The imperial jigsaw
The details of contemporary Middle Eastern history must be placed in the context of "the American century" which Washington is determined will not end. Galal Nassar
maps the regional dynamics of America's imperial order
In the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1942, the US found its justification to declare war on Japan. As Japan was Germany's ally, Adolph Hitler declared war on the US, thereby removing the last barrier to America's entrance into World War II on the side of the Allies. This sequence of events laid the way for the US to scuttle the policy of isolationism that Congress had imposed on successive US administrations before and after World War I.
Armed with legitimate grounds for going to war, Washington was now in a position to bring an end to its Japanese rival in the Pacific and to encroach into the heart of war-torn Europe, precisely at a time when Washington's aspirations coincided with a complex international situation that promised the emerging superpower an opening to assume world leadership and to further its own economic interests.
America's military and economic prowess combined with the "historic debt" owed to the US -- the saviour of the free world from the peril of Nazism and the primary source of material and moral support for the momentous tasks of post-war reconstruction, creating a new equilibrium that would forestall the prospect of a third world war -- enabled Washington to impose its prescription for a post-war order. And so it did. It succeeded in obtaining the approval of the other victorious parties -- notably Britain and the Soviet Union -- for its project of creating the United Nations, which it had begun to promote among its allies almost immediately after entering the war, as the desired outcome of what it billed as the "great power concert".
In addition, it won approval for its vision for a new international economic order, which was enshrined in the Bretton Woods Agreements of 1945, which gave rise to the world's two largest international economic institutions, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and subsequently, to the World Trade Organisation. The three institutions became and remain America's key instruments for imposing its policies on governments around the globe. Simultaneously, NATO emerged as perhaps the largest and most powerful military alliance in history, and this, backed in particular by the military deterrent power the US began to build up, secured the strategic balance between East and West throughout the Cold War era.
The US was, thus, primarily instrumental in guaranteeing the relative stability in the post- WWII order, a stability that contrasted sharply with the stability that the great powers attempted but failed miserably to secure following WWI through the creation of the League of Nations.
DIVISION AND DISSOLUTION: Although the US had clearly been able to impose its will with regard to post-WWII international decision-making bodies, and in spite of its military and economic prowess, there loomed a formidable obstacle to the continued spread of American sway. This was the increasing global influence of the Soviet Union whose growing military might broke the American monopoly on military dominance and directly threatened, not just US interests in Europe and elsewhere in the world, but also the soil of the American mainland, which had long been out of reach to military threats from abroad. The powerful rivalry of the Soviet Union compelled US policy- makers to continuously strive to hold the moral and humanitarian upper hand as a means for checking the spread of communism.
However, with the break-up of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Eastern bloc, the US was dealt an entirely new hand. It had emerged victorious from the Cold War and now stood as the world's sole superpower. Not only did this cast into relief the vast chasm between its military and economic capacities and those of its former adversary, but it also brought to the fore Europe's military weakness and political fragmentation in the face of the repercussions of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The tragic ethnic conflicts that tore through the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans, in particular, drove home that European peace and security could not be safeguarded without direct American involvement, which explains in part why Europe has been so divided over unified political and defence policies and structures, and even on matters that are only tangential to European interests.
Although Europe has achieved a high degree of economic integration, it has quite a way to go yet towards the realisation of political and military integration that would enable it to become a dynamic and influential power in international affairs. Although Europe foots nearly half of the world's material assistance to Third World nations, it has not yet managed to coordinate the allocation of this aid with unified political positions, rendering it little more than another international donor agency in the manner of the IMF. Many political and strategic analysts have suggested that if Europe is to improve its performance as an international power it must learn when and where to draw the line between European values and European politico-strategic interests.
