Patrick Cockburn: How Neoliberalism and Cold War Obsessions Fractured the Middle East

By Patrick Cockburn, a Middle East correspondent for the Independent of London and the author of five books on the Middle East, the latest of which is (OR Books). Originally published at

We live in an age of disintegration. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Greater Middle East and Africa. Across the vast swath of territory between Pakistan and Nigeria, there are at least seven ongoing wars — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and South Sudan. These conflicts are extraordinarily destructive. They are tearing apart the countries in which they are taking place in ways that make it doubtful they will ever recover. Cities like Aleppo in Syria, Ramadi in Iraq, Taiz in Yemen, and Benghazi in Libya have been partly or entirely . There are also at least three other serious insurgencies: in southeast Turkey, where Kurdish guerrillas are fighting the Turkish army, in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula where a little-reported but ferocious guerrilla conflict is underway, and in northeast Nigeria and neighboring countries where Boko Haram continues to launch murderous attacks.

All of these have a number of things in common: they are endless and seem never to produce definitive winners or losers. (Afghanistan has effectively been at war since 1979, Somalia since 1991.) They involve the destruction or dismemberment of unified nations, their de facto partition amid mass population movements and upheavals — well publicized in the case of Syria and Iraq, less so in places like South Sudan where more than have been displaced in recent years.

Add in one more similarity, no less crucial for being obvious: in most of these countries, where Islam is the dominant religion, extreme Salafi-Jihadi movements, including the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda, and the Taliban are essentially the only available vehicles for protest and rebellion. By now, they have completely replaced the socialist and nationalist movements that predominated in the twentieth century; these years have, that is, seen a remarkable reversion to religious, ethnic, and tribal identity, to movements that seek to establish their own exclusive territory by the persecution and expulsion of minorities.

In the process and under the pressure of outside military intervention, a vast region of the planet seems to be cracking open. Yet there is very little understanding of these processes in Washington. This was recently well illustrated by the of 51 State Department diplomats against President Obama’s Syrian policy and their suggestion that air strikes be launched targeting Syrian regime forces in the belief that President Bashar al-Assad would then abide by a ceasefire. The diplomats’ approach remains typically simpleminded in this most complex of conflicts, assuming as it does that the Syrian government’s barrel-bombing of civilians and other grim acts are the “root cause of the instability that continues to grip Syria and the broader region.”

It is as if the minds of these diplomats were still in the Cold War era, as if they were still fighting the Soviet Union and its allies. Against all the evidence of the last five years, there is an assumption that a barely extant moderate Syrian opposition would benefit from the fall of Assad, and a lack of understanding that the armed opposition in Syria is entirely by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda clones.

Though the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is now widely admitted to have been a mistake (even by those who supported it at the time), no real lessons have been learned about why direct or indirect military interventions by the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East over the last quarter century have all only exacerbated violence and accelerated state failure.

A Mass Extinction of Independent States

The Islamic State, just celebrating its second anniversary, is the grotesque outcome of this era of chaos and conflict. That such a monstrous cult exists at all is a symptom of the deep dislocation societies throughout that region, ruled by corrupt and discredited elites, have suffered. Its rise — and that of various Taliban and al-Qaeda-style clones — is a measure of the weakness of its opponents.

The Iraqi army and security forces, for example, had 350,000 soldiers and 660,000 police in June 2014 when a few thousand Islamic State fighters , the country’s second largest city, which they still hold. Today the Iraqi army, security services, and about 20,000 Shia paramilitaries backed by the massive firepower of the United States and allied air forces have into the city of Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, against the resistance of IS fighters who may have numbered as few as . In Afghanistan, the of the Taliban, supposedly decisively defeated in 2001, came about less because of the popularity of that movement than the contempt with which Afghans came to regard their corrupt government in Kabul.

Everywhere nation states are enfeebled or collapsing, as authoritarian leaders battle for survival in the face of mounting external and internal pressures. This is hardly the way the region was expected to develop. Countries that had escaped from colonial rule in the second half of the twentieth century were supposed to become more, not less, unified as time passed.

