Mark LeVine, Chaos Theory and the Middle East

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[Note for Tomdispatch readers: For the rest of the month, this site will be on a somewhat more relaxed posting schedule. The next Tomgram will probably not be posted until August 16th or 17th.]

Yesterday, the Israeli security cabinet authorized an expansion of the ground war in Lebanon (while its military suffered 15 dead and 25 wounded, the highest battlefield casualty rate thus far); Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened to “transform our land in the south [of Lebanon] to a graveyard for Zionist invaders” and called on Haifa’s Arab residents to evacuate that city; Israeli planes bombed bridges and dropped leaflets warning that “any vehicle on the roads south of the Litani River” might be destroyed, while Hezbollah rained 100 or more Katyusha rockets on northern Israel.

In Iraq, the Baghdad morgue released a staggering death toll for the month of July — 1,815 bodies received (as many as 90% having died violently). As “a new high,” this was an ominous sign of the spiraling civil war in the Iraqi capital, while in al-Anbar Province, heart of the Sunni insurgency, three more U.S. soldiers died and two Black Hawk helicopter crewmen were missing and possibly dead.

In Afghanistan, the capital, Kabul, is now experiencing an energy crisis which has left its electricity levels at lows equal to that of occupied, embattled Baghdad; while, to the south, the country is experiencing an ever more intense guerrilla war, replete with Iraqi-style suicide bombers and roadside IEDs, led by a resurgent Taliban.

These are but signs (along with rising energy prices) of the spreading chaos at the heart of what was once to be a Bush-administration-led American imperium in the Middle East (and energy-rich Central Asia). But this administration’s top officials remain remarkably cloistered and undaunted. Only yesterday, according to the New York Times, Vice President Cheney “went so far as to suggest that the ouster of” Senator Joseph Lieberman by Ned Lamont in the Democratic primary in Connecticut, “might encourage ‘al Qaeda types.'”

Recently, Craig Crawford wrote in a Congressional Quarterly column:

“The rest of the world might see the Middle East crisis as a cataclysmic event of potentially biblical proportions, but in his July 29 radio address the president echoed a persistent White House vision of hope rising from destruction. While taking care to note that the killing is ‘painful and tragic,’ Bush sought to portray the tragedy as an opportunity for ‘broader change’ that will lead to ‘peace,’ ‘liberty,’ ‘democracy’ and a ‘more secure’ America.

“The rest of the world might see the Middle East crisis as a cataclysmic event of potentially biblical proportions, but in his July 29 radio address the president echoed a persistent White House vision of hope rising from destruction. While taking care to note that the killing is ‘painful and tragic,’ Bush sought to portray the tragedy as an opportunity for ‘broader change’ that will lead to ‘peace,’ ‘liberty,’ ‘democracy’ and a ‘more secure’ America.

“You might think that it would take a truly self-delusional person to conjure up such a bright vision for this darkening corner of the world. But the president’s rosy Mideast scenario is right in line with what has become a governing principle for him. Call it the Bush Chaos Theory. The president seems to think that the best way to get results is to blow things up and then see what happens. It is sort of like what curious kids do in their back yards until they learn that somebody could get hurt. Bush enjoys unsettling things, confident in the belief that an unseen hand will reach down, clean up the mess and make it all better. Create chaos, he apparently believes, and somehow an orderly world to his liking will emerge.”

Mark LeVine, who has explored Bush administration chaos theory before at this site, takes up the spreading chaos in the Middle East and gives it his own special twist. Tom

101 Uses of Chaos
By Mark LeVine

Perhaps the greatest illusion of any strategists, leaders, or generals is that they are in control — and perhaps the most hubristic version of this illusion is the belief that they can use chaos itself to further their control, to strengthen their situation. Our world today reminds us constantly that you ride that tiger at your peril.

Object lesson one: Iraq. While the world’s attention and the headlines now focus on the Israel-Hezbollah war, recalcitrant, fracturing Iraq continues to spin out of the Bush administration’s control. On August 3, Thom Shanker of the New York Times reported on a blunt warning from John B. Abizaid, commander of American forces in the Middle East, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing: “[S]ectarian violence in Iraq, especially in the capital, Baghdad, ha[s] grown so severe that the nation could slide toward civil war.”