Russia's situation is more complex, and its core problem resides in the wavering attitude towards remaining a major player in the international arena. Propelling this role is the fact that Moscow is heir to the Soviet Union's enormous nuclear arsenal -- sufficient to destroy the earth a hundred times over -- and that Russia, itself, is still a vast country with a population equivalent to that of the 15 European Union nations put together. Countervailing is the fact that the economy is in ruins -- its GDP is less than that of Spain -- and infested with corruption and organised crime, and the fact that the country is plagued by armed conflicts. Virtually paralysed by these conflicting and disruptive phenomena, Russia has been unable to summon the resolve to determine the leverage it should exert in international relations in general, and in its relations with the US and the EU, which now abuts on its borders, in particular.
THE ULTRA-AMERICAN RIGHT ASCENDS: The foregoing conditions have unquestionably worked in favour of the US bid for global hegemony and its virtual power to steer international political activity towards the realisation of its higher interests. However, the choices it makes and the way it goes about is to a great extent contingent upon the team that designs American foreign policy. Hence the considerable difference in style between the Clinton and Bush Jr's administrations, even as the essential thrust of American policy remained the same.
Merely to illustrate, while Clinton was willing to meet Hafez Al-Assad in order to advance Washington's policy for the Middle East by neutralising the Syrian opposition to the peace process, the younger Bush refuses to meet Al-Assad's son and heir, and instead is bent on pressuring Syria to a breaking point. Both Clinton and Bush headed post-Cold War administrations. Both asserted America's pre-eminence in international decision-making and both faced difficult economic circumstances at home. However, their approaches could not have been more diametrically opposed. This difference has everything to do with the divergent beliefs and attitudes governing the thinking of the two administrations and very little to do with 11 September 2001, which only provided pretext for the neo-conservative clique that now occupies the White House to exploit that event in the overbearing and arrogant way that it did, as is amply apparent from the statements and policy papers produced by key members of this administration well before 11 September.
The current administration in Washington is effectively a coalition of leading exponents of the Republican ultra-right, representing a fundamentalist Christian trend, the American oil lobby, the arms lobby, the pharmaceutical industry and big business in general, and supporters of the Likud and beyond the Likud towards the fulfilment of those millenarian beliefs that entail the reconstruction of Solomon's Temple, the destruction of Al-Aqsa Mosque, war against the Arabs and Muslims and whatever else is required to hasten the second coming of Christ.
It is an administration that is, thus, driven, on the one hand, to promote American economic interests and consolidate and expand America's international sway by securing direct control over the area that contains the world's most abundant oil fields, and, on the other hand, to fulfil what they take to be America's God-given right to universal dominion, engaging in the process their extremist philosophies founded upon such tendentious concepts of the clash of civilisations and the end of history.
It was this crew of power-crazed zealots that concocted a policy aspiring to impose American global hegemony and the "American way of life" on the world, and fate, as we mentioned above, and supplied the perfect opportunity in the form of the horrific attacks of 11 September 2001. Taking advantage of post-11 September hysteria, the US administration set into motion a two-pronged strategy focussing primarily on the Middle East.
First, it would work to wrest control over the region's vital energy resources and strategic areas, towards which end it would promulgate the American model of democratic culture. The aim of this was to penetrate those cultures that would otherwise be resistant to the drive of American political and cultural supremacy; an aim that emanated from the premise that altering the cultural map of the region was a prerequisite for a successful redrawing of the geo-political map. Second, it would protect and promote the Zionist project by guaranteeing the absolute military superiority of the Jewish state in the region. Towards this end, it would work to destroy the armies that might pose a threat to the future of Israel, to uproot the resistance movements and other forces in the Arab and Islamic world opposed to the American-Zionist enterprise and to promote the stability and growth of the Jewish state by pushing countries in the region to normalise their relations with it at the political, economic and even cultural levels.
IRAQ IN THE CROSSHAIRS: In stark contradiction to the neo-liberal economic policies the US administration espouses, oil is not a commodity that should be left to the vicissitudes of free market forces. Rather, to the hawks in the White House, it is the vital substance the control of which in terms of production, pricing and flow should remain securely in the hands of that power eminently qualified to be master of the world. This is not just because Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Pearle, Wolfowitz, Feith and all those others with the imperialist's gleam in their eye look down upon Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and Sudan as too "worthless" to have any say in the matter. Their sights are set further afield: Middle East oil is to become that primary strategic weapon with which to force an economic stranglehold on such emerging powers as Europe and, above all, China, whose consumption of oil is expected to climb to 10 million barrels a day by 2020. Also, in the event that some governments or societies get it into their head to stand up against the American giant or otherwise forget their place in the American scheme of things, turning off the oil taps is a convenient way of hitting them where it hurts.
