Set The Greater Middle East Ablaze
The Bush Administration was fond of touting the milestones of democracy and freedom (the two things are not the same), and in the early years they came in waves. At the same time, the forces of chaos threatened to overwhelm the progress. But as the years have passed, chaos has more often engulfed the enemies of democracy than its friends. Step back and consider the timeline of major events – not every battle or controversy, but the large-scale shifts between democracy, tyranny and extremism:
October-November 2001: U.S. invades Afghanistan, toppling the Taliban government.
December 2001: Conference of Afghan leaders in Bonn appoints Hamid Karzai as interim president.
March-April 2003: U.S. invades Iraq, toppling Saddam Hussein’s government.
July 2003: Iraqi Governing Council established as an interim government. Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay killed in a firefight with U.S. troops.
December 2003: Saddam Hussein captured. Also, Libya announces that it is surrendering its nuclear and other WMD program, which would be turned over to international inspectors.
December 2003-January 2004: Afghanistan loya jirga assembly adopts a new constitution.
March 2004: Iraq adopts an interim constitution.
June 2004: U.S. transfers sovereign power to the interim Iraqi government, headed by Ayad Allawi.
September 2004: UN Security Council passes a USNC Resolution 1559, demanding Syrian withdrawal from its occupation of Lebanon. Also, Don Rumsfeld airs the Bush Administration’s mounting concerns over Iran supporting the insurgency in Iraq.
October 2004: First Afghan election, won by Hamid Karzai, featuring high voter turnout and the participation of women. Karzai would be re-elected in August 2009, an election surrounded by disputes over various types of irregularities, and at present is scheduled by term limits to leave office following the next elections in April 2014.
December 2004: U.S. officials begin to raise public concerns about Syrian support for the insurgency in Iraq.
January 2005: Iraqis throng to polling places for the first parliamentary elections. Ibrahim al-Jaafari succeeds Allawi as Prime Minister. Meanwhile, elections in the Palestinian Authority (boycotted by Hamas) select Mahmoud Abbas as President and successor to the recently-deceased Yasser Arafat.
February 2005: Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri assassinated by car bombing in Beirut, generally believed to have been orchestrated by the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.
April 2005: Following the popular protests of the “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon and diplomatic pressure from the Bush Administration and the French government of Jacques Chirac to enforce UNSC Resolution 1559, Syria withdraws from Lebanon. The Lebanese protests take inspiration from similar movements in Ukraine and Georgia over preceding months.
May-June 2005: Free elections held in Lebanon without Syrian interference for the first time in 30 years, won by the party led by Saad Hariri, son of Rafik Hariri. The younger Hariri would serve as Prime Minister until 2011, when he would be succeeded by Najib Mikati.
May 2005: Kuwait grants women the right to vote and run for office.
September 2005: First Afghan parliamentary elections.
October 2005: Iraq adopts a permanent constitution via popular referendum.
December 2005: Second Iraqi parliamentary elections, featuring nearly 80% voter turnout. In May 2006, the new government would make Nouri al-Maliki the Prime Minister, succeeding al-Jaafari.
January 2006: Parliamentary elections in the Palestinian Authority, won by Hamas.
February 2006: Bombing of the Shi’ite al-Askari “Golden Mosque” in Iraq, triggering widespread sectarian violence.
April 2006: Taliban launch a major spring offensive in Afghanistan. The offensive is unsuccessful, but the first of several such offensives, usually in the spring, that have protracted the war while the Taliban remains ensconced in northern Pakistan and parts of southern Afghanistan.
June 2006: A U.S. airstrike kills Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
July-August 2006: Israel goes to war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
November-December 2006: Saddam Hussein convicted and executed.
December 2006-January 2007: U.S. launches the “surge” in Iraq.
February 2007: President Bush denounces the Iranian role in arming the insurgency in Iraq.
March 2007: Iran seizes 15 British Navy sailors in the Persian Gulf; they are released after brief captivity.
April 2007: Coalition forces seize Iranian-made weapons from insurgents in Iraq.
May 2008: Lebanese factions reach the Doha Agreement, an accord that resolved a lengthy political crisis involving fighting with Hezbollah, and appeared to set the government on a more stable footing for future elections and management and sharing of power.
September 2008: Elections held in Pakistan after General Pervez Musharraf resigned in August.
