When ISIS claimed responsibility for the horrendous attacks in Brussels last week, President Obama was unequivocal: the US and its allies, he said, “can and will defeat those who threaten the safety and security of people all around the world.” More bombing, it hardly needed to be said, was on the way. For their part, the presidential candidates only disagree on the scale of military action needed to stamp out ISIS — not on the appropriateness of yet more American warfare.
The call for a muscular response, however, overlooks the casualties the US has already inflicted.
To date, US-led coalition airstrikes in the war on ISIS have likely killed at least 1,044 civilians in Iraq and Syria. Even the brutal calculus of “collateral damage” cannot rationalize such deaths. They’re simply the latest victims in the latest phase of a decades-long, US-led campaign that has visited death and destruction on countries across the globe — particularly in the Middle East.
The current anti-ISIS strategy — which treats the group as a discrete problem with a ready military solution — is myopic. ISIS is the product of long-term, structural factors. To “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group, it’s necessary to address the root causes of its growth. An American war promises, at best, a combat trophy — and the spawning of new jihadist groups.
Even if military intervention dispersed ISIS, the social forces undergirding it would persist, perhaps emerging even stronger than before. If ISIS disappeared, another organization would likely swoop in to fill the void (whether it was Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, or some analogous upstart group), ready to carry out ethnic cleansing and the occasional terrorist attack in the West.
Or perhaps ISIS would simply move its base to countries like Libya or Yemen that, thanks in part to US actions, it’s established a foothold — inflicting even more devastation on the local population.
In either scenario, though, we could expect the same US response: begin the drumbeats for war, kick off another round of death and destruction.
Children of the Occupation
It was one of those bloody rounds that birthed ISIS.
Lydia Wilson, an Oxford researcher who has interviewed imprisoned ISIS fighters, describes them as
children of the [US] occupation [of Iraq], many with missing fathers at crucial periods (through jail, death from execution, or fighting in the insurgency), filled with rage against America and their own government. They are not fueled by the idea of an Islamic caliphate without borders; rather, ISIS is the first group since the crushed Al Qaeda to offer these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe.
Wilson also quotes Douglas Stone, a US general who oversaw Iraqi detainees at several military prisons during the occupation. Stone says that “every single detainee” he encountered complained about the disintegration of security triggered by the American invasion.
Elsewhere, Jürgen Todenhöfer, a German politician and journalist who spent ten days in 2014 embedded with ISIS, says the group’s militants described the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a “terrorist recruitment program” and notes that ISIS “was created six months after the start of the invasion: it is Bush’s baby.”
If a hard-right US leader laid the groundwork for ISIS in Iraq, a Democratic president helped produce the conditions for ISIS’s rise in Syria.
At various points in the Syrian war, the United States and allies such as Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates have armed a variety of anti-government factions. By late 2012, foreign policy analyst Aron Lund points out, much of the armed uprising had taken on a sectarian character, and large portions espoused ideologies that ranged from “apolitical Sunni conservatism or rural sufism, across the Muslim Brotherhood’s ikhwani Islamism, to the rigid ultra-orthodoxy of salafism.”
A 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency report notes that “the West, Turkey and the Gulf” support the Syrian opposition, admits that the Syrian war could result in the creation of a “Salafist principality” in eastern Syria, and warns that “this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime.”
In 2014, US general Martin Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that America’s “Arab allies” were funding ISIS, and Vice President Joe Biden said the same. Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, estimates that “60 to 80 percent of the arms that America shoveled in [to Syria] have gone to al-Qaida and its affiliates.”
War Is a Racket
Policymakers in the United States and its imperial partners aren’t stupid. So what’s driving their actions?
In his indispensable book Joining Empire, Canadian political scientist Jerome Klassen points to the US’s adoption since World War II of “hegemonic liberalism,” a strategy that ties the spread of capitalist relations across the globe to American diplomatic and military primacy.
During the Cold War, the chain linking the general interests of international capital with US foreign policy was relatively undisguised. Even through the 1990s, the Department of Defense openly admitted that advancing capital’s interests was a central goal of US foreign policy.