The American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq was an essential step towards laying the groundwork for the neo-cons' imperialist design. Although the so-called coalition forces succeeded in seizing control over most of Iraqi territory in the first round of the battle (in ways that our still shrouded in mystery), the success of the campaign was ultimately contingent upon how the Iraqi people would respond to American plans for reshaping the political map of Iraq, and the laws and individuals that would be put into place so as to anchor the new design and ensure its continuity after the occupation forces left. Much, too, depended upon whether Iraq's neighbours would resign themselves to the new realities, particularly those countries such as Syria and Iran that are next on the list of America's targets. It did not take long to realise that Washington's plans were not working out as they had been sketched on the drawing board, and statements began to slip from the White House to the effect that the occupation would have to remain longer than anticipated -- up to five or 10 years.
The architects of the war had envisioned that the invasion would be "a piece of cake"; that the Iraqi people would strew the path with roses, the army gleefully rushing to the side of the "liberators" as they paraded through Iraq, later assuming those security and policing tasks for which occupation forces were so dismally prepared. Needless to say, such forecasts, along with the claims regarding weapons of mass destruction and links to Al-Qaeda, proved to be pure mythology. To compound the disaster, the Americans forged ahead with their campaign under no cover of international legitimacy whatsoever, the Security Council having rejected a US-British drafted resolution asking for a mandate, and the General Assembly and the rest of the international community, not to mention such important institutions as the Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches, crying out against the war well before it was launched.
Virtually from the outset of the occupation, there emerged an Iraqi national resistance movement that quickly gained momentum as it took onboard Iraqi popular forces of all ethnic and religious affiliations. The resistance was not only supported by regional powers such as Syria and Iran, but also by many international powers that sensed peril in American ambition and realised that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was only a step towards the realisation of the US administration's hegemonic galaxy in which all must orbit around an American sun. Herein resides the crux of the Iranian and Syrian crises. These two so-called "renegade states" are currently standing in the way of this celestial design and Washington will continue to up the pressure against them until they toe the line with American interests, or at least stop obstructing its plans by directly or indirectly supporting the Iraqi resistance and generally fomenting trouble for America in the region.
THE ISRAEL FACTOR: Most political commentators and analysts agree that Israel was a prime motivating factor behind the American assault on the region. Israel has numerous allies in key positions in American decision-making centres, especially the Department of Defense, who have made no bones about the connection between this assault and Israel.
In 1996, former Department of Defense adviser Richard Pearle presented a report to Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu advising him to scrap Oslo and reoccupy territories designated for Palestinian self-rule. Within days after 11 September, Paul Wolfowitz, former assistant secretary of defense, together with Pearle, presented Bush with a plan for invading Iraq. Moreover, Wolfowitz notified his Israeli counterpart the moment that Bush gave the green light for war preparations to start. Soon afterwards, a coordinating committee was created containing top American and Israeli defence and intelligence officials. Then there was Jay Garner, former military governor of Iraq and a close friend of Sharon, who was an avid advocate of American support for Israel's Arrow transcontinental missile project and was also instrumental in paving the way for Israeli infiltration into Iraq in the days following the cessation of hostilities and the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
Some observers believe that one of the objectives of the American occupation of Iraq, in the mind of these pro-Israeli officials, was to create the conditions favourable to a puppet regime that would help form a Baghdad-Tel Aviv axis that would spearhead the drive to the regional normalisation with Israel and help the latter recuperate its efficacy as a regional power working on behalf of the US interests. That such a status would be threatened by the continued and intensive presence of US forces in the region may to some extent explain Washington's haste to stir hornet nests in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq; the idea being to provide excuses for sustained American presence until time is ripe for implementing a strategy whereby Israel could resume its role as America's regional proxy. Israel's current drive to pacify the occupied territories, even to the point of giving up some of them, is its not so considerable down- payment on the American-sponsored regional role that awaits it.