October 2008: U.S. Special Forces stage a raid into Syrian territory to kill militants operating across the border into Iraq.
June 2009: New elections in Lebanon, won again by Saad Hariri. Also, Iranian protests over the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – supporters of his opponent, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, contended that the election had been rigged even above and beyond the usual constraints imposed by the mullahs on Iran’s tightly limited “democracy” – become a mass movement, the “Green Revolution.” But under a government crackdown, the protests die down by the early months of 2010.
September 2009: President Obama announces a modest version of the “surge” in Afghanistan, albeit without any plan to pursue military victory over the Taliban.
March 2010: Third Iraqi parliamentary election. This time, it would take nine months of wrangling to establish a new government.
December 2010-January 2011: The “Arab Spring” begins with a protest movement in Tunisia that leads to the resignation of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
January-February 2011: Egyptian mass street protest movement culminates in the resignation of Hosni Mubarak and collapse of his government.
February 2011: Protests lead to civil war in Libya. The rebels capture the eastern coastal city of Benghazi, but the military consolidates control over the other major coastal cities. Also, protests erupt in Bahrain, leading to a crackdown by the monarchy.
March 2011: The U.S. joins a multinational force to enforce a U.N. no-fly zone in Libya, ultimately escalating to a bombing campaign against the regime. Also, a constitutional referendum is held in Egypt.
March-April 2011: Civil war breaks out in Syria; it remains ongoing, with the Assad regime facing off against a loose coalition of opposition groups, including a significant presence of Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups.
May 2011: U.S. Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan kills Osama bin Laden.
August-October 2011: The Qaddafi government collapses with the fall of Tripoli to the rebels in August, and Qaddafi himself is captured and killed in October.
October 2011: Elections in Tunisia, won by new Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who would resign in February 2013. The next elections are scheduled for December 2013. Tunisia has been seen as one of the Arab Spring’s relative successes, but remains threatened by car bombings and unrest.
November 2011: Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, in office since 1978, agrees to step down following 10 months of protests. An election would be held in February 2012, but with only one candidate.
December 2011: U.S. troops depart Iraq.
January 2012: Military coup in Mali, triggering a crackdown on the growing militant Islamist movement in the country.
May 2012: Egyptian elections, won by Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the first elected Islamist head of state in an Arab country.
June 2012: Mubarak convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
September 2012: Attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi and demonstrations surrounding the U.S. embassy in Cairo the same day.
January 2013: France sends troops to Mali to quash the Islamist separatist movement in the Saharan north of the country. Meanwhile, a terrorist attack kills dozens at a natural gas plant in Algeria, near the Libyan border.
May 2013: Lebanon’s Parliament, citing the Syrian civil war and ongoing disputes over the settlement of the Doha Agreement, votes to delay the June 2013 elections for 17 months.
June-August 2013: Elections in Mali following a June truce. As of September 2013, there has been some recent fighting, raising questions about the truce’s durability.
July 2013: Egypt’s military responds to popular mass protests against Morsi by staging a coup and placing Morsi under house arrest. The coup is followed by more protests, by Morsi’s supporters. In August 2013, an Egyptian court would set Mubarak free.
August 2013: Chemical weapons are used in Syria, apparently by the Syrian government but possibly also by the rebels. Efforts by President Obama and French President Sarkozy to organize a military response are ongoing, but appear stymied by the lack of support in Congress, the British Parliament, the UN Security Council and NATO and the active opposition of Russia.
Along the way, especially in 2011, we’ve seen more modest protests and reforms or crackdowns in places like Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Compare all of that to the face of the region in September 2001 – dominated by a few theocratic regimes (Iran and Taliban Afghanistan), a handful of Gulf monarchies, and a long row of strongmen – and you can see how far the project of remaking the face of the region has progressed. By no means is the news all good, but it’s all news compared to the statis that characterized the internal politics of most of the region before 9/11.