Three days later, Times reporter Dexter Filkins published a disturbing (if, by now, familiar) piece pointing yet again to the Bush administration’s mismanagement of its occupation of Iraq. Headlined Baghdad’s Chaos Undercuts Tack Pursued by US, the article explained that civil-war level chaos has forced American military commanders to abandon the administration’s program of “Iraqifying” the security of the capital and other major cities. Once again, U.S. troops were being called in to patrol Baghdad’s violent streets.

The truth is, however, that since American troops first arrived in the capital just over three years ago, it’s hard to remember a time when chaos wasn’t said to be enveloping parts of Iraq. From the moment the looting of Baghdad began and those victorious troops guarded nothing (except the Oil Ministry), fawda — an Arabic word that suggests chaos but with a graver emphasis on discord and hostility — has ruled the land. Yet an American general in the Filkins piece is quite typical when he claims, of the most recent manifestation of the chaos, “I don’t think anyone could have anticipated the [recent] sectarian violence.”

Statements like his — and they have been commonplace — strike me as odd in the extreme. After all, when I was in Iraq only a year into the American occupation, among the first things most Iraqis I met, particularly Sunni and Shiite leaders, would bring up were their fears of onrushing factional/sectarian violence and possible civil war and their desire to avoid it at all costs (unless it involved the Kurds, held in disdain because of their close relations with the U.S.). Then they would almost invariably state their belief that the Bush administration was encouraging sectarian differences and tensions in pursuance of a classic imperial strategy of divide and rule — or at least, divide and make sure no one asks you to leave.

Filkins, however, has another explanation. “The failure of the Iraqis to halt the slide into chaos in Baghdad,” he writes, “undercuts the central premise of the American project here: that Iraqi forces can be trained and equipped to secure their own country, allowing the Americans to go home.” In other words, it’s the damned Iraqis’ fault our boys can’t come home, which they’d already have done (except perhaps for a few hundred marines guarding our massive, still-under-construction embassy in Baghdad and who knows how many thousands more stationed in out of the way permanent bases) if those nasty insurgents hadn’t started massacring civilians and police recruits wholesale.

Perhaps that’s true. But a Times article several weeks earlier, also by Filkins (as well as Edward Wong) and headlined, In an About-Face, Sunnis Want the U.S. to Remain in Iraq, had pointed to other possibilities. The violence that increasingly powerful Shiite militias and the Shiite-dominated national army were committing against Sunnis, Filkins and Wong reported, had turned “many Sunni Arab political and religious leaders once staunchly opposed to the American presence here” into supporters of that presence. They saw it, the reporters claimed, as a much-needed check against Shiite dominance of the country.

Needless to say, such a change of mind by any group of influential Sunnis could hardly have displeased Bush administration officials and affiliated neoconservative strategists, among whom remaining in Iraq for the indefinite future remains the highest priority. Indeed, the story could be seen as reflecting one of the administration’s few Iraqi victories in quite some time.

In fact, both stories are probably accurate, each reflecting but an aspect of the American “adventure” in Iraq. The Bush administration initially planned to — and would undoubtedly still like to — quickly draw-down the lion’s share of its forces, leaving the policing of the country to loyal Iraqis. In a similar way, Israel wanted the Palestinian Authority to police Palestinians and imperial Britons once sought — for the most part successfully — to have Indians do the dirty work of policing their own country during the Raj.

If, however, the choice in Iraq is put more starkly — 130,000 U.S. troops or none — the administration assuredly opts for the former, only praying that it can keep the American body count low enough to ensure a largely quiescent, if disgruntled, populace at home.