Since the beginning of the occupation, the administration in Washington has sustained a virtually uninterrupted stream of accusations and threats against Syria, the constant message being that if Damascus does not stop supporting the Iraqi resistance the US will have no difficulty in finding the justifications for bringing Syria into its crosshairs next. Washington has variously charged that Syria possesses chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, that it has allowed "terrorists" to infiltrate across its borders into Iraq, that it harbours terrorists on its own territory and supports terrorist organisations elsewhere (Hizbullah, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad), that its presence in Lebanon was a form of foreign occupation and that it is responsible for the assassination of Lebanese politicians opposed to that presence. The latter allegation is by far the most serious in view of the recently released Mehlis report tracing responsibility for the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri to the upper echelons of the Syrian regime. It is no coincidence that the list of US accusations against Damascus coincides with that of Israel, which has also stepped up its campaign to intimidate Syria.
SYRIA NEXT? In spite of the denials of American officials, there are strong indications that concrete plans for a military operation against Syria exist and have existed for some time. When the neo-cons reached power in Washington, they drew up several scenarios for dealing with Syria as an impediment to both Israeli regional and US hegemonic designs. Nevertheless, as US forces became increasingly bogged down in Iraq, the military option had to be put on hold, aside from the possibility of limited operations along the Syrian-Iraqi border, although this situation could alter dramatically if the Security Council, goaded by the US, adopts a harsh resolution against Syria on the basis of the Mehlis report.
With the military option shelved, temporarily at least, decision-makers in Washington have mooted the possibility of harsh economic sanctions against Syria. But, as it is unlikely that such pressure would have a major impact in view of the fact that Syria's foreign trade depends mostly on its economic relations with Europe and the rest of the Arab world, thinking has turned in another direction. During the second Gulf War, the Jordanian leadership had come out in support of Saddam. In order to atone for this sin in the wake of Iraq's defeat, Jordan was persuaded to sign the Wadi Araba Accord with Israel. Some in Washington and Israel believe that it might be possible to apply the Jordanian model to Syria, which in view of its current difficulties might be induced into making certain concessions and, perhaps, concluding a peace agreement that would end the state of hostility between Damascus and Tel Aviv and bring the former into the axis intended to spearhead the normalisation process with Israel.
IMPERIAL DEMOCRACY: There remains the question as to the manner in which the US will avail itself of the "spread of democracy" as a means to contain the Arab and Islamic world, and Syria in particular. Certainly, many here would agree that democracy is not a gift which is in Bush's power to force down our throats, ostensibly to free us of decades of despotism and equip us for a new phase of political, economic and social development. In all events, the experiences of the Arab and Islamic worlds as they struggled to bring the relationship between ruler and ruled into conformity with the principles of civil freedom and democratic practice, and the effects of this experience on the international situation, and the US and Israel in particular, have led many analysts in Western political and strategic research centres to conclude that the political crises that have cast their shadow across the globe are the direct product of the dismal economic and social failures of dictatorial regimes. According to this reading, "terrorism" is the most salient manifestation of this failure.
At the same time, they have observed that those countries that exhibit a degree of democratic practice are also those that are more prepared to come to terms with the US-Israeli enterprise. The Arab-Israeli agreements that have been concluded were preceded, on the Arab side, by political reform measures intended to generate a greater level of democratic openness. More generally, strategists in the US believe that if this region is to change politically in the direction that Washington desires, its societies must undergo a fundamental cultural transformation that renders them more open to the West, and that this cannot take place under an authoritarian climate. What is required, instead, is a voluntary transition along the lines of Western/American values. Furthermore, this conviction has combined with a sense of urgency out of the belief that the longer the process of transformation is delayed the greater the likelihood that the situation in the region will slip out of control.