The Iraq War dominated U.S. political discussion for the greater part of five and a half years from mid-2002 to late 2007, and Americans have a tendency to focus on how the war affected our politics and foreign opinion of us. But it also gripped the attention of the Greater Middle East, dominating al Jazeera’s regional programming. For would-be democratic reformers, the scenes of voters lining up at the polls and even of squabbling parliamentarians in Iraq and Afghanistan presented an inevitable contrast to their own regimes. And, for that matter, for would-be Islamist revolutionaries, Iraq not only provided a place to prove themselves in battle, but also showed them how to run an insurgency in their own backyards. If U.S. intervention in the region wounded the pride of Arabs and Muslims, it also awakened them to the fact that maybe they could do it themselves – which was the idea of the neocon theory all along, that the process, once started, could develop a momentum of its own without requiring ceaseless American war. We would go to war in Iraq so we wouldn’t have to go to war everywhere else. The Bush Administration’s aggressive pressure also contributed to the distators’ walkbacks – Qaddafi abandoning his WMD program, Assad leaving Lebanon. Where Saddam had shown a face of defiance, the Arab peoples now saw that even a bloodied, quagmired U.S. could bring the region’s strongmen to heel.
Iraq alone wasn’t the sole cause of the turning; al Jazeera, which had arrived in 1996 and really took off after 9/11, itself had a role in changing the way the region’s people saw their societies. As Rany Jazayerli put it:
Al Jazeera was, from its first day on the air, something the Arab world had never seen before: a television channel in Arabic, available to almost everyone in the Arab world, that provided a frank and reasonably unbiased source of news. It provided the unvarnished truth, and that made it extremely dangerous. If there was corruption going on in Jordan, it was reported. If there was a government crackdown in Egypt, it was reported. If a Saudi dissident living in exile in England had some scandalous information about the Saudi royal family, it was reported. All you need to know about Al Jazeera is that its greatest critics are the Arab governments, who have applied all kinds of pressure on Qatar – where Al Jazeera is based – to tone down the rhetoric.
…For the last 15 years, then, the Arab world has had the access that was denied them for so long. They’ve seen the truth about how oppressive and hypocritical their own governments are, and they’ve seen the truth about how messy and imperfect and yet ultimately how ennobling and empowering Western democracies are…And having already opened the barn door to letting the masses own satellite dishes, the governments of the region were mostly helpless to do anything about it.
Satellite TV would not be the only technological advance to grease the skids; the internet and social networks like Facebook and Twitter were also altering the playing field. But tools of communications can be a two-way street for propaganda and surveillance, as well; what makes them work is when they have something to talk about.
While the tide of Arab and Muslim revolution was surging in the Greater Middle East, it was waning in the West. Directly provoking the “Arab street” raised concerns about retaliation by the extremists, but the opposite has been true since the region really began boiling in 2005. We’ve seen three really large-scale terror attacks – the kind that require coordination and planning – far from the Greater Middle East since 9/11: the October 2002 Bali bombing, the March 2004 train bombings in Madrid, and the July 2005 bus and train bombings in London. India, still locked in a front-line struggle with Pakistani extremists, has not been so fortunate, being hit by terror attacks in Mumbai in November 2008 (the work of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani Muslim terror group) and again in July 2011. The same is true of Chechen terror attacks in Moscow in 2002 and 2010. (And, of course, Islamists within Europe have been busy with their own forms of homegrown mischief.) The decline in large-scale terror operations is partly due to good fortune, good law enforcement and domestic surveillance; certainly there have been a number of attempted terror attacks against the U.S. that got pretty far, such as the December 2001 “shoe bomber,” the December 2009 “underwear bomber” and a May 2010 truck bomb in Times Square. And smaller independent attacks, some of them with major death tolls, have continued: the July 2002 LAX shooter, the Fall 2002 Beltway snipers, the November 2009 Fort Hood shooter, the April 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing. But any accounting of major terrorist attacks since the invasion of Iraq shows a distinct shift towards attacks within the region itself.
This, too, was – as Marshall acknowledged at the time – an inherent, if usually unstated, assumption of the neocon grand strategy. People who are busy killing each other won’t have time to kill anyone else. A region that is pulling itself apart will not be able to project force outward. A region engaged in a mad scramble for power internally will dedicate its arms, its money and its excitable underemployed young men to winning that struggle rather than staging complex covert operations in another hemisphere.
Sowing dissension among one’s enemies has a long history; perhaps the most successful example was Imperial Germany’s success in taking Russia out of World War I by shipping Lenin into Russia in the spring of 1917. In this case, it’s a logical extension of the “flypaper theory” of the Iraq War. The idea that the region’s Islamic extremists should be enticed into Iraq to fight U.S. troops was sometimes referred to as a “flypaper” strategy – that they’d be drawn in and trapped where we wanted them, and thus that a bloody insurgency was actually good news. Flypaper may sound like a callous attitude towards the safety of American troops, but the thinking is actually the ancient motivation of men at war: confront and kill the enemy on the battlefield so he cannot disturb your homeland. It is perhaps a more cynical approach to the security of the local population – but then, it’s not unreasonable to want the problems of Iraq and other nations in the region to be played out on their soil rather than ours.
