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“The Rise of Islamic State” Offers Policy Lessons for US Hawks

In a new book, Patrick Cockburn looks at the legacy of recent wars in the Middle East.

(Image: Verso Books)

Washington’s hawk community maintains an intractable willingness to throw the United States into costly, ineffective wars. Despite the horrendous track record of the last 15 years – including the untold human suffering and flagrant worsening of national security wrought by Bush-era engagements – it seems that the all-or-nothing, capitulate-or-perish approach to ostensible adversaries is still what passes for US diplomacy.

Recent events in Congress are a disheartening reminder of this. Unless Iran completely dismantles its nuclear program (a very unlikely scenario), hardliners in the United States and Israel insist that the country remains a legitimate military target.

In a rush to the bottom, both chambers rolled out unprecedented strategies for undermining US negotiations with Iran, consequently inching the nation closer to war: The House leveraged guest speaker Benjamin Netanyahu as a pro-military intervention foil; in the Senate, 47 Republicans signed a letter to Iran warning that any deal made with Obama could be later annulled or amended.

Outside of displaying how broken Congress has become under the bipartisan system, these juvenile antics underscore the hawks’ undying commitment to threats of violence as foreign policy tools, no matter their demonstrated ineffectiveness. To those mired in American exceptionalism, a military strike is preventable by nothing short of complete submission to the United States’ will. This unrealistic expectation will not yield results, and the pursuit of it will only lead to another colossal moral failure – a war that could destroy hundreds of thousands of lives.

During a period of unnecessarily hostile rhetoric and militaristic grandstanding, we would do well to step back and look at the legacy of recent wars, as well as at how convoluted and deserving of nuanced approach ongoing conflicts in the Middle East truly are.

Creating Power Vacuums: Gasoline on the Fire of Extremism

In The Rise of Islamic State [Verso Press], Patrick Cockburn – Middle East correspondent for The Independent – concisely delineates the origin of ISIS, providing greater clarity and insight than most media outlets have on this widely misunderstood subject. The book’s sober analysis of the Islamic pseudo-state delves into the deleterious effects of United States military operations on Middle East regional stability, as well as the wide-ranging support network for Sunni extremism emanating from US allies.

That the intention behind invading Iraq had nothing to do with combating Islamic terrorism is beyond dispute. So too is the ringing speciousness behind US claims to democracy promotion and commitment to toppling tyrants. The fall of Baathist dictator Saddam Hussein paved the way for another would-be autocrat, Nouri al-Maliki, who systematically alienated the county’s Sunni population. For all its investment, Washington received a highly corrupt regime filled with antagonistic and revenge-seeking kleptocrats, rather than a stable ally to leverage for imperial neoliberal foreign policy objectives in the Middle East.

According to Cockburn, ISIS’ rapid spread into Iraq was abetted by two primary factors: the Sunni uprising in Syria – through which ISIS acquired safely navigable land, recruits and resources – and the sectarian policies and violence that isolated Iraq’s Sunnis from the ruling Shiite elite. Cockburn’s remarks on the perspective of Sunnis living in ISIS-controlled territory: “Many of the Sunni living in the new caliphate did not like their new masters and were frightened of them. But they were even more frightened of the Iraqi army, the Shia militias, and . . . pro-Assad militias in Syria.”

He cites an email from a Sunni friend of his living in ISIS-occupied Mosul to illustrate this point. In the message, the author describes the human toll from the Iraqi military’s indiscriminate bombing campaign:

The bombing hurt civilians only and demolished the generator . . . I have just heard from a relative who visited us to check on us after that terrible night. He says that because of this bombardment, youngsters are joining ISIS in tens, if not in hundreds, because this increases hatred towards the government, which doesn’t care about us as Sunnis being killed and targeted.

