  No impassioned pleas by President Obama and then Secretary of State Clinton of the US’s responsibility to protect these victims of a real genocide.  They were collateral damage in NATO’s quest to bring Libya’s oil wealth back under Western control.  Today, the CIA uses Libya as an outpost to run guns to ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition (i.e. affiliates of al-Qaida).  The chaos and instability in Libya exists due to the United States’ intervention


The United States support for Israeli oppression of Palestinians is well known.  The full history is too long to cover in such a brief overview.  In spite of right-wing rhetoric, President Obama has not been an enemy of Israel.  Arms sales to Israel continue unabated even as Israel carries out one of its routine terror campaigns in Gaza. Rather, Obama gives nearly $1.9 billion in arms to Israel as a conciliatory gift for the Iran nuclear deal.  As all US-Israel weapons trades in the past have done, these arms will surely be pointed at the defenseless Palestinian population.

The United States makes no serious attempt to prevent Israeli violence or to stop the expansion of illegal settlements.  Even so-called ‘progressive’ think-tanks like the Center for American Progress provide a platform for Netanyahu to spout lies about the reality of daily Palestinian oppression.  There has been no call for the implementation of the doctrine of ‘responsibility to protect’ on behalf of the Palestinian people by the United States.  Instead, the United States continues to vote against resolutions in both the UN Security Council and General Assembly recognizing Palestinian statehood and calling for a cessation of Israeli violence against Palestinians.

The Gulf States 

The Gulf States serve two functions in the American imperial world-system: (1) provide an unending supply of oil and (2) provide military bases from which the United States can launch operations into surrounding countries.  Both of these functions are carried out at the expense of the livelihood and freedom of the people of the Gulf States.  In order to ensure the oil flows, the United States provides military, economic and diplomatic support for repressive monarchies.  While the media pays a lot of attention to Daesh’s brutality, very little is said about how Saudi Arabia executes a person every two days.

Saudi Arabia provides economic and ideological support for extremist groups like Daesh and al-Qaida.  A principal factor in the rise and return of al-Qaida, says Patrick Cockburn, is “not [just Saudi Arabia’s] financial resources… Another factor is its propagating of Wahhabism, the fundamentalist 18th-century version of Islam that imposes sharia law, relegates women to second class citizens, and regards Shia and Sufi Muslims as heretics and apostates to be persecuted along with Christians and Jews” (The Jihadis Return, 10).  Cockburn continues, “The ideology of al-Qa’ida and ISIS draws a great deal from Wahhabism. …A striking development in the Islamic world in recent decades is the way in which Wahhabism is taking over mainstream Sunni Islam.  In one country after another Saudi Arabia is putting up the money for the training of preachers and the building of mosques” (10-11).

Saudi Arabia also serves as the region’s watchdog.  Any attempt by the people to challenge the oppressive monarchies or their country’s status as an American client state is met with brutal repression by the Saudi military.  It is in this way that the United States essentially outsources its usual role of as a repressive global police force.  For example, during the Arab Spring, protestors in Bahrain called for the end of the monarchy.  Saudi forces were quick to move into Bahrain, suppressing the protests by abducting, torturing and killing dissidents.


The United States has waged a decades long war against the people of Iraq.  The sanctions during the Clinton era deprived Iraqis of food, medical supplies and the necessary chlorine for water purification.  In the end, 500,000 Iraqis, mostly children, died as a direct result of the sanctions.  That alone is catastrophic.  Unfortunately, the tragedy just begins there.  In 2003, the Bush administration violated international law and invaded Iraq under false pretenses.  Conservative estimates of the death toll of the invasion and the subsequent occupation reach around another 500,000, though the number is likely far higher.  So from 1991 to 2011, the United States killed about a million Iraqis, some 4% of the population.  This is a veritable genocide.