Between 1950 and 1975, nationalist leaders came to power in much of the previously colonized world. They promised to achieve national self-determination by creating powerful independent states through the concentration of whatever political, military, and economic resources were at hand. Instead, over the decades, many of these regimes transmuted into police states controlled by small numbers of staggeringly wealthy families and a coterie of businessmen dependent on their connections to such leaders as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

In recent years, such countries were also opened up to the economic whirlwind of neoliberalism, which destroyed any crude social contract that existed between rulers and ruled. Take Syria. There, rural towns and villages that had once supported the Baathist regime of the al-Assad family because it provided jobs and kept the prices of necessities low were, after 2000, abandoned to market forces skewed in favor of those in power. These places would become the backbone of the post-2011 uprising. At the same time, institutions like the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) that had done so much to enhance the wealth and power of regional oil producers in the 1970s have lost their capacity for united action.

The question for our moment: Why is a “mass extinction” of independent states taking place in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond? Western politicians and media often refer to such countries as “failed states.” The implication embedded in that term is that the process is a self-destructive one. But several of the states now labeled “failed” like Libya only became so after Western-backed opposition movements seized power with the support and military intervention of Washington and NATO, and proved too weak to impose their own central governments and so a monopoly of violence within the national territory.

In many ways, this process began with the intervention of a U.S.-led coalition in Iraq in 2003 leading to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the shutting down of his Baathist Party, and the disbanding of his military. Whatever their faults, Saddam and Libya’s autocratic ruler Muammar Gaddafi were clearly demonized and blamed for all ethnic, sectarian, and regional differences in the countries they ruled, forces that were, in fact, set loose in grim ways upon their deaths.

A question remains, however: Why did the opposition to autocracy and to Western intervention take on an Islamic form and why were the Islamic movements that came to dominate the armed resistance in Iraq and Syria in particular so violent, regressive, and sectarian? Put another way, how could such groups find so many people willing to die for their causes, while their opponents found so few? When IS battle groups were sweeping through northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, soldiers who had thrown aside their uniforms and weapons and deserted that country’s northern cities would justify their flight by : “Die for [then-Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki? Never!”

A common explanation for the rise of Islamic resistance movements is that the socialist, secularist, and nationalist opposition had been crushed by the old regimes’ security forces, while the Islamists were not. In countries like Libya and Syria, however, Islamists were savagely persecuted, too, and they still came to dominate the opposition. And yet, while these religious movements were strong enough to oppose governments, they generally have not proven strong enough to replace them.

Too Weak to Win, But Too Strong to Lose

Though there are clearly many reasons for the present disintegration of states and they differ somewhat from place to place, one thing is beyond question: the phenomenon itself is becoming the norm across vast reaches of the planet.

If you’re looking for the causes of state failure in our time, the place to start is undoubtedly with the end of the Cold War a quarter-century ago. Once it was over, neither the U.S. nor the new Russia that emerged from the Soviet Union’s implosion had a significant interest in continuing to prop up “failed states,” as each had for so long, fearing that the rival superpower and its local proxies would otherwise take over. Previously, national leaders in places like the Greater Middle East had been able to maintain a degree of independence for their countries by balancing between Moscow and Washington. With the break-up of the Soviet Union, this was no longer feasible.

In addition, the triumph of neoliberal free-market economics in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse added a critical element to the mix. It would prove far more destabilizing than it looked at the time.

Again, consider Syria. The expansion of the free market in a country where there was neither democratic accountability nor the rule of law meant one thing above all: plutocrats linked to the nation’s ruling family took anything that seemed potentially profitable. In the process, they grew staggeringly wealthy, while the denizens of Syria’s impoverished villages, country towns, and city slums, who had once looked to the state for jobs and cheap food, suffered. It should have surprised no one that those places became the strongholds of the Syrian uprising after 2011. In the capital, Damascus, as the reign of neoliberalism spread, even the lesser members of the mukhabarat, or secret police, found themselves living on only $200 to $300 a month, while the state became a machine for thievery.

