'Vital Strategic Interests' versus 'Effectively Fighting Terrorism'

From Thirteen Colonies to Five Continents in 200 Years

The leaders of the United States, like the leaders of every arrogant, powerful state before it, have sought to subordinate or conquer weaker states. The rulers of dominant states have since time immemorial regarded such cold-blooded statecraft as the due of “great men.” And they say the human race evolves (which it does, of course, but at a snail's pace).

When has not the prospect of empire swept along the public with breathless promises of “glory” or “duty” or the ever resonant, if fake, imperative to “defend the homeland?” And so does the inevitable downward slide commence. The economy becomes more militarized and less dynamic; government debt burgeons; the political leadership descends into prevarication and authoritarianism; the public is diverted by the imperial overhang of wealth and spectacle; spiritual life descends variously into rigid fanaticism or the silliest sort of imaginable bottom-feeding. In the end, the rot spreads far enough that a new adversary supplants or destroys the hollowed out shell of a once great land. Some of this is happening now, the rest of it will inevitably, one day.

In the meantime, let’s say for argument’s sake that the United States is presently at its apex. Given this widely held assumption, there is good reason to believe that the American government and its people are historically unique in their collective blindness to the threats inherent in empire.

You can just hear the dupes. Why, we’re the world’s oldest democracy with the world’s largest economy and best military, and besides, people far and wide love our cultural production and we're nice and they're mean. A mere three generations have witnessed the transformation of this land from a swashbuckling North American kid to a global hegemon – too much, too quickly; so too then will be the fall.

For, during the last American century (1898–2001), our country, quite unlike the European imperial powers, has risen unencumbered by a nearby adversary capable of threatening our territorial integrity, to say nothing of the daily life of its citizenry. Military victories over Native Americans, Mexico, Spain, the Central Powers, world fascism and Communism were racked up. On the evening of September 10th, 2001, America still bestrode the world like a colossus. It only thinks it still does, but "the whole world is watching"…and gagging.

Only two attacks were ever sustained at home: the British burning of the White House in 1814 and the attack on the Pacific Fleet in a remote colony in 1941. The first is now long-forgotten and the second was more than compensated for by vicious annihilation of Imperial Japan in 1945. Aside from the firebombing of Japanese cities, the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was the "grand finale," the first and last 1,000 bomber run over a city on this planet, just before the armistice was signed. There's your "western civilization," if you need it.

The Cold War initiated the first imaginable threat to the American mainland. However, American military supremacy in nuclear weapons – and the reality of Mutually Assured Destruction – made for a specter that gradually dissipated once the opening to China and the establishment of détente with the Soviet Union was cemented.

Americans do not particularly remember how close nuclear holocaust came during the Cuban missile crisis, nor do they much recall Reaganite talk of fighting a “winnable nuclear war.” The Cold War ended and then all of a sudden, some religious lunatics attacked us for all our noble efforts lo these many years.

This transformation of a colony on the Atlantic, to the military arbiter of the Western Hemisphere in its first century, to a militarily unassailable superpower in its second, has not inspired circumspection among our elites. Nor is the public likely to ruminate long and hard in a land that invented the kind of PR “can do” boosterism reflected in Horatio Alger stories and notions of an “American dream.”

Add to the mix an ideology of global supremacy that has gone almost entirely unquestioned in mainstream political debate since World War II (the brief interregnum in the late 1960s and early 1970s being the only slight exception), and one finds a culture essentially bereft of the kind of political introspection necessary for the kind of large scale corrective action so necessary today.

Never before was so powerful a country, so long thought unassailable by its elites and public, struck such a dramatic and deadly a blow as was the case on 9/11. Never before was so callow a President of the United States so beholden to militaristic advisors – Neocon and evangelical Protestant divisions – respectively inured of Likud-messianic Zionism and hostility ontological toward the Muslim world. Never before in its history was the United States so poised to reshape the world militarily, along with the ideological and emotional fervor to carry it out.

