It’s often difficult to determine whether the seemingly endless wars and interventions that followed the atrocities of 9/11are directed by incompetent fools or cunning and devious knaves. For thirteen years now, the US and its allies have carved a swathe of global violence across the world, which has left the shells of broken eggs everywhere but there is no sign of an omelette. In fact, there isn’t a single case in which Western military interventions have produced anything more than the formal trappings of parliamentary democracy.
The overwhelming and terrifying legacy of these wars has been more violence, death and destruction, state fragmentation and political chaos, the destabilisation of whole societies and whole regions, the strengthening of old corrupt elites and the creation of new ones, all of which has strengthened and empowered the same enemies that our governments are supposedly intending to destroy.
This less than stellar record raises a number of important questions about the conduct of that dark art that we call ‘foreign policy’. Has the militarism of the last thirteen years been a ‘rational’ attempt to pursue strategic and economic interests, such as control of resources, markets, supply routes, the elimination of strategic rivals and the boosting of the arms industry, using counterterrorism, WND and the war on terror as a convenient smokescreen?
Or is it the consequence of gross stupidity, shortsightedness, bureaucratic inertia, inner-circle groupthink, and shallow and ignorant politicians who respond continually to ephemeral political pressures, lobbying and j’accuse op eds with kneejerk reactions that take no account of the longterm repercussions of their decisions and fail to make contingency plans to prepare for them?
To put it yet another way, is Western foreign policy directed by men who think like Machiavelli, Bismarck, Talleyrand and Henry Kissinger, who know what they want to achieve and how to achieve it? Or by a hybrid combination of Alan Partridge,Captain Mainwaring and Al Capone that lacks the insight or intelligence to avoid policies ‘wholly contrary to the purpose in view’, as Voltaire once wrote of Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes?
Today our governments have thinktanks, informed commentators, academics, and security analysts at their disposal to help them make decisions. Yet they failed to see the possibility that launching an open-ended ‘war on terror’ in response to the 9/11 attacks might actually work to the advantage of the al-Qaeda franchise and provide it with a powerful recruiting tool. Or that the breaking up of the Iraqi state might lead to insurgency and civil war. Or that encouraging Ethiopia to overthrow the Islamic Courts Union might produce something like al-Shabaab. Or that deciding overnight to bomb Libya might result in the destruction of the Libyan state, the collapse of its government and rule-by-militia.
Unless you believe that these outcomes were entirely deliberate and sought-after, then they suggest that our governments do not actually understand the world they are living in or they way it functions; that they have no ability to analyse their mistakes and learn from them; and that they share the same characteristic that one historian once identified in Philip II of Spain, in whom ‘ No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.’
Take for example, the US project to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy’ Islamic State, as Obama promised yesterday, with air strikes and drone attacks in Iraq and Syria modelled on similar tactics used by the United States in Yemen and Somalia.
According to the New York Times, Obama’s determination to eradicate the IS ‘cancer’ follows ‘harsh criticism for saying two weeks ago that he did not have a strategy for dealing with ISIS in Syria.’ Now, hey presto! he has one, and to say that it doesn’t look very coherent doesn’t even begin to describe it.
In Syria, the US plans to bomb Islamic State, an organization that it helped create in order to fight the Assad government, while simultaneously promoting a new organization of ‘moderate rebels’ that will be entirely beholden to the CIA, in order to continue the fight against Assad.
This will supposedly be achieved by channeling weapons to favoured rebel groups, a policy that has already been tried and failed. An analysis published this week by the Conflict Armament Research (CAR) organization of Islamic State weaponry captured by Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria, found that ‘ M79 90 mm anti-tank rockets captured from IS forces in Syria are identical to M79 rockets transferred by Saudi Arabia to forces operating under the ‘Free Syrian Army’ umbrella in 2013.’
Again and again the supposedly ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels have merged with the more ‘extreme’ elements or proven to be indistinguishable from them. Islamic State itself has directly received training and weapons from many of the states who have funded the rebels, including Saudi Arabia. Yet incredibly, the Saudis are now going to provide training bases for a new generation of ‘moderate rebels’ who will fight both ISIS and the Assad government!
Meanwhile the US proposes to build a coalition of states to fight IS, nearly all of whom were instrumental in funding, training and facilitating the jihadist fighting organizations that gave rise to it in the first place. And as always, the faithful vassal-state Britain has joined the fray, with Lord Snooty promising to provide the Iraqi army with machineguns, in order to help ‘squeeze’ IS ‘out of existence.’
This will be good news for Manroy Engineering Ltd and other companies that manufacture machineguns, and it will undoubtedly help to replace the American machineguns, Humvees and other weapons that Iraqi units abandoned when they fled the Islamic State offensive during the summer.
But until Iraqis have a government and a society worth fighting for, there is no guarantee that many of these weapons may also end up in the IS arsenal. Given that the Anglo-American occupation effectively destroyed Iraqi society and left in place the Maliki government that Sunnis – and IS – have been rebelling against, it is really difficult to see how ‘we’ can conjure up a new society out of the wreckage and chaos that ‘we’ helped create, any more than ‘we’ can find ‘moderate rebels’ from the various organizations that once gave rise to IS.
Personally I have no problem with the notion that Islamic State must be fought. IS is a violent expansionist sectarian movement that has nothing to offer the peoples of the Middle East but pseudo-religious tyranny and endless war. It has murdered Shia, Christians, unarmed prisoners-of-war and captured journalists with shocking impunity and insouciance.
Such an organization is a direct threat to the lives and security of millions of people in Iraq, Syria, and beyond. But the rise of IS is a product of societies that have already been ‘destroyed and degraded’ – and it is from within those societies, and from within the region as a whole that the resistance to it must come.
All this brings us back to the question that I posted at the beginning of this piece, as to whether the interventionist process is driven by stupidity or devious calculation. The answer, I suspect, is both.
The characteristically hysterical attempts by the American and British governments to present IS – a movement that consists of between 18,000 to 30,000 fighters – as a threat to their own citizens and their ‘way of life’, rather than the Middle East itself; the dishonesty and historical amnesia with which these governments have ignored their own disastrous record; the rampant opportunism with which they have used IS as a justification for the establishment of new military bases in the Gulf States and an intensification of the ‘regime change’ project in Syria – all these factors suggest the amoral pursuit of ‘rational’ state interests.
But the latest reckless, ill-thought-out and back-of-a-fag packet response to the IS ‘evil’ also points back to Philip II, and the historical ‘wooden-headedness’ that Barbara Tuchman once analysed in her study of ‘the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests’ The March of Folly.
Today militarism is leading the Middle East and the world to catastrophe, and the latest war- that-is-not-a-war is just one more example. Because as horrendous as IS is, the imperialist disease that helped create it can never be part of the cure. Western military power may win some tactical victories, but it is incapable of reconstructing the societies that our governments and their allies have done so much to wreck, and is more likely to intensify the destruction and degradation and state fragmentation that has already wrought such havoc.
So whether it is the result of stupidity or calculation, Obama’s convoluted ‘destroy and degrade’ policy is likely to add another grim chapter to the march of folly of the 21st century’s forever wars – and another example of the reckless lunacy of a superpower with too much power and too little sense, and which appears to believe, again and again, that the best way to put out a fire is to shower the flames with gasoline. .