This sort of thievery and the auctioning off of the nation’s patrimony spread across the region in these years. The new Egyptian ruler, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, merciless toward any sign of domestic dissent, was typical. In a country that once had been a standard bearer for nationalist regimes the world over, he didn’t hesitate this April to try to two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia on whose funding and aid his regime is dependent. (To the surprise of everyone, an Egyptian court recently Sisi’s decision.)

That gesture, deeply unpopular among increasingly impoverished Egyptians, was symbolic of a larger change in the balance of power in the Middle East: once the most powerful states in the region — Egypt, Syria, and Iraq — had been secular nationalists and a genuine counterbalance to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf monarchies. As those secular autocracies weakened, however, the power and influence of the Sunni fundamentalist monarchies only increased. If 2011 saw rebellion and revolution spread across the Greater Middle East as the Arab Spring briefly blossomed, it also saw counterrevolution spread, funded by those oil-rich absolute Gulf monarchies, which were never going to tolerate democratic secular regime change in Syria or Libya.

Add in one more process at work making such states ever more fragile: the production and sale of natural resources — oil, gas, and minerals — and the kleptomania that goes with it. Such countries often suffer from what has become known as “the resources curse”: states increasingly dependent for revenues on the sale of their natural resources — enough to theoretically provide the whole population with a reasonably decent standard of living — turn instead into grotesquely corrupt dictatorships. In them, the yachts of local billionaires with crucial connections to the regime of the moment bob in harbors surrounded by slums running with raw sewage. In such nations, politics tends to focus on elites battling and maneuvering to steal state revenues and transfer them as rapidly as possible out of the country.

This has been the pattern of economic and political life in much of sub-Saharan Africa from Angola to Nigeria. In the Middle East and North Africa, however, a somewhat different system exists, one usually misunderstood by the outside world. There is similarly great inequality in Iraq or Saudi Arabia with similarly kleptocratic elites. They have, however, ruled over patronage states in which a significant part of the population is offered jobs in the public sector in return for political passivity or support for the kleptocrats.

In Iraq with a population of 33 million people, for instance, no less than of them are on the government payroll, thanks to salaries or pensions that cost the government $4 billion a month. This crude way of distributing oil revenues to the people has often been denounced by Western commentators and economists as corruption. They, in turn, generally recommend cutting the number of these jobs, but this would mean that all, rather than just part, of the state’s resource revenues would be stolen by the elite. This, in fact, is increasingly the case in such lands as oil prices and even the Saudi royals begin to on state support for the populace.

Neoliberalism was once believed to be the path to secular democracy and free-market economies. In practice, it has been anything but. Instead, in conjunction with the resource curse, as well as repeated military interventions by Washington and its allies, free-market economics has profoundly destabilized the Greater Middle East. Encouraged by Washington and Brussels, twenty-first-century neoliberalism has made unequal societies ever more unequal and helped transform already corrupt regimes into looting machines. This is also, of course, a formula for the success of the Islamic State or any other radical alternative to the status quo. Such movements are bound to find support in impoverished or neglected regions like eastern Syria or eastern Libya.

Note, however, that this process of destabilization is by no means confined to the Greater Middle East and North Africa. We are indeed in the age of destabilization, a phenomenon that is on the rise globally and at present spreading into the Balkans and Eastern Europe (with the European Union ever less able to influence events there). People no longer speak of European integration, but of how to prevent the complete break-up of the European Union in the wake of the British .

The reasons why a narrow majority of Britons voted for Brexit have parallels with the Middle East: the free-market economic policies pursued by governments since Margaret Thatcher was prime minister have widened the gap between rich and poor and between wealthy cities and much of the rest of the country. Britain might be doing well, but millions of Britons did not share in the prosperity. The referendum about continued membership in the European Union, the option almost universally advocated by the British establishment, became the catalyst for protest against the status quo. The anger of the “Leave” voters has much in common with that of Donald Trump supporters in the United States.

