President Obama’s bombing of ISIS in Syria has prompted opposition from many prominent liberals, blasting what they regard as a doomed strategy. “American policy on this issue has so far been both incomprehensible and counterproductive,” writes the Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain.
But it is only incomprehensible and counterproductive if one assumes that the US government is sincerely trying to “eradicate” ISIS. The standard liberal analysis has American elites bumbling into another war, oblivious to the consequences, unwittingly acting against their own interests.
How much death and destruction would American terror warriors have to cause before their ostensible opponents rejected their claims of noble intent? During the thirteen years of the “war on terror,” actions of the United States government have consistently and predictably strengthened anti-American terrorist groups. To chalk this all up to stupidity — rather than unstated imperial imperatives — is to choose ignorance.
The American “war on terror” has been terrific for jihadist groups. According to famed FBI interrogator Al Soufan, Al Qaeda had about four hundred operatives on 9/11. Today, the group numbers well into the thousands, with thriving affiliates in several countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Its wayward cousin, Islamic State, rules over millions of people in territory the size of the United Kingdom.
One need not accept the hysterical warnings of American politicians to recognize that the ascendance of ISIS is a serious problem, especially for the people of Iraq and Syria. If you use the official goal as a gauge, the “war on terrorism” is a disaster.
This isn’t news to US government officials, who have access to both intelligence reports and Google. To tell them that their war is creating blowback is to tell them nothing they don’t already know. (The CIA, after all, coined the term.) No doubt some in the security and political establishment believe violence is the best way to fight terrorism. This is who they are and what they do. But other forces are obviously at work.
One of these forces is simple self-interest. Like the supposed Communist threat before it, terrorism offers a politically potent, catchall rationale for militarism. From the perspective of those who benefit from war-making, the cycle of violence is a virtuous one. The war on terrorism, as Chris Floyd pointed out a few years ago, is a gift that keeps on giving — “immensely rewarding, in many different ways, for those who operate or assist it, whether in government, media, academia, or business.”
Corporate chieftains, pro-war pundits, and political leaders didn’t huddle in a room and plot to keep the war going. They didn’t have to; the process drives itself as elites fulfill their wants.
“War is not the answer.” In response to that slogan, supporters of war sometimes quip, “It depends what the question is.” They’re right. War is indeed the answer, or one of them, if the question is, “How does the US government seek to maintain power and advance its own economic interests?”
America’s enabling of terrorism goes well beyond military action against them. The US response to the uprisings in both Libya and Syria reveals a government willing to empower terrorist groups in pursuit of its actual core goals: amassing wealth and combating Iran, which is itself a largely economic priority in that Iran is the primary threat to American hegemony in this oil-rich region.
Many liberals recognize the economic imperatives at stake, yet these rarely enter their analyses of the “war on terrorism.” Without an awareness of economic motive — or, if you prefer, “geopolitics” — certain military moves of the United States make no sense.
Consider US involvement in removing Qaddafi. It was predictable, and predicted, that regime change would strengthen terrorist groups; the presence of Al Qaeda-aligned fighters among the various rebel factions was not merely a talking point of those opposed to NATO bombing. The US government also knew that eastern Libya was a hotbed of extremism; the city of Dernah, for example, was a major source of foreign fighters in Iraq.
Yet the Obama administration helped remove Qaddafi anyway — why? We can dispense with the humanitarian rationale even if some true-believers within the administration were making the moral case. The US doesn’t go to war to try to liberate people.
Some, like Seumas Milne, believe, “[T]he west seized the chance to intervene in Libya to get a grip on the Arab uprisings.” According to this theory, the US hijacked the uprising for the purpose of killing it. Yet if quashing democratic ferment was a goal, and surely it was, wouldn’t allowing Qaddafi to put down the rebellion have served that end just as well?
Another theory is that the US saw an opportunity to remove an unpredictable ruler who had been talking about nationalizing the oil industry. WikiLeaks cables reveal that the government had been frustrated by Qaddafi’s lukewarm embrace of American corporate interests, so it’s safe to assume that his removal was at least an ancillary goal.
More persuasive, however, is the theory that the United States bombed Libya as part of a larger military buildup. In recent years, the US military has greatly expanded its presence in Africa. This soft occupation corresponds with a battle between China and the United States over the spoils of Africa, which has massive natural resources and six of the world’s fastest growing economies.
The military footprint, which includes “anti-terrorism partnerships” with governments, allows the United States to exert influence and exploit economic opportunities. The get-rid-of-Qaddafi motive and the United States African Command (AFRICOM) motive aren’t mutually exclusive; the Libyan ruler, along with other African leaders, resisted the growth of AFRICOM. Intervention in Libya enabled US military expansion, as did the resulting jihadist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, which, says Major General Raymond Fox, “changed AFRICOM forever.”