In addition to the wanton disregard for Iraqi human life, the United States destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure.  Schools, hospitals, bridges, roads, sewage treatment facilities and electric power plants were destroyed in the “shock and awe” campaign.  As César Chelala writes, “Iraqis health status is a reflection of the deterioration of the country’s health system. Medical facilities, which in the 1980s were among the best in the Middle East, have deteriorated significantly after the 2003 invasion. It is estimated that during the war 12 percent of hospitals and the country’s two main public health laboratories were destroyed.”  Similar studies can confirm the deterioration of essential social services in post-sanctions/invasion Iraq including electricity infrastructure and education facilities.

While the destruction of Iraqi life and society is enough to create the conditions for extremist groups to take hold, there is another event that precipitated the formation of Daesh.  Paul Bremer, called the US’s “pro-consul” of Iraq, instituted a De-Ba’athification campaign.  The goal was to purge Iraq of all those affiliated with Saddam Hussein’s ruling Ba’ath Party.  The result was “400,000 members of the defeated Iraqi army were barred from government employment, denied pensions — and also allowed to keep their guns.”  Searching for employment, they first joined the Iraqi resistance.  Then later many joined Daesh.


The disintegration of Iraq in conjunction with severe droughts led to the beginning of the Syrian civil war.  At first, the United States hoped to replicate its ‘success’ in Libya and tried to oust Assad.  Like Libya, the US attempted to hijack popular opposition to Assad.  However, the situation was far more complicated as Russia did not wish to see Assad ousted from power and Assad managed to remain in control of key areas.

Many of America’s allies directly or indirectly support Daesh.  As mentioned above, Saudi Arabia provides critical economic and ideological support.  Turkey has also helped Daesh in two ways.  First, Daesh has been able to cross the Turkey-Syria border basically uninhibited while closing it for the Syrian Kurds who fight Daesh. Second, Turkey fears the expansion of the Syrian Kurds more than it feels threatened by Daesh.  This just continues a long history of discrimination and genocide of the Kurdish people by Turkey.  This all culminated in the bombing of Kurds by Turkish forces.

Russia and Iran are the principal foreign states fighting Daesh.  The United States harshly criticizes Russia’s bombing campaign for its civilian casualties.  Based on the US’s own disregard for civilian life in its aerial bombing campaigns and drone strikes throughout the world, we can safely dismiss this criticism as nothing more than imperial hypocrisy.  The United States’ real intentions are revealed through its action.  It did nothing as Daesh took Palmyra from Assad’s control.  The US continues to do nothing about Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States supporting Daesh financially.  It does nothing about Turkey’s lax border policy.

Instead, the US funds, trains and arms a non-existent ‘moderate’ opposition.  As Patrick Cockburn writes, “Jihadi groups ideologically close to al-Qa’ida have been relabeled as moderate if their actions are deemed supportive of US policy aims” (The Jihadis Return, 19-20).  The US has principally backed such terrorist groups as al-Nusra.
The US’s policy in Syria would be incoherent if we assumed that its stated goal of stability in Syria was serious.  This is false.  As Wikileaks has revealed, the United States planned the overthrow of Assad since at least 2006.  The plan was “to use a number of different factors to create paranoia within the Syrian government; to push it to overreact, to make it fear there’s a coup” including “foster[ing] tensions between Shiites and Sunnis.”  Far from being a source of stability, the Bush and Obama administrations have exacerbated the chaos in Syria to the detriment of the Syrian people.


In 1951, Mohamad Mossadegh was democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran.  Mossadegh championed nationalization of Iran’s oil resources, which were then largely under the control of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (precursor to BP).  After Mossadegh nationalized the AIOC, British and American intelligence services plotted the overthrow of Iran’s elected government.  In 1953, the CIA succeeded in instituting the Shah and what followed was a bloodbath of repression.  However, the UK and US were pleased as foreign companies were once again in control of Iran’s oil supply.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution brought a theocratic government to power and renationalization of the oil fields.  Predictably, the United States claims to be an enemy of Iran out of concern for democracy, religious freedom and nuclear deterrence.   The United States’ purported concern for Iranian democracy evaporates under even the slightest amount of scrutiny.  As for religious freedom, the US shows no concern for its numerous theocratic allies like Israel, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.  So again, another reason holds no water.

The case for nuclear deterrence is interesting.  Certainly nuclear weapons must be dismantled and all attempts at proliferating these horrible weapons of mass destruction stopped.  Yet, such concerns did not stop the US from helping the Shah build a nuclear reactor and providing it with weapons-grade enriched uranium.  The US also fails support efforts to impose a nuclear-free weapons zone in the Middle East.  That would require the US to take a stand against Israel’s cache of nuclear weapons. Given the US’s history of regime change in Iran and neighboring countries, it is no surprise that Iran may want to build a nuclear deterrent.  The case of Iranian instability is a reaction to decades of Western interference in Iran’s domestic affairs and, more recently, with a policy of Iranian containment.


Afghanistan is the last countries geographically on the arc of instability.  It hardly needs to be said that it figures prominently in US foreign policy, especially post-9/11.  The following story has become common knowledge even in the mainstream media: In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.  The US supported the Islamic mujahideen, including people like Osama Bin Laden, in their struggle against the Soviets.  After the Soviets withdrew, the Taliban rose to power.  Following an extreme interpretation of Islam, the Taliban instituted a harsh regime and eventually provided a refuge for the terrorist organization al-Qaida.  That last point provided a pre-text for the American invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11.

It is hard to justify the war in Afghanistan after taking a quick glance at the death and destruction caused by the American invasion.  A report issued by the Watson Institute for International Studies estimates “About 92,000 people have been killed in the Afghanistan war since 2001. More than 26,000 of those killed have been civilians. Nearly 100,000 people have been injured since 2001.”  The invasion and subsequent occupation caused 3,700,000 Afghanis to become refugees, nearly 6% of the country’s population in 2001.

Drone strikes have terrorized the people of Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.  As the 2009 Stanford report Living Under Drones showed, drone strikes routinely kill innocent civilians further radicalizing the population.  However, it was not until the publication of The Drone Papers by The Intercept that the extent of the depravity of Obama’s drone program was revealed.  Documents provided by a brave whistleblower (who will go down in history as a hero alongside Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and others) showed that during one five-month period, “nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets.”  Jeremy Scahill comments:

The documents show that the military designated people it killed in targeted strikes as EKIA — “enemy killed in action” — even if they were not the intended targets of the strike. Unless evidence posthumously emerged to prove the males killed were not terrorists or “unlawful enemy combatants,” EKIA remained their designation, according to the source. That process, he said, “is insane. But we’ve made ourselves comfortable with that. The intelligence community, JSOC, the CIA, and everybody that helps support and prop up these programs, they’re comfortable with that idea.”

The source described official U.S. government statements minimizing the number of civilian casualties inflicted by drone strikes as “exaggerating at best, if not outright lies.”

The Orwellian redefinition of innocents killed is matched only by an equally deceptive redefining of the word “imminent” as “present[ing] a threat to U.S. interest or personnel.” A definition so “vague as to be virtually meaningless in countries like Yemen and Somalia, where very few U.S. personnel operate.”

If there is one factor that unites all these countries which make up the arc of instability it is this: the United States, in implementing its imperial goals, routinely disregards the lives of the inhabitants of this arc.  Support for dictatorships, overthrowing democratically elected governments, extrajudicial assassinations, illegal invasions and sanctions are the weapons of the empire.  None of these actions produce stability in the sense of popular democratic governance and rising standards of living.  On the contrary, they are carried out to the great suffering of the people of North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.

This arc extends beyond the areas mentioned by Hillary Clinton.  This arc encompasses Latin America where the US routinely supports military dictatorships and death squads instead of democracy and human rights.  It extends to Southeast Asia where millions died directly from US bombing of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It reaches Indonesia where the US backed Suharto’s genocidal reign.

From apartheid in South Africa to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the United States finds itself on the side of reaction, genocide, repression and dictatorship.  The victims of the empire are not quick to forget its crimes.  Citizens of the empire however must become aware of what their country does in their name.