Chaos and Miscalculation

The problem is, in the world of occupational politics, one rarely gets to eat one’s cake and have it too. At some point, the ripples from the chaos you generate, whether purposely or by accident, converge into the kind of perfect wave of horror that you just may not be capable of riding out. Ask Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the top brass of the Israeli Defense Forces about that. Thanks to Matthew Kalman of the San Francisco Chronicle, we now know that the current Israeli air campaign against, and invasion of, Lebanon had been planned out perhaps two years ago; that, more than a year ago, “a senior Israeli army officer” was giving “off-the-record” PowerPoint presentations about just such a “three-week campaign” to influential figures in Washington; and that Hezbollah’s July 12 capture of Israeli soldiers was the pretext that the government had been waiting for to launch its campaign.

It is no less clear now that the Israelis underestimated the strength, training, preparation, and resolve of Hezbollah’s fighters, leading to unanticipated destruction inside Israel that, in turn, seems to have caused some chaos within the military command structure. No doubt at least in part because of this situation, the last few weeks have witnessed an ever-widening, ever less controlled military campaign — against every aspect of Lebanese society — in a fruitless attempt to pressure Hezbollah to agree to Israel’s terms.

Olmert, however, isn’t the only leader who miscalculated, who convinced himself that he could control the chaos he was about to let loose rather than let it control him. Hezbollah also clearly planned its initial attack over a long period (possibly with Iranian support or training). Yet its leaders have let it be known that they did not anticipate the fierceness of the Israeli reaction. While this may be true, given the levels of destruction visited on Lebanon, it also has an odd ring to it — and not just because the Olmert government was, at the very second Hezbollah launched its attack, demonstrating its no-holds-barred fierceness in an assault on Hamas in Gaza. If officials of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were PowerPointing their intention to invade to Washington’s chattering class, Hebzollah’s leaders also had to be in the know. After all, the whole point of Israel doing little short of advertising its military desires to the world was, at least in part, to warn Hezbollah of what lay in store.

Perhaps, like Olmert, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah convinced himself that loosing chaos was in his movement’s self-interest. Perhaps he was convinced that the resulting violence would be manageable, clearing away threats to Hezbollah’s future political and social hegemony in Lebanon. At the very least, he seems to have concluded that his movement stood a better chance against Israel’s military than against the coalition behind Lebanon’s 2005 Cedar Revolution which brought Hezbollah into parliament, but also threatened to transform the country in ways that looked less promising to its future.

Although other interested parties, particularly the Syrians, were well aware that Lebanon was in grave danger of “spinning out of control” in the long year between the Cedar Revolution and the capture of Israeli soldiers on July 12, it seems apparent that the hubris of each side led the leaders of Israel and Hezbollah to underestimate badly each other’s intentions and strategies, even though both sides had long declared them.

The result? As in Iraq, chaos and destruction of a sort that feeds on itself and deepens with the passage of time.

Creating an Arc of Instability

Lebanon is but the most intense site at present for such chaos and destruction, which has been spreading and deepening across what the neoconservatives (many of whom were receptive to the idea of loosing a “generative” chaos in the region) once liked to call the “arc of instability.” Little did they know, when they gave the oil heartlands of our planet that name, what was actually in store for us all.

Indeed, even if hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah die down sooner rather than later, the settling of scores within now-ruined Lebanon is likely to be bitter — and perhaps brutal too. As Rami Khouri, the editor of the Lebanese Daily Star, argues: “Whether [Hezbollah] emerges from the current conflict weaker or stronger — and stronger seems the answer now — it will then have to battle the country’s other political, religious and ethnic groups for the soul and identity of Lebanon. This face-off will transcend borders, for it is a microcosm of the wider struggle in the Middle East.”

The seeds of further fragmentation and chaos lie buried as well in Nasrallah’s sudden rise to “iconic” status within the Muslim world (even the Sunni Arab part of it), whose leaders are almost uniformly undemocratic and, more often than not, dependent on the U.S. for survival. Remember, Sunni leaders in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia barely hid their pleasure in the first days of Israel’s invasion when it seemed that Hezbollah — and with it, dreams of a “Shiite arc” across the Middle East — would be dealt a serious blow.

The possibility of such a “Shiite arc” is but another striking example of how the chaos one means to unleash can unleash further levels of chaos that prove unmanageable — even for the most self-confident of imperial powers. After all, the very thing that made such a Shiite arc a possibility was not the rise of fundamentalist Iran, but the Bush administration’s decision to take down the secular, if brutal, regime of Saddam Hussein and then occupy Iraq. It’s hard now even to recall that key Bush strategists saw Iraq mainly as a jumping-off spot for the transformation of the rest of the Middle East, especially for the control of, or subjugation of Shiite Iran. (As they put it at the time: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”

The American invasion of Iraq, of course, resulted instead in the empowerment of that country’s long repressed Shiite majority; while the violence and chaos brought on by the invasion and occupation put Hezbollah’s Iranian patron in a far stronger strategic position. If recent history is any guide, however, this position will only ensure that, like the Bush administration, Olmert’s government, and the Hezbollah leadership, the Iranians too will miscalculate and overplay the hand they have, releasing yet more unmanageable chaos on the world (and on themselves).

It is ironic that Israel was, to say the least, extremely supportive of the Bush administration’s drive to war with Iraq in good measure because they expected an American presence in Baghdad to “contain” or, better yet, roll back Iran. Now, its unrepentant violence against Lebanese civilian areas is changing the world calculus about which state is the greater threat to peace: the state of Israel, currently occupying and bombing two neighboring countries and violating international law on an hourly basis, or a potentially nuclear-armed Iran. It’s hard to imagine that this is the scenario Ehud Olmert and his advisors imagined as they launched their little war.

Yet all is certainly not well in the bunkers of southern Beirut either. One day, Nasrallah warns his fellow Lebanese that “those who sinned against us” by not supporting his movement “will not be forgotten”; the next, he offers a conciliatory message, perhaps in the realization that Shiites are not the only Lebanese with access to lots of weapons and foreign patrons. A war Hezbollah helped precipitate in good measure to reinforce its political power in Lebanon has, in fact, resulted in the destruction of much of the country, and with it Lebanon’s future; even if Hezbollah “wins,” its victory might well be followed, in the words of one Lebanese commentator, by a “return to civil war. And if that happens, nothing will put Lebanon — let alone liberal Lebanon — back together again.” But, of course, Nasrallah was never interested in creating a liberal Lebanon. Certainly, there will be enough bitterness to be spread around for years, if not decades, to come.

The “Birth Pangs” of a Chaotic World

War has always generated unintended consequences and high levels of social and political chaos. But in the post-Cold War era, new ways of conceiving of the usefulness of violence fused war and chaos in what turned out to be a particularly grim fashion. First, in the mid-1990s, policy-makers began to think of chaos as having an important role in the functioning of the emerging “dominate or die” global economic system that went under the rubric of “neoliberal globalization” (or as it was euphemistically known, “free market democracy”). “Creative destruction,” an old term that gained a new life in these years, also came to be seen as an apt way of understanding and justifying the violence and chaos that planners believed would be necessary to transition from the old Cold War world of superpowers, dictatorship, and poverty to a new globalized order of progress and democracy. Second, neoconservative strategists in the U.S. began to imagine that wielding the dazzling military power of the world’s sole remaining superpower would be the easiest path to creating a global Pax Americana — or is it Bellum Americanum?

This combination of attitudes still lies behind a revealing comment Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made on July 21: “What we’re seeing [in Lebanon], in a sense, is the growing — the birth pangs of a new Middle East and whatever we do we have to be certain that we’re pushing forward to the new Middle East not going back to the old one.”

This idea of a “new” Middle East, though essential to the larger neoconservative project, was first conceived by then-Israeli Labor Party Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. It was the foundation upon which the chimera of the Oslo process of negotiations with the Palestinians was built, only to collapse ignominiously less than a decade later. Peres imagined Israel as the future cultural and economic engine of a Middle East fully incorporated into a neoliberal global system; in fact, the opposite would occur. As the economy of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza became “liberalized,” poverty and inequality in Israel increased to unprecedented levels, leaving a large working and middle class that saw few of the economic and cultural gains promised by the Labor Party. They therefore had little stake in the Oslo Process and were easily persuaded to blame the Palestinians as well as Labor itself for their economic problems and the violence that only became worse as Oslo wore on.

On the “other” side, the liberalization of the Palestinian economy involved closing it off almost entirely to the outside world and making it utterly dependent on Israel. Corruption and monopolies within the Palestinian Authority (made all the more glaring by the rapid expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank) helped convince poor and working class Palestinians that the peace process was an illusion. They came to feel that any hope for economic development, or at least protection, would be found only in the network of services, institutions, and employment opportunities provided by Hamas.

These dual dynamics would come together to produce the al-Aqsa intifada, led in good measure by Hamas, which instead of bringing Palestinians closer to independence offered Israel the chance to put chaos to yet another use. Israel proceeded to sow enough of it within Palestinian society to mortally weaken the fabric of its emerging national institutions and social life. In so doing, Palestinian dreams of an independent state were ended for the foreseeable future — and violence only increased.

All of this was somewhat less evident at the time only because the Israeli plan seemed, for a while, to work as the religious Hamas movement and the formerly dominant Fatah Party (the historical core of the Palestinian Liberation Organization) battled over turf, while young militants and criminal gangs roamed the streets of devolving Nablus and other towns challenging the existing social and political order. Then Hamas won the national elections, so eager encouraged by the Bush administration, and Israel proceeded to bombard the Palestinians in Gaza back into a more or less unified agenda of resistance and summud, (or steadfastness).

Not surprisingly, Hezbollah played a similar role in Lebanon (as, by the way, did the party of North African and Middle Eastern Jews, the Shas Party in Israel) by feeding off a combination of economic disempowerment and ethno-religious identity. In both cases, a powerful synergy was created between the kind of “resistance identity” that the eminent sociologist Manuel Castells warned would come to dominate the marginalized societies — or sections of societies — of the global era, and a positive “project identity” that would motivate people to take great risks and endure great hardships — great chaos, in fact — to pursue their particular vision of freedom, national or religious identity, and social or economic justice.

Indeed, as downtown Beirut’s skyline grew tall (and the country’s international debt massive) under the premierships of Prime Minister Rafiq Harriri, who led three governments between 1992 and 2004 before being assassinated, those left out of the non-stop partying — the largely working-class Shiite constituents of Hezbollah — naturally saw the movement-turned-party-and-social-service-provider-but-still-militia as offering their best hope for at least a piece of the new pie.

This, of course, brings us back to the present moment in which the leaders in power in Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, and the United States are unable to converse in a language not overdetermined by violence, chauvinism, and most frighteningly, messianic nationalism (of a sort that, by now, Americans should be all too familiar with).

The New Middle East was conceived on the lawn of the White House in September 1993 when Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Yasser Arafat, and Bill Clinton shook hands. It was taken up by American, Iranian, Iraqi, Israeli, and Lebanese leaders among others, all of whom have felt at one point or another that it was theirs to control. It now veers between stillbirth and the arrival of Rosemary’s baby. The circles of chaos that have enveloped countries across the Middle East, and that threaten the globe by threatening world energy supplies, would seem at the moment to be converging around an Eastern Mediterranean epicenter that is no stranger to cataclysmic disasters, both God-inspired and man-made.

With George Bush still insisting on the need to fight “Islamic fascism” to the bitter end, Labor Party Defense Minister Amir Peretz imploring Israeli soldiers to turn southern Lebanon “to dust,” and Iran’s Mahmud Ahmedinejad declaring the need to wipe Israel off the map, the hubris, arrogance, and utter disdain for human life that has brought the Middle East to its latest precipice continues to harden the hearts of leaders and peoples alike. And all will be the losers because of it.

Mark LeVine is a professor of modern Middle Eastern History at UC Irvine and author of Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil (Oneworld, 2005) and the forthcoming Heavy Metal Islam (Random House/Verso). His website is

Copyright 2006 Mark LeVine