Sunni extremism – the ultimate foe in the United States’ global war on terror – has won out in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq. The power vacuum that emerged following the downfall of Saddam Hussein contributed to already simmering hostilities between various sects. Disenfranchised Sunnis – no matter how mistrustful of the jihadist rank-and-file of ISIS – tread a delicate line between bad and worse political conditions. Along with the disregard for human suffering exhibited by the untrained and highly ineffective Shia-dominated Iraqi military, what emerges is a climate of fear and frustration for civilians, and one of opportunity for jihadists eager to expand their hateful brand of violence by attracting angry recruits and plundering easily conquered urban centers for resources.

In the opening pages of the Rise of Islamic State, Cockburn discusses the general failure of US policies in the fight against global terror:

Today al-Qaeda-type movements rule a vast area in northern and western Iraq and eastern and northern Syria, several hundred times larger than any territory ever controlled by Osama bin Laden. It is since bin Laden’s death that al-Qaeda affiliates or clones have had their greatest successes, including the capture of Raqqa in the eastern part of Syria, the only provincial capital in that country to fall . . .

This is sobering. All the more so because US adventurism in the war on terror has killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, not to mention thousands of US service men and women. With no payoff from these failed policies and an increasingly volatile region comprised of partially disintegrated nation-states locked into seemingly endless conflicts, the eagerness of US hawks to instigate yet another armed confrontation in the region not only flies in the face of reason, but also reveals a scorn for human life.

When Your Enemies are Your Friends

While Republicans spin enemies for future wars, the US government continues its cozy relationship with nations directly responsible for the proliferation of Sunni extremists, including those that brought down the Twin Towers.

Saudi Arabia – US ally in name – has had a profound influence on the dissemination of jihadist thought. From Indonesia to Africa, Saudi Arabia has openly funded the fundamentalist indoctrination of Muslims. According to Cockburn, this has led to the “the spread of sectarian strife between Sunni and Shia,” and he notes that, “[t]he latter find themselves targeted with unprecedented viciousness” as a result of Saudi Arabia’s influence peddling.

He writes:

The importance of Saudi Arabia in the rise and return of al-Qaeda is often misunderstood and understated. Saudi Arabia is influential because its oil and vast wealth make it powerful in the Middle East and beyond. But it is not financial resources alone that make it such an important player. Another factor is its propagating of Wahhabism, the fundamentalist, eighteenth-century version of Islam that imposes sharia law, relegates women to the status of second-class citizens, and regards Shia and Sufi Muslims as non-Muslims to be persecuted along with Christians and Jews.

This religious intolerance and political authoritarianism, which in its readiness to use violence has many similarities with European fascism in the 1930s, is getting worse rather than better.

As to the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States, Cockburn comments that there “was always something fantastical about the US and its Western allies teaming up with the theocratic Sunni absolute monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf” to champion human rights. The hypocrisy is glaring, but easily understood. Take for example the passing of King Abdullah in January, 2015.

A delegation consisting of supposedly disparate US political figures – from Democrats John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi to Republicans John McCain and Condoleezza Rice – flocked to pay homage to the late dictator. For a state head who would normally be subject to condemnation for human rights violations, representatives from both US parties possessed a remarkable reserve of admiration. At least admiration for the departed king’s oil reserves, which comprise one-fifth of those on the planet. Abdullah’s death came on the heels of OPEC’s decision to maintain oil production levels, thereby keeping global prices down. Financial interests and the drive for unfettered neoliberal growth trump concerns over fostering terrorism.

Taken together, US policy in the Middle East has been muddled, contradictory, and ultimately, very dangerous. Engaging in senseless war, searching in all the wrong places for the root of terrorism – to say that the United States has been floundering would be an understatement. The United States has actively aggravated preexisting tensions through its adventurism and mealy-mouthed support for state incubators of right-wing extremism. Hopefully, amnesia over these failures does not take hold, and the jingoism that undergirds Republican posturing over Iran dissipates through the application of these hard-learned lessons.

This may be too optimistic. Or maybe not. The complexity of events may force a reevaluation sooner rather than later. Cockburn notes a common saying among Iraqi politicians: “The Iranians and the Americans shout at each other over the table, but shake hands under it.” Perhaps it is now time to shake hands over the table if it means preventing another predictably horrifying war.

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