“[O]ur overall objective [in the Middle East] is to remain the predominant outside power in the region and [to] preserve U.S. and Western access to the region’s oil,” a 1992 Defense Department document read. Similarly, a 1997 issue of the Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review noted that one of the purposes of US military policy was “securing uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources.”
Klassen contends that a transnational capitalist class has now come to rely on the US military to direct and enforce global capitalism through what he dubs “armored neoliberalism” — the joining of “the economic logic of global exploitation with the political logic of disciplinary militarism.”
Under Obama, the Joint Forces Command has argued that the US military “underpins the open and accessible global system of trade and travel that we know as ‘globalization’” and provides “safety and security for the major exporters to access and use the global commons for trade and commerce.”
Recent history bears this out. Capitalists based in the US and allied states made vast amounts of money off the 2003 attack on Iraq, both directly and indirectly. The engineering company Bechtel National nabbed a $1 billion reconstruction contract a month after the invasion and another for up to $1.82 billion nine months later. According to a Financial Times report, by 2013 companies had received at least $138 billion in public money for building infrastructure, feeding soldiers, and delivering services such as private security.
The Florida-based International Oil Trading Company collected $2.1 billion to transport fuel from Jordan to US forces in Iraq. The Cheney-linked, energy-focused engineering and construction firm Kellog, Brown and Root was awarded $39.5 billion during the war, more than any other company. When most of the US military briefly withdrew in 2011, the State Department estimated that it would spend $3 billion over the next five years on private security for its gargantuan embassy in Baghdad.
Weapons manufacturers got in on the action as well. In 2004, a $259 million contract for guns, trucks, and other equipment went to ANHAM, a consortium whose principals are in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the US. Two years later the Washington Post reported a surge in profits for the company, which had benefited more directly from the war than any other large “defense” contractor due to its knack for making armored vehicles, tank shells, and bullets. Even after the American drawback, arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin sold $3 billion worth of fighter jets to the Iraqi government.
On the eve of the Iraq War, oil was also on policymakers’ minds. As Doug Stokes points out, the invasion was not merely a short-term cash grab for particular companies but an effort by the US ruling class to become “the key guarantor of stability for two of the most oil-rich states in the world, Saudi Arabia and Iraq” — thereby giving them substantial control over the global oil market.
Of course, specific firms also enjoyed a financial windfall from the invasion. Before the attack, Iraq’s domestic oil industry was nationalized and inaccessible to Western companies. But by 2013 — after a raft of contracts between private oil companies and state-owned firms — the oil sector was “largely privatized and utterly dominated by foreign firms.”
Companies like BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell all saw flusher coffers, even as the average Iraqi continued to face grinding poverty.
And Business Is Good
Imperial powers are not omnipotent, or without contradictory impulses. Their regional priorities and tactics can shift — and deep internal rifts can develop. But the ascent of ISIS has occasioned no such recalibration from the US ruling class.
Why change course, after all, when business is booming?
Arms sales — which the New York Times has credited with fueling the Middle East’s “descent into proxy wars, sectarian conflicts and battles against terrorists” — show no signs of letting up. Indeed, US intelligence believes the wars in the Middle East will last for years, making regional governments “even more eager for the F-35 fighter jet, considered to be the jewel of America’s future arsenal” and the costliest weapons project on earth.
When the US coalition ratcheted up its assault on ISIS targets in 2014, the aggression industry reacted with glee and immediately saw its profits spike. In the years since, Lockheed Martin has received thousands of additional orders for Hellfire missiles.
To fight ISIS, the Daily Beast writes, AM General is supplying Iraq with 160 American-built Humvees, General Dynamics is selling the country millions of dollars worth of tank ammunition, and SOS International — whose board of advisers includes Paul Wolfowitz and Paul Butler, a former special assistant to Donald Rumsfeld — says it has been awarded more than $400 million to provide services such as private security.
In 2015, despite a relatively flat market elsewhere, the United States boosted its weapons sales by 35 percent. Weapons makers Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and General Dynamics, as well as the surveillance company Booz Allen, all saw their value sharply increase when François Hollande vowed to “destroy” ISIS following the Paris massacres.