The above cultural characteristics comprise the power relationships and ideological context in which the attack on Iraq was carried out. When this aggression showed its Janus face, another almost unprecedented thing happened to this American foreign policy initiative.

Spectres from the past rose. In echoing the reaction to Vietnam, the world public – to an even greater degree and even before the fighting started – rapidly agitated against it. So, today we are essentially fighting alone a foe increasingly able to mobilize largely invisible battalions from long-resentful ranks that make up nearly a quarter of the world’s populace.

With civil war brewing in Iraq, as a consequence of the most fateful American military intervention since World War II, the question among American elites is not whether to further expand the reach of American power in the Middle East; it is largely a matter of where and how. Once again, bipartisanship has triumphed.

The Millennium-long Fight for Independence in the Muslim Middle East

In contrast to the isolated and pacific existence of the United States at home, and the relatively low cost (to us, not our victims) of its historical military interventions abroad, the Muslim Middle East has experienced an almost constant succession of invading and occupying forces. The most prominent events would include: the Crusades (1095–1291); the catastrophic incursion of Tamerlane (1393–1402); the domination by the Ottoman Turks (1600–1918); the British and French mandates (1920–1948); the decisive influence by the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain (1948–1973); and finally the onset of Soviet decline, Israeli dominance in the Levant and the entrenchment of American power via a basing archipelago throughout the region (1973–present).

To say that the above incursions have never elicited a sanguine response from ordinary Muslims is, as Gore Vidal likes to say, “to riot in understatement.” “Liberation,” for folks in the region, smells like putrid old wine in fancy new bottles.

It is striking to note that the bloody battles associated with the Crusades lasted for a period of time roughly comparable to the period of pristine American domestic life (1814–2001). The Ottoman period lasted in the Arab lands as long as it did due to the sometimes-enlightened despotism of the sultans – allowing for long periods of relative local religious and political autonomy.

The arbitrary imposition of the nation-state on the region following the First World War, by culturally and religiously alien Britain and France, scarcely helped matters. When combined with the subsequent propping up of an “Arab façade” behind which American power grew throughout the second half of the 20th Century, one finds a cauldron of rage bubbling about as long as we’ve been living the mass consumption “good life.”

The emergence of fundamentalist political Islam has roughly ebbed coincident with or perhaps in proportion to the interference of the United States in the region. Today, among the suppressed publics in Muslim Middle East, the question is not whether to resist the spread of American power; it is largely a matter of where and how.

Religion & Militancy: the U.S. & the Middle East

The changes with respect to religion in the United States and the countries of the Middle East bear some resemblance to one another even as they obviously have their own distinct antecedents. The rise of fundamentalist religion around the world – much of Europe aside – in the past quarter century is news to no one. Much has been made of militant Islam’s challenge in particular and without question it is the most visible and perhaps dynamic religious ideology in the world today.

Fundamentalist Islam has risen at the expense of post-colonial independent secular Arab nationalism (Nasser in Egypt, Saddam, the PLO and the al-Assad dynasty in Syria). These regimes were unwilling to extend human rights, prosperity or even a little accountability to their domestic subjects, sometimes at the behest of the United States. Also, their prestige faded as various Israeli occupations, stemming from the 1967 war, dragged on for decades. When there is scant hope for improvement in this world, human beings all over the world tend to look to the next one.

Within Israel a similar tendency is barely disguised. The demographic changes within the Jewish state come to mind. Once a country made up overwhelmingly of secular Europeans voting for the Labor Party, today Israel is a land increasingly populated by ultra-nationalists quite at home with a still largely secular Likud, in league with religious fundamentalists like Shahs and the National Religious Party.

This shift is not just demographic of course. It is also ideological and spurred in part by the growing militancy of Islamist factions opposed to the PLO’s ineffectual post-Oslo position. The willingness of Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah to take American hostages and fight Israel in Southern Lebanon respectively in the mid-1980s left its mark on Palestinian society.

With the initial aid of a cynical Israeli state seeking to undermine the PLO, Hamas emerged in the late 1980s. The genie is now well out of the bottle, offering a potent mix of paradise in the next world, a widespread network of social services in this one, and the prospect of uncompromising and vengeful resistance in the meantime.

Predictably, as Jewish settlers moved into the West Bank, not only did daily tensions with the Palestinians increase, so too was a new and politically vociferous constituency formed within Israel proper. Insofar as Israel and the United States decided that the status quo was sustainable during the 20 years of relative calm between the Six Day War (1967) and the start of the first Intifada (1987), both states appear in retrospect to have made a grave miscalculation.

During this twenty-year window, secular nationalists on both sides could have been negotiating a legitimate settlement. Today, after another decade and a half of brutal colonial fighting, we see increasingly a situation in which religious extremists on both sides have moved closer and closer to having veto power over any sort of settlement. Looking back at choices made, one has to wonder just what end game was imagined by successive Israeli and American governments. In short: no legitimate end game was envisioned.

The phenomenon of fundamentalist religion is also certainly quite pronounced in the United States itself. The defection of evangelical Protestants from the Democratic Party in the 1970s, their mobilization by Ronald Reagan and the unprecedented power they presently wield over George W. Bush, has had and will have grave consequences for both the United States and the Middle East.

It was one thing to have secular realpolitik types running American foreign policy. Back in the day, Republican and Democratic administrations had long tilted towards the more moderate Labor Party. George H.W. Bush even suspended loan guarantees to Israel when faced with the recalcitrance of the Yitzakh Shamir’s Likud government in 1991.

Today, by contrast, George W. Bush not only ignores provocations by the Sharon government but blithely calls him a “man of peace.” The Republican Party under George W. Bush is incapable of settling the Palestinian-Israeli conflict because its core constituency now regards Israeli control of the occupied territories as a biblical imperative, just as Israel’s messianic settlers do. A credible peace initiative, even along the cautious lines of Oslo, being launched by a Republican president, is now rather hard to imagine.

With the invasion of Iraq, the forces of fundamentalist religion and violent reaction have been strengthened in the short term. George W. Bush saw the Senate go Republican in the run up to Iraq war, the Likud and its fundamentalist governing coalition have effectively buried Oslo and now find 135,000 American troops providing Israel “strategic depth” with regard to Iran, while Islamic militants have seen their suspicions confirmed that the “war on terror” was really just a ruse to take over an oil rich Arab country.

“Vital Strategic Interests” versus “Effectively Fighting Terrorism”

It has been noted that the number and frequency of al-Qaeda attacks has quickened in the 30 months since 9/11 in contrast to the 30 months prior. This is a harbinger, and it requires a major rethinking by the American public as to just what our vital strategic interests are as opposed to those proffered by the government.

“Vital strategic interests” are the political and economic goals most hankered for by mighty domestic constituencies. Among the strong, they are ultimately pragmatically agreed upon through institutions and diplomacy. More often than not, when the powerful discern valuable resources at hand, paired with distasteful leaders commanding weak militaries, war can be expected. To trot out an old truism: the strong will take what they can; the weak will suffer what they must.

The new part of the equation, in this era of rapid and easy mobility of people and the dispersion of deadly technologies, is the threat of catastrophic terrorism. The usual tools of American foreign policy – smash the enemy or buy him off – do not apply particularly to zealots who neither fear death nor are “in it for the money.”

The first job of any government – allegedly the major point of the thing – is to protect its citizens from foreign attackers. That, presumably, is the most vital interest of all. Policy choices which undermine this elemental imperative are not only less vital, they ought to be anathema to people with the ability to reason. Regardless, we find ourselves increasingly enmeshed in a tit for tat cycle in which our supposed greatest strength – the ability to project military power – becomes our Achilles heel in the end.