The U.S. remains a superpower, but is no longer as powerful as it once was. It, too, is feeling the strains of this global moment, in which it and its local allies are powerful enough to imagine they can get rid of regimes they do not like, but either they do not quite succeed, as in Syria, or succeed but cannot replace what they have destroyed, as in Libya. An Iraqi politician that the problem in his country was that parties and movements were “too weak to win, but too strong to lose.” This is increasingly the pattern for the whole region and is spreading elsewhere. It carries with it the possibility of an endless cycle of indecisive wars and an era of instability that has already begun.

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20 comments

  1. Fiver

    You’ll not from Cockburn hear the full horrors of the nature of the actors and thinking that governed direct US involvement and activities aimed deliberately and ruthlessly to attain the current state of play – what has transpired over the last 70 years has been an unrelenting, anti-democratic, pro-capitalist imperial hardball stance from the US vis a vis all Arab and/or Muslim States excepting the Gulf Kingdoms, one involving so many wars in so many places the US has spawned multiple generations of war. No society, State or civilization can withstand the prolonged pounding the US has laid on Iraq or Afghanistan. Such is the devastation the poor already have one foot in the Stone Age.

    We did this on purpose, and for that a seriously big number of senior people are guilty of war crimes or crimes against humanity – like the 51 stooges at State pounding the table for more. Historians will rightly look at what we’ve done to these countries as genocidal, nothing less.

    1. fajensen

      It is noticeable that all those regimes that the US administration felt needed changing by waging war on them were secular regimes (except for Iran, which is of heretic).

      One suspects that the spreading of Wahhabi Islamism and the jihaddi terrorism that goes along with it, must be part of some demonic contract the US has made with Saudi Arabia.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Yes, I think its one of the many curiosities future historians will be arguing over – how on earth a bunch of medieval religious fanatics managed to become ‘untouchable’ for US intervention while brutal, but pragmatic nationalist autocrats were put in the target sights. I think we sometimes focus too much on what is going on in Washington, rather than look the other way at what can only be called a brilliant strategy pursued by the Gulf States to manipulate the west in their interests. They have oil of course, but so does Iraq and Libya. The have been Iago to the US’s Othello, manipulating the more powerful partner into pursuing wars on their behalf, while they just stood on the sidelines, laughing in pools of money.

        1. Sally

          Non of this is an accident. It has been planned for decades. Look up the “Yinon” stratergy and the “Clean break” stratergy. Israel and US Neo cons have been planning to overthrown secular Arab leaders and replace them with chaos of fundimentalist Islam for decades. The theory is that while they are in chaos they pose no threat to Israel. Also they are easier to loot when the country is in ruins. Here is a taster….

          “This theme can also be seen in “A Clean Break”: a strategy document written in 1996 for the Israeli government by a neocon “study group” led by future Bush administration officials and Iraq War architects. In that document, “divide and conquer” went under the euphemism of “a strategy based on balance of power.” This strategy involved allying with some Muslim powers (Turkey and Jordan) to roll back and eventually overthrow others. Particularly it called for regime change in Iraq in order to destabilize Syria. And destabilizing both Syria and Iran was chiefly for the sake of countering the “challenges” those countries posed to Israel’s interests in Lebanon.
          The primary author of “A Clean Break,” David Wurmser, also wrote another strategy document in 1996, this one for American audiences, called “Coping with Crumbling States.” Wurmser argued that “tribalism, sectarianism, and gang/clan-like competition” were what truly defined Arab politics. He claimed that secular-Arab nationalist regimes like Iraq’s and Syria’s tried to defy that reality, but would ultimately fail and be torn apart by it. Wurmser therefore called for “expediting” and controlling that inevitable “chaotic collapse” through regime change in Iraq.”

