Crusading in the Arc of Instability

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George Bush’s Crusading Scorecard (2001-2007)
The Look of a War against Islam
By Tom Engelhardt

Just five days after the September 11th attacks in 2001, in a Q and A with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House, a President with a new mission, a new cause, and a new purpose in life told the American people that, though they had to “go back to work tomorrow,” they should now know that they were facing a “new kind of evil.” He added, “And we understand. And the American people are beginning to understand. This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while.”

This crusade, this war on terrorism. It had such a ring to it; in the Arab world, of course, it was a ring many centuries old and deeply disturbing. And it came so naturally, so easily off the President’s tongue (though it took days of backtracking by his spokesmen and prominent presidential references to “the peaceful teachings of Islam” perverted by “a fringe form of Islamic extremism” to begin to make up for it). But that little “slip” of the tongue spoke volumes. It signaled that George W. Bush was already in his own heroic dream world and, only those few days after the 9/11 attacks, had both a “crusade” on the brain and “victory” in that crusade firmly in mind. As a result, he made this promise to the American people: “It is time for us to win the first war of the 21st century decisively, so that our children and our grandchildren can live peacefully into the 21st century.”

Now, here we are, just over five years further into the 21st century, and the President, who only nine months ago was still proudly (if a little desperately) trumpeting his “strategy for victory” in Iraq, now speaks vaguely about “success,” or about a “victory,” no longer decisive, that “will not look like the ones our fathers and grandfathers achieved [with a] surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship.” And when it comes to our “children and grandchildren living peacefully into the 21st century,” tell that to the 21,500 Americans about to be “surged” into the murderous streets and alleys of Baghdad.

As for that “Global War on Terror,” with the fifth anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo as the Devil’s Island of the twenty-first century just past; after all the extraordinary renditions, the waterboardings, the perverse tortures and perverse photos that went with them; after the “ghost prisoners” and the network of secret CIA prisons set up around the world; after that Delta Force intelligence agent stepped off a plane from Afghanistan (as journalist Ron Suskind tells the story in his book The One Percent Doctrine) with the suspected head of al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri in a “US Government” metal box (it was somebody else’s); after the CIA was denounced throughout Europe for its illegal rendition flights and with its agents just now heading toward trial in Italy for a kidnapping operation on the streets of Milan; after neither Osama bin Laden, nor Zawahiri were ever apprehended; after woebegone wannabes, the innocent, and small fry of every sort were turned into Public Enemies numbers 1-1,000; after, in the name of national safety from terror, illegal spying and warrantless surveillance, as well as military intelligence activities of many kinds, made their way into “the Homeland”; after the Taliban rose from the grave and the original al-Qaeda (as opposed to the name-stealing al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia or other al-Qaeda wannabes elsewhere on our planet) found a relatively comfortable homeland, a “safe haven” along the Pakistani tribal borderlands near Afghanistan; after all of that, the GWOT (as it so inelegantly came to be known) could easily be renamed something like the “misfire on terror” (MOT) or even, with an eye to what’s developed in Iraq and elsewhere, the “engine for terror” (EFT).

But if we skip the promise of victory as well as of safety for our children and grandchildren, if we look the other way when it comes to our losing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, if we ignore the militarization of our country and the eroding of constitutionally guaranteed rights, if we only focus on that other part of the Presidential vision from those post-9/11 days, the one that wasn’t scripted for George Bush, that just slipped out easy as pie — that promise of an American “crusade” well, call that a “success” of sorts. It may, in fact, be his only success. After all, in a bare few years, he and his collaborators have managed to create the look of a genuine “clash of civilizations,” of, in fact, a war against Islam. In the eyes of many, the United States is now, indeed, a crusader nation.

Creating Instability in the Arc of Instability

Just take a glance at a map of what, in their heyday, the neocons and other Bush administration supporters used to call “the arc of instability” — an area that extended from the Chinese border and the former Central Asian SSRs of the ex-Soviet Union across the Middle East, down through the Horn of Africa and across North Africa — and that managed to coincide with the oil heartlands of the planet. This vast region from Afghanistan to Somalia is now either aflame or threatening to be so.