That was never the original war plan, of course; the insurgency may not have been adequately planned for by the Bush team, but it did not result from any provocation by the United States – it was wholly the independent decision of those who rejected a democratic political process in which the Iraqi people would be sovereign. Nevertheless, it was implicit in the broader idea of creating a contest for supremacy in the heart of the region.
And in that regard, even though American troops have left Iraq and are nearing their departure from Afghanistan, the flypaper theory writ large is alive and well. Civil war in Syria, Libya and Afghanistan, coup in Egypt, revolution in Tunisia…these are all conflicts that entice the jihadists to test their mettle and influence closer to home rather than travel to the West, and give them enemies other than the U.S., Europe and Israel against whom to vent their frustrations. In that regard, the current landscape may represent the fruits of the neocon project, but it’s also in line with old-fashioned cynical realpolitik (division to my enemies!) as well as embodying the kind of Jacksonian attitude towards one’s enemies that Harry Truman voiced in 1941 when he expressed the view that “If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible, although I don’t want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances.”
All of these attitudes are wholly foreign to President Obama and his national security team, but they have been neither willing nor able to put the genie back in the bottle, as the momentum and internal logic of the whirlwind have swept away one effort after another to re-impose order.
Where We Go From Here
The grand strategy of the neocons has long since passed out of their control, as few still have any influence with the Obama Administration or even in Congress. But the regional revolution they set ablaze is still with us, and they must trust that the path will be clear enough that even those skeptical of the project will make the proper choices. That is a dicey proposition, because few on either side of the political spectrum understand or accept the grand strategic proposition of turning the region’s angst inward to the battle for its own future.
On the Left, there remains no coherent grand strategy or even petit strategy. None of what is laid out above should excuse the Obama Administration from the choices it has made, its inability at times to face the new realities of the region for the challenges and opportunities they present, or its general preference (abroad as at home) for negotiating with elites rather than accepting the messy dynamism of popular sovereignty. In 2009, Obama spoke in Mubarak’s Egypt as if the region had been oppressed by President Bush rather than by its tyrants. Since then, as he has grudgingly let go of that illusion, he he failed when he had the chance to encourage moderate forces to rebel against the old order in Iran and Syria, was flat-footed in Egypt and constantly behind the curve in Libya. He has seemed, at times, more interested in weapons than people, and completely oblivious to the efforts of Iran and its ally Russia to gain regional hegemony. He has managed neither a strong hand controlling events nor to wash his hands of responsibility for them. He has acted less like the world’s policeman than the world’s meter maid, handing out tickets to scofflaws.
On the Right, Jacksonian critics of the neocon project have tended to focus on Islam as an insoluble obstacle to reforming the region, a critique that I’ve written about before as presenting a collision between two longstanding conservative paradigms: the view of human nature as universal and the view of culture as overriding in its importance. But the facts on the ground have mooted that objection, as nobody has a practical solution if the problem is something inherent in the faith of a billion Muslims; we have no choice but to appeal over the heads of culture to the basic human desire for a better life on this earth. Despairing of a solution is no solution at all.
The way forward must focus on seeking to encourage and influence popular movements to proceed in a democratic, pro-freedom, pro-American direction rather than trying to put the Humpty Dumpty of strongmen – nominally respectful of Westphalian borders and disciplined by international sanctions regimes – back together again. The revolution has come; we should do what we can to see to it that the Islamists are not left alone to ride the wave, as they did in Iran in 1979, Afghanistan in 1996 and Egypt in 2011. And there is a role again for realpolitik as well; we should see the proxy battles between Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey as an opportunity to play balance-of-power politics in the region and prevent one side from gaining the upper hand.
After the fire of September 11, the neocon plan for the Greater Middle East brought not peace, but a sword. America doesn’t need to wield that sword in every conflict – this is a fight that affects us and one we can influence, but in the end it is not our fight to win because it is not our people who must make the final choice. But our ability to affect the course of events begins by recognizing that it’s still the neocons’ world, there is no way out of the fire but forward.