        2. Fiver

          No. The Gulf Kingdoms were essentially set up in order for major Anglo-American oil companies to be able to claim they were just legitimately doing business – not essentially stealing the region’s people’s wealth. The overall strategy of the US vis a vis the Saudis et al fundamentally changed when Israel demonstrated it was far more powerful than any purported enemy or combination of enemies in the 1967 Israeli-instigated war, and it first became known Israel had already developed nuclear weapons. Kissinger’s famous deal with the Saudis post October 1973 clearly involved Saudi (and other Kingdom) acceptance of Israel for so long as the US ruled the roost – in exchange for fountains of money and arms. From that moment forward, it has been Israeli strategy, largely executed on its behalf by the US, that has been the disastrous driver of events, very much including the serial regime change insanity post 9/11. The whole ‘conflict of civilization’, rise of ‘Islamic’ terror etc. is for all intents and purposes one giant false flag covering what has actually transpired: only 1 State will be left standing in the region, and that will be Israel, and almost certainly an Israel with an eye to becoming Greater Israel with no Palestinians. Saudi oil will soon peak, if it has not already done so. As soon as the oil equation allows, Israel will be where it was 2,000 years ago, with only the modern equivalent of Rome to have to worry about.

    2. SufferinSuccotash, Red Fool

      Those “51 stooges at State” were auditioning for future roles in the next Administration, which should tell us something about the most likely policy choices of the next Administration.

  2. EndOfTheWorld

    George Washington believed it was important to stay out of “foreign entanglements”, but nowadays our government seemingly can’t get enough of them. Always looking for more places to completely screw up.

    1. MikeNY

      Indeed. We prop up brutal dictators and corrupt, repressive regimes when it’s in our ‘interest’, And drop bombs and send drones on innocent people. And reduce entire countries to gravel. And then deliver them high-minded, hand-wringing lectures about the need to eliminate ‘terrorism’.

  3. James Levy

    This is just superb:

    In Iraq with a population of 33 million people, for instance, no less than seven million of them are on the government payroll, thanks to salaries or pensions that cost the government $4 billion a month. This crude way of distributing oil revenues to the people has often been denounced by Western commentators and economists as corruption. They, in turn, generally recommend cutting the number of these jobs, but this would mean that all, rather than just part, of the state’s resource revenues would be stolen by the elite.

    Ah, but the myth that the people who own stuff deserve to, and all that comes with that ownership, must be maintained at all costs! To admit anywhere that wealth flows to those who have the connections to divert it their way is to raise the question of why the wealth flows here the way it does. And we can’t have that.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      In an odd sort of way, such bloated payrolls act in many ways the same as a Universal Income. In countries like Italy and Spain, much attention has always been focused on the huge numbers of people employed to do very little in the public sector, with remarkably early retirements allowed. But in truth, their wages are low and the pensions are low – but this has the positive impact that these people use their free time and ‘basic’ income to set up the numerous small businesses that always seem such a feature of those countries – Italy in particular. Its much more wasteful and unfair than a proper social welfare/guaranteed job system, but it does create some of the same beneficial outcomes.

  4. Reality's Stooge

    It is ironic that the US has its knickers in a twist over Iran which more or less keeps to itself unless its vital interests are threatened. Obama’s 5+1 deal just ratcheted up the bellicose rhetoric denouncing Iran coming from neocon GOPers and Clintonite Democrats (encouraged by the Israeli right-wing which has gone off the charts in recent years).

    Why Iran? There is no evidence that the Iranian leadership has the capability or the desire to attack Israel or Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states. This is backed up by a myriad of former and current Mossad and CIA employees. It is also clear that Iran is a rational actor on the world stage and not run by unhinged Islamic radicals blinded by religious rage. Sure, former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmahdinejad was a provocative little twerp who delighted in pushing Israeli and US buttons, but he was never more than a blowhard with an attitude and he hasn’t been around for several years now. Since his departure Iran has been quite conciliatory.