It’s difficult to discern the relative significance of these motives. What’s undeniable is that the US government — despite a thirteen-year-old campaign that has transformed American society, despite an alleged all-consuming commitment to fighting terrorism — took action that guaranteed a surge in the power of jihadist groups. Whatever the motive, spearheading the effort to remove Qaddafi by dropping 7,700 bombs is not the act of a government that regards reducing the threat of terrorism as an overriding priority.
The reason the US strengthened the jihadist groups trying to overthrow Assad is more obvious. The Syrian regime is an ally of Iran. Although American war-makers lump Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guard together with Sunni jihadist groups, the US effort to check Iran is at odds with the US “war on terror.” Only one can take precedence.
Several years ago, veteran journalist Seymour Hersh reported on the Bush’s administration’s alarm over the new Iraqi government’s coziness with its neighbor and the corresponding effort of the United States to subordinate the “war on terrorism” to the covert war on Iran:
To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has cooperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The US has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.
President Obama’s attempts to work out a nuclear deal notwithstanding, the anti-Iran fixation of the US government persists. In the small uprising against Assad, the United States and its allies saw a chance to deal a blow to Iran. Foreign fighters backed by opponents of Iran soon came to dominate the rebels.
“[T]he Arab League and imperial powers have taken over the Syrian uprising in order to remove the Asad regime.” When Joseph Massad wrote those words nearly three years ago, they were controversial; today, however, even establishment outlets like NBC, Foreign Policy, and the Daily Beast are reporting on the key role that Gulf Cooperation Council countries — in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar — played in the rise of both ISIS and its rival-cum-ally Al Nusra Front.
The US government, which birthed ISIS with its destruction of Iraq, was not a disinterested bystander as its allies turned it into a regional force. In the Atlantic, insider journalist Steve Clemons points out that the US encouraged Saudi Arabia to back ISIS, and he draws the appropriate parallel: “Like elements of the mujahideen, which benefited from U.S. financial and military support during the Soviet war in Afghanistan and then later turned on the West in the form of al-Qaeda, ISIS achieved scale and consequence through Saudi support.”
The US played with fire, hoping that Assad would get burned. The ISIS horrors in Iraq, which supposedly triggered US military action, had antecedents in Syria. Yet the Obama administration, blaming virtually all the war’s brutality on Assad, said nothing this summer as ISIS went on a beheading rampage in Raqqa and kidnapped 150 Kurdish children in northern Syria.
The White House likewise played down the rise of ISIS in Iraq. “This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis,” Secretary of State John Kerry said after Fallujah fell. It wasn’t until ISIS threatened Irbil in Kurdistan, an oil capitol, that the United States started to bomb ISIS. “The Americans always say they are the leaders in fighting terrorism, but they didn’t lift a finger when ISIS was taking parts of Iraq,” says Hassan al-Fayath, the dean of al-Nahrain University in Baghdad. “The only time the Americans got involved was when they found it started threatening their interests by getting closer to the oilfields and to Irbil.”
At this point, having been burned by the fire it helped ignite, American officials certainly want to weaken, or at least redirect, ISIS. But their proclaimed desire to “eradicate” the group should be questioned given their refusal to make the only move that might bring about that end: truce talks that include Iran and that would allow Assad (or a successor) to stay in power.
On the contrary, US officials are making the absurd argument that only if Assad is ousted can ISIS be defeated. Regime change in Syria is still on the agenda, and the Obama administration is openly considering bombing the Assad government. The battle against Iran remains paramount.
American war-makers — who’ve done so much to create terrorism — claim that opponents of war and imperialism are “soft on terrorism.” And some liberals believe that those who’ve done so much to create terrorism are sincerely trying to fight it. Compelled by the destructive logic of capitalism, American war-makers are playing dirty and playing for keeps, yet many of their foremost “critics” depict them as Keystone Cops.
As blogger Kevin Dooley points out, such analysis defies common sense and precludes the possibility of resistance: “[T]he notion that the ruling elite are so stupid they don’t even know their interests, much less how to go about securing them, is ahistorical, power-serving nonsense.”
The US has killed hundreds of thousands of people in the name of fighting terrorism. The war is all too real. But it’s also fake. There is no clash of civilizations, no ideological battle, no grand effort on the part of the United States to defeat terrorism. As long as terrorism doesn’t threaten core US interests, American elites are content to allow it — and help it — flourish. They don’t want to win this war. It will go on forever, unless we make them end it.