Al Qaeda and like-minded offshoots are playing us with a classic rope a dope strategy. History in their neck of the woods conditions them to think in terms of generations, if not centuries; the fools in power here think only in terms of business and election cycles. The longer the manifold problems of the Middle East are allowed to fester, and the wider and deeper the American military spreads throughout the region, the greater the number and dispersion of terror’s hydra heads.

It begs the question: when it comes to the Middle East, just what makes our leaders think that we are any different from the Crusaders, Turks, French or the British? Have not the historical lessons of just the post-colonial period – most obviously, Vietnam – been learned by anyone in power currently?

The answer, sadly, appears to be no. After all, next to none of them saw battle, though they did manage to sanctimoniously cheer from their grad school perches. The present strategy assumes that in the course of occupying – but not consensually rehabilitating – two Muslim countries, the number of new terrorist recruits will somehow remain static and then subsequently magically dwindle.

This was the general idea behind such activities in Vietnam as the “Phoenix program,” which went about murdering tens of thousands of presumed “Viet Cong” cadre without developing a just and legitimate government in South Vietnam. And we all know how well “draining the swamp of insurgents” turned out there.

Undeterred, von Dumsfeld & Co think they can for all intents and purposes successfully replicate what failed in Vietnam. These kooks think they can engineer an object democratic and pluralistic lesson out of aggression – to be lapped up from Marrakech to Manila, from Tashkent to Karachi. Of course it won’t work since the peoples of all countries wish to have a say in their governments, free of foreign occupation and domination.

It is of course lunacy to accept this spurious “democratization” proposition with the realist caveat that we will, on the upside, continue to enjoy essential control over energy resources. In the end, oil will be sold to the West regardless of whether the government is fundamentalist or a secular Arab nationalist one. Otherwise, the oil rich societies would collapse, likely under force of American arms. Among the "free market" ideologues in power today, there’s scant trust in the market sorting things out.

Tragically, we still haven’t learned the lesson of September 11th, even two years later. In the aftermath of the Madrid bombing – equivalent to a strike half as deadly as 9/11 proportionally – the Spanish people learned it in two days. Imperialism under the guise of “fighting terrorism” is not only immoral, it is really, really dumb.

Not only does next to no one outside the United States believe the fake “democratic” rhetoric, they recognize that a choice must be made. Either the countries of the Muslim Middle East will be allowed to move towards a form of government responsive to their publics, with the result being a decrease in terrorist legitimacy – with the diminution of American influence which meaningful independence inherently implies.

Or, BushCo. will continue down the path of hypocritical military control of the region and the all terror that must come with it. Government officialdom still thinks they can have all of the control over there and none of the responsibility for it over here. They’ve get “secure, undisclosed locations,” we get the shaft.

Well, the good old days of blowback-less intervention are long gone, and one would think that more people who run this country – the rich – would recognize the peril. (Smashing up Latin America for a century and a half with impunity has evidently left its mark.) On one hand, they obviously want to continue to sell their products, which still have enormous appeal, around the world. On the other hand, if the United States continues on its present course, Brand America will one day enjoy about as much appeal as Brand USSR did by the end.

Of course, many amidst the upper crust are compromised by a long-enduring factor. A century and a half of working hand-in-glove with the American government to force open markets, along with the highly profitable relationship with the state socialism of the Defense Department, has co-opted much of the private sector.

And this War on Terror sure is shaping up as a real bonanza. Just ask Lockheed Martin, Bechtel, Fluor and Halliburton along with hundreds upon hundreds of other subcontractors. Yet, one might imagine that these folk – without some of whom, it seems clear, there is scant hope for altering American foreign policy – would be given pause. They too are faced with the spiraling likelihood of having their cosmopolitan play grounds catastrophically attacked.

None Dare Call It Treason

A victory by George W. Bush in the 2004 election will place the United States in an international politics cul-de-sac, out of which it may not emerge without traumatic changes at home. There will be no settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iraq will probably descend into civil war unless the administration changes course dramatically.

There is reason to believe that there are domestic political calculations at work here which favor the high risk Republican strategy of taking up al Qaeda on its “rope-a-dope” strategy. For in the United States, during periods of perceived external threat, the American people have generally sided with the “tough guy” Republicans. And so they did in 2004.

In the big picture, domestic politics don't amount to much when it comes to foreign policy, if one really looks closely. We will not “win” the Bush administration’s advertised “victory” in Iraq because it means that country’s defeat as a sovereign nation. Jay Garner, Grand Vizier Bremer’s predecessor, was forced out of his post for opposing the privatization of Iraq’s economy by western firms. Mr. Bremer, formerly a heavy at Kissinger Associates, saw things differently.

Garner unintentionally pointed out another reason why Bush’s phony “vision” will fail. He conceded that Iraq will serve the role played by the Philippines in an earlier era. Iraq will be a modern day “coaling station” for American power in the region – a source of resources flanked by strategic, permanent bases.

A genuinely legitimate elected government in Iraq – not one made up of émigré toadies – will demand that Americans cease stationing troops in their country. This is an inevitable conflict, for the Bush administration has every intention of making Iraq its primary military patsy in the region. This clash may be delayed, for years on end perhaps by counter-insurgency warfare, but it will result in a disaster for our country.

As a leading geostrategic ghoul recently put it, unlike Vietnam, “Iraq matters.” Iraq “matters” in part because a growing consensus of petroleum geologists and analysts contends that within the next two decades, the planet will have used up half of all the extant petroleum reserves. Middle Eastern oil will become a larger and larger share of world consumption; competition for it will be fierce and, if little changes, very likely increasingly deadly.

Mr. Bush is famously the first American president to hold an MBA, and if his profligate down payment of $300 billion on the “liberation” of Iraq is any indication, he expects dick Cheney’s friends to profit handsomely. The corresponding unwillingness of the Bush administration to chart a course of energy independence – as reflected in the clandestine Cheney energy task force report – alone makes the likelihood of an extended and deep military involvement in the region very nearly a fait accompli.

In the meantime, the treasury has been bled by $1.6 trillion to further subsidize the Ken Lays and Dennis Kozlowskis of the country via tax cuts; and this during "war time" to boot. Just imagine if this country had drawn the right conclusions from 9/11 and spent some of that stupid $1.6 trillion tax cut to develop alternative energy resources?

We should have simply squished the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan first, and then set in motion a long-term effort to wean ourselves of Persian Gulf crude. With such an investment, a decade or two down the road the crunch would have been a lot softer than it will be. Instead, we are poised to be fighting in the Middle East trying to control the last drops out of the petroleum spigot. And they called the early participants in the Iraqi insurgency “dead enders.”

Even with all this, we still have time. We still have it within our reach, as the most powerful country on the planet, to take a step back and recognize limitations to our power – this time will come regardless; why not get on with it?

Look at history.

Did the French “give in” to terrorism when they recognized that they couldn’t indefinitely dominate Algeria? Did the British “give in” to terrorism when they decided to address the complaints of Sinn Fein and the IRA?

Will we “give in” to terrorism when we start treating the Arab / Muslim world as we treat the Europeans? No, and we might just save ourselves – and the Muslim world – a great deal of sorrow, pain and death in the process.

We still have the capacity to inaugurate a détente with the Arab / Muslim world on consensual terms – unless, that is, the prospect of ever more catastrophic domestic terrorism and resultant despotism is more alluring. We do after all have a president who “joked” that “if this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier – just so long I’m the dictator.”

Another great wit, Caligula, is reputed to have said “let them hate, so long as they fear.” The Bush clique apparently has no fear, but then neither does the suicide bomber. Fear is left to the ordinary people of the planet.

March 1, 2005

Stephen Bender [send him mail] is a writer based in San Francisco. You can find more of his work at his website.