    Contrast this with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), important US ally, buyer of arms from practically every Western nation with a pistol factory…and home to one of the most repressive regimes on earth. But wait….that’s not all! It is also responsible for exporting a particularly puritanical and intolerant flavor of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism. Over the last four decades the KSA has spent hundreds of billions of dollars to proselytizing this faith to Sunnis around the world. Want funding for a mosque or an Islamic social club in Karachi or Montreal? The KSA will gladly put up the cash…if you accept Wahhabi preachers in the mosque and stock the social club with Wahhabi propaganda. In short, the country’s religious authorities have been working hard trying to make Wahhabism the default interpretation of Islam for Sunnis everywhere.

    It also happens that every fanatical Sunni Islamist outfit from al-Qaeda to ISIS and the Taliban are preaching slightly tweaked versions of Wahhabi theology. Wahhabis, for example, believe ONLY their interpretation of Islam is valid and anyone who doesn’t follow their way should be killed. They are especially brutal when it comes to Shia Muslims (Iran, btw, is a Shia majority country) who they consider apaostates of the worst kind. The stuff Saudi clerics say about Shi’ites is on par with Nazi ravings about Jews…no exaggeration. Christians and Jews, at least, are “people of the book” but Shi’ites are lower than diseased dogs and killing them is an honorable act. Wahhabism has poured jet fuel on the simmering Sunni-Shia cauldron and ISIS and friends have taken this to heart in a big way.

    So basically America, by supporting the KSA, has come down on the Sunni side of the “debate”. And the absolutely gutless Western media gives the Saudis and their twisted sectarian ideology a pass and ignores their very considerable influence in keeping the Syrian war going strong. In fact, the US has all but aligned itself with Saudi and Qatari funded Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda offshoot in Syria. And while Wahhabi influenced nutjobs blow themselves up in airports and markets and Shia mosques and concert halls…we are to believe al-Qaeda and a hodgepodge of Wahhabi Islamists are an improvement over Bashar al-Assad’s regime and we should be actively involved on their behalf? That is just batsh*it insane. But Iran is the biggest threat to stability in the Middle East – after Assad of course. Sure, makes perfect sense. Unbelievable.

    Patrick Cockburn is ok but gives the US too much credit. His colleague at the Indy Robert Fisk, despite his sometimes overwrought writing style, consistently speaks truth to power and isn’t afraid to step on some toes in the process.

  5. digi_owl

    What is happening in the middle east is pretty much what happened in Europe during the 30 year war.

    Keep in mind that the nations of the middle east we know today is the artificial remains of the Ottoman empire. It was carved up the the British and the French after WW1, because the Ottomans sided with the losers.

  6. Steve H.

    – We live in an age of disintegration.

    We live in an age of global integration. These statements are teleological nonsense when put together.

    – too weak to win, but too strong to lose.

    That’s the ecological norm, leading to iteration and succession.

    – In Iraq with a population of 33 million people, for instance, no less than seven million of them are on the government payroll

    That’s about 21%, the US is currently about 15%, and California has more people than Iraq, so consider including those jobs as ‘government’ jobs.

    Point being, Cockburn is telling a story about the Middle East which is really a reflection of the U.S. The moral outrage is expressed differently here, but we are not mainly Islamic, and the bombs have been financial, with murderous oppression happening mostly on an individual basis. But the moral outrage is real.

    The Democratic con is now less than a month away. It’s outcome is far more uncertain than generally acknowledged. It will determine how that moral outrage is expressed for a generation. Consider the TT* trade pacts as a bellweather, as they are the neo-steroids that give an illusory hope of ‘strong enough to win’ for those who are already winning.

  7. Plenue

    And yet I still encounter people who claim we live in an era of relative peace. Compared to what, exactly?

  8. emptyfull

    “Against all the evidence of the last five years, there is an assumption that a barely extant moderate Syrian opposition would benefit from the fall of Assad, and a lack of understanding that the armed opposition in Syria is entirely dominated by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda clones.”