The Bush administration (along with its NATO allies) is involved in a war in Afghanistan that is growing ever fiercer; it is in a heavily armed near-conflict with Iran and threatening more to come; and, of course, it’s thoroughly bogged down in a war/civil-war and occupation of Iraq, where the response to ever worse news and a clear public desire in the U.S. as well as Iraq for American troops to depart has been the much-publicized “surge.” The Bush administration, which armed and supported the unsuccessful but remarkably destructive Israeli thrust into Lebanon last summer to take out Hizbollah, has reportedly just let the CIA loose in that country in support of an ever weaker Lebanese government against an emboldened Hizbollah; similarly it supported democracy among the Palestinians only until they voted in Hamas and has since been eager to undermine and revoke the results; American Special Operations forces and Air Force gunships have recently been loosed on an Islamic movement — previously unsuccessfully opposed by the CIA (which funded local murderous warlords) — that had brought order to Somalia for the first time in memory, and its fingerprints are all over an invasion of that Islamic land by a harsh and autocratic Ethiopian regime that is largely Christian. (The quick Ethiopian invasion “victory” in Somalia threatens simply to repeat the quick American invasion “victory” in Iraq in 2003 with an insurgency and chaos almost certain to follow.) The same administration is now issuing hardly veiled threats against Syria; it is also bringing a new carrier task force into the Persian Gulf, emplacing Patriot anti-missile batteries in some of the smaller Gulf oil states (an act that can only be aimed at Iran), and has been raiding Iranian diplomatic offices and missions in Iraq under a presidential order Bush evidently issued some months ago, all framed by a possible future air assault on Iran. As Juan Cole put the matter recently, “The difficulties faced by the U.S. military occupation of Iraq itself may well be made the pretext for aggressive action against Iran.”

The President no longer spends his time reminding Americans of the “peaceful teachings” of Islam; instead, he regularly speaks of the ideology of “Islamo-fascism,” of those “radical Islamic extremists” intent on building a “Caliphate,” a “radical Islamic empire” from Afghanistan to Gibraltar. Such references to Islam fit well with the tunnel vision he and his compatriots imposed on that arc of instability. As if to bring their wildest fantasies to life, they have indeed managed to create what looks remarkably like a crusader map of the region. In the process, they have certainly given “instability” a new, more menacing meaning.

While the USS John C. Stennis and its attendant ships sail toward the Persian Gulf to join the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (whose planes are now flying “regular intelligence missions” over Somalia) and an admiral, William J. Fallon, whose specialty is not ground warfare but naval aviation (think: air assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities) replaces Army General John Abizaid as the head of the U.S. Central Command, the President and his top officials seem to be contemplating further instability engendering acts. They evidently are now eager to drag the reasonably stable Sunni autocracies — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the smaller states of the Gulf — that the U.S. has long supported into a de facto anti-Shiite war alliance. This is clearly meant to blunt Iranian influence and ward off the establishment of a “Shiite crescent” in the region; it is also a classic colonial maneuver in which one set of natives is brought in to pacify another set. While theoretically aimed at Iran, however, its most likely effects will be elsewhere. By enrolling these regimes (some with their own restive Shiite minorities) in what looks like a war against Islam, it is only likely to weaken them, possibly even shaking some of them to their roots, and so spreading more chaos and violence.

By now, this is just par for the course. There has probably not been a single step taken by the Bush administration in the greater Middle East that hasn’t gone badly and, from Afghanistan to Somalia, hardly a step is being contemplated that doesn’t threaten further instability, unrest, bloodshed, and a further shaking of American power in the region. The saddest thing is that you need know next to nothing about Somalia (or Afghanistan, or the Pakistani border areas, or Iran, or even Iraq) to know that worse is to come, that each brief moment of administration “success” carries the seeds of its own future failure.

Dribbling into Baghdad

The President’s Iraq “surge” plan, his “new way forward,” is but the most obvious example. “Surge,” as a start, turns out to be a misnomer for the pathetic version of escalation now in the works. Of those 21,500 troops being “surged,” some are simply being kept in Iraq longer than previously announced; others, already assigned to go, are being rushed Iraq-ward earlier than expected and undoubtedly less well prepared and equipped. They will, in fact, be dribbled onto the mean streets of Baghdad and al-Anbar Province from now through April. Add that four-month surge to the 130,000-odd troops already there and you don’t even come near to reaching the troop levels the U.S. had in Iraq at the end of 2005 (when times were somewhat better).

Because of the overstretched nature of American troop deployments and a force structure threatening to come apart at the seams, the neocon fantasy of maintaining even such troop levels in Baghdad for a year to eighteen months is sure to be disappointed. This “drip, drip” of forces will be but so many drops in a quickly evaporating bucket. Since the President’s “new” plan for success in Iraq has been broadcast to the skies in every media form imaginable, those who could feel its brunt in the Iraqi capital like Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, are already engaged in their own preparations to outlast it.

In the meantime, the U.S. will “embed” even more American trainers in the largely Shiite military and police forces in order to get a better handle on violence in the country; but since they are essentially training religious-cum-sectarian forces, they will, in fact, be “standing up” a motor for yet more civil strife and ethnic cleansing. In the meantime, some of the new Iraqi units being brought into the city to match the American surge will evidently be from Kurdistan, introducing not only another group of soldiers who won’t even speak the local language, but also a new and combustible element in the civil strife already underway.

If there is to be a real surge in Iraq, we’ve already had a hint of where it is likely to come from — and it will have the potential to be even more disastrous, more instability-creating than any of the above. The day before the President’s speech, not just American Apache helicopter gunships but jets hit the long resistant Sunni insurgent stronghold of Haifa Street, just adjacent to Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. This represents the sole kind of military power that the Bush administration could truly ratchet up — as well as a part of the Iraq war that the American media has adamantly refused to pay attention to since the invasion of 2003. Reporters in Baghdad simply will not look up. They may soon have to, however.