Many of the weapons deals are with some of the same states that facilitated the rise of jihadism in Syria. The US and Qatar have signed letters of offer and acceptance to sell Apache helicopters, as well as Patriot and Javelin defense systems worth $11 billion. Last year, the State Department approved weapons sales of $293 million to Jordan, $380 million to Turkey, $845 million to the UAE, and nearly $21 billion to Saudi Arabia. This is to say nothing of the exorbitant profits reaped by US arms sales to Western governments participating in the coalition, such as Canada, France, and the United Kingdom — or the considerable sales these countries’ own weapons firms have made in the Persian Gulf.
Similarly, the New York Times described in January a US–Saudi Arabia arrangement in which the Saudis provide funds and weapons to the Syrian opposition, and the CIA trains them — this despite the Saudis’ “support for the extreme strain of Islam, Wahhabism, that has inspired many of the very terrorist groups the United States is fighting.”
If the US–Saudi bond is rock-solid, the US’s preoccupation with oil seems equally unbreakable. American forces began engaging ISIS as early as four days after the group took control of Tikrit “and, along with it, partial control of Iraqi oil.” Furthermore, as Steve Coll argues, the US’s 2014 intervention in Erbil, Iraq had less to do with protecting Yazidis from ISIS than safeguarding a territory that is important to ExxonMobil and Chevron.
The war against ISIS is not just about controlling the flow of oil and delivering immediate material rewards to Western military contractors, though. It’s also about building the infrastructure for tomorrow’s wars.
In June, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey told reporters that the US is considering constructing at least four more bases in Iraq. These sites, called “lily pads,” are smaller than the average base but can be quickly expanded.
Further west, the US has put up a new outpost in Al-Hasakah, a Kurdish-held governorate in northeastern Syria “chosen because it’s just 100 miles (160 kilometers) from ISIS frontline positions and some of its lucrative oil fields.” And construction is underway on an air base southeast of Kobani, which straddles the Turkish border.
The proliferation of such bases allows the US military to deepen its presence in the Middle East, influencing the affairs of host countries while signaling to civilian populations that the US anticipates carrying out future attacks.
With each base the US builds, it fosters an environment not simply more hospitable to ISIS but one that could create a group so ferocious it makes ISIS look tame by comparison. As Andrew Cockburn has reported, in 2015 a US-Turkish-Saudi “coordination room” ordered the rebel groups it was supplying to cooperate with Jaish al-Fatah, a coalition led by al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra.
In other words, the group the US had once excoriated as the most world’s most barbarous had become the lesser evil.
There Is an Alternative
The war against ISIS isn’t a fresh response to a novel situation. Whether it’s funneling weapons into the region or advancing the interests of capital or consorting with dictators, we’ve seen this show before. The military campaign against ISIS represents the latest episode in an ongoing effort by the US ruling class and its allies to more fully dominate the Middle East.
Given the political and economic weight of those pushing these policies, undoing the present state of affairs is a considerable task: as Klassen argues, it would require wiping out the capitalist social relations that underlie imperialism and replacing them with “democratic modes of production and exchange.”
In the immediate term, however, people living in member states of the US-led coalition can organize against aerial bombardment and boots on the ground. Not only is there no military solution to the wars in Iraq and Syria, but such action impedes the diplomatic and humanitarian remedies that can get at the source of these conflicts.
For example: facilitating unconditional negotiations, and halting US military support for the Syrian opposition, to end the Syrian war; pushing for the meaningful integration of Sunnis and other minorities into political life in Iraq; and pressuring Turkey to stop allowing ISIS to freely use its border. Additionally, supporting the struggle of those inside and outside Turkey against the government’s ongoing assault on the Kurds both aids the goal of Kurdish self-determination and buttresses Kurdish forces in their continued battle against ISIS.
These policies could cause ISIS to wither. The US-led coalition’s military-heavy approach, by contrast, risks killing ever more Iraqis and Syrians without putting an end to the horrors that ISIS and its political equivalents continue to inflict. On this, we must be as unequivocal as Obama. The problems created by imperialism will not be solved by more imperialism.