    Is this really the assumption? Or is a weak, demonized Sunni terror-state in Syria seen as beneficial for our MIC and “friends and allies” in the region? The anti-Assad war has always, imho, been about breaking the “Shia Crescent.”

    1. emptyfull

      Actually, I think that was the original premise of intervention in Iraq too. “Real men go to Tehran.” Remember that? Perhaps this might be why a Saudi prince or two accidentally, indirectly provided help to men who inexplicably turned terrorist against their good friends the United States?

      Ahh.. mideast politics… The secret sauce to turn any thinking person foily.

  9. Indrid Cold

    “Barrel Bombing” is just bombing. Which they’re all doing and have been. Including the US. I wouldn’t doubt that the Syrian armed forces make an effort to avoid just blasting innocents, but I’m sure that if there are Anshar Al Sham guys holed up in some building, nobody is checking with Damascus to make sure there aren’t any civilians in there. Barrell bombs are just gravity bombs. They just don’t have the shape we all expect bombs to have.

    1. FortyYearsInThe UniversitySystem

      Yes. As soon as I saw that `barrel bombing`nonsense in Cockburn`s article and his absurd claims that Assad is the vile dictator the US claims I understood why many observant people have put Cockburn on the `watch`list as another half-concealed stooge of the empire. Assad is much more popular in Syria than Obama is in the US or Cameron is in the UK or Hollande is in France, etc., etc. But that doesn`t fit the narrative, does it.

  10. Wade Riddick

    It’s hard to analyze the conflict in the Middle East when you conflate two underlying trends into one.

    The Middle East is currently having its war of Enlightenment alongside its war of decolonization/independence.

    1) When you conflate religion and politics, you turn democracy into heresy. Any attempt to criticize the government turns concerned citizens into heretics. If the government is holy and from God then those competing for power by criticizing those already in power are blaspheming. It’s this simple. The Middle East never had its war of Enlightenment. That’s taking place right now.

    2) It’s having a war of decolonization. It’s throwing off the last vestiges of the corrupt old colonial order. Iraq and Libya were corrupt dictatorships propped up by a bureaucracy whose sole concern was extracting the maximum money out of the gifts underfoot. The Middle East remained a set of thinly governed colonies long after they overthrew colonial powers. The basic patterns of extraction remained with embezzled money disappearing into overseas accounts. From Britain to Hussein and Italy to Qadaffi, what change was there really for investment and freedom in the native population?

    Whenever radicals revolt against corrupt secularists, they resort to illiberal Islamism – which unites the Sunnis – through a radical ideology exported courtesy of Saudi oil money – but is ultimately a disaster for building a fair, inclusive, modern state that respects the rights of its citizens.

    And, well, where do you have left to move in this environment when you’re fighting against a group of corrupt religious fundamentalists (e.g., Iran)?

    These are the dissenting colonial Protestants leading a revolution against merry old England in 1787. Where else are disorganized opposition figures going to turn except the common culture of Islam to legitimize their pursuit of more just political system?

    Are we going to give them democracy? How do you expect us to export a product we no longer manufacture or use? Atheists don’t proselytize.

    Kissinger wanted that colonial relationship to continue to guarantee the supply of a strategic commodity, oil, which our enemies always seemed more than willing to sell us anyway. If those are your goals, then what choice does the U.S. have once it’s already committed the mistake of siding with corrupt fundamentalists as a substitute for the old colonizers? (To a substantial extent you can see similar colonial relationships in American states cursed with an abundance of natural resources.)

    And let’s not forget an old observation on the dangers of nostalgia at work here. All of these fundamentalisms pretend to be backward-looking because of the convenience it offers in simplifying negotiations. Nostalgia is a very powerful draw because it imagines there was once a perfect world to which we can return. If it’s possible to get back to the perfect caliphate, then there’s no room for forgiveness for those standing in the way. You don’t have to compromise with your enemies. Hardly a judicious launching point for a liberal revolution.

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