In the end, as American troops are put into small, neighborhood, fortified living quarters and plunged into “exactly the sort of tough urban fight that war planners strove to avoid during the spring 2003 invasion of the country,” the Bush “surge” is likely to mean even more damage to the Iraqi capital, home to perhaps one-quarter of the country’s population. And that is likely to be just the beginning. The President is ensuring further Iraqi and American dead and wounded, the destruction of much property, and the inflaming of passions of every sort. It’s a formula for catastrophe and — with the possible exception of the President, the Vice-President, and a dwindling number of hangers-on — the truth is that everyone in Washington, in the world, knows it.

What is being planned by the Bush administration for Baghdad might end up proving nothing short of barbaric. From the first American “thunder runs” of tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles through the capital in early April 2003 and the “stuff happens” wholesale looting that followed to the present moment, the city has suffered no worse fate since the Mongols sacked it in 1268.

It’s worth remembering in this context that, when the original Crusaders arrived in the Middle East, they weren’t what undoubtedly comes into the Presidential brain on the subject. They weren’t knights in shining armor. They weren’t so many Errol Flynns. The European knights of the actual crusades came from a world that was still a barbarian outland, a coarse periphery of the Eurasian continent, while the Arab world was the homeland of a genuine high civilization.

When the crusaders first arrived amid their slaughter of Arabs (and of Jews), as the remarkable Lebanese novelist Amin Maalouf reminds us in his history, The Crusades through Arab Eyes, they were looked on with horror by local Arab populations. They were feared as barbarians, as mass murderers, quite literally as cannibals. The chronicler Usamah Ibn Munqidh, would, for instance, write: “All those who were well-informed about the [crusaders] saw them as beasts, superior in courage and fighting ardour but in nothing else, just as animals are superior in strength and aggression.”

“This unkind assessment,” adds Maalouf, “accurately reflects the impression made by the [crusaders] upon their arrival in Syria: they aroused a mixture of fear and contempt, quite understandable on the part of an Arab nation which, while far superior in culture, had lost all combative spirit.”

Americans, despite heavy competition, now look like the new barbarians of the arc of instability — and things are going to get worse. Don’t think the calling of air power into downtown Baghdad is likely to be forgotten. This is the behavior of barbarians, no less so than the use of suicide bombs in Baghdad’s streets.

The Church of Our Man of Global Domination

So think of this as Bush’s crusading scorecard for the years 2001-2007 — this record of barbarism with its guarantee of a “whirlwind of blowback,” as Pepe Escobar of the Asia Times puts it, and the unmistakable look of a war against Islam.

In truth, the most obvious factor linking all of the above together, however, the real thing they have in common, is not, in the normal sense, religious at all. If there is a religious war going on, waged by men (and a few women) of faith, then that faith is neither Christianity, nor Judaism, nor is the war against Islam per se. It comes instead from the fundamentalist Church of Our Man of Global Domination and at its heart is the monotheistic religion of Force. If the arc of instability were inhabited by recalcitrant, angry, sometimes armed, and sometimes destructive Buddhists, sitting on vast energy reserves, this war would look like a war against the Buddha himself.

The essential doctrine of faith that ties all the disparate foreign-policy acts of this administration together is the belief that to every global problem, to every difficult situation, there is but a single striking and uniform response — not the application of democracy, but the application of force.

In its pursuit of force as a faith, the Bush administration has managed to lower the bar on all applications of force by any state (just as it has raised the value of a nuclear arsenal and so, despite its threats of war, lowered the bar on the proliferation of those weapons). This is but a small part of the price a regime of force must pay when force is such an inadequate instrument in our world. The single most striking aspect of Bush foreign policy is that, over and over, it is revealed to be a quiver with but a single arrow in it. If things are going well, you reach back, take that arrow of force, or the threat of it, and notch it into your bow. If things are going badly, you do the same. For an administration so focused on the domination of planetary resources, its officials have, in fact, proven themselves remarkably resourceless.

The sort of eternal global military domination imagined in the National Security Strategy document they issued with great fanfare in 2002 is, of course, long gone. The sort of domination in Iraq and other lands in the arc of instability of which the neocons dreamed so fervently is no longer at issue either.

The religion of Force has proven itself a remarkably weak reed in our complex and difficult world, but that doesn’t matter to them. Like many cultists, deeply imbued with their own way of looking at life, our President, our Vice President, and their dwindling band of compatriots can still imagine no other solutions than force, whatever the presenting problems. Not only can’t they think outside the box, but the box itself is narrowing around this Presidency and Vice Presidency — and believe me, given their crusading record, that’s dangerous indeed.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.

[Note: This Sunday, check out Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost, on “The Big Push” in Iraq. In the Tomdispatch January militarization series, look forward to a major piece on the U.S. air war from Nick Turse in perhaps two weeks.]

Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt