'WAR ON TERROR' REVISITED The conquest of Southwest Asia
By Pepe Escobar
"This notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply
ridiculous ... And having said that, all options are on the table."
- President George W Bush, Brussels, February 22
Pentagon, acting under instructions from Vice President Dick Cheney's office,
has tasked the United States Strategic Command (STRATCOM) with drawing up a
contingency plan to be employed in response to another 9/11-type terrorist
attack on the United States. The plan includes a large-scale air assault on
Iran employing both conventional and tactical nuclear weapons ... Many of the
targets are hardened or are deep underground and could not be taken out by
conventional weapons, hence the nuclear option. - American Conservative
, July 22
BEIRUT - Just one day after the London July
remarkably named Aseem Jihad, a spokesman for the Iraqi Oil Ministry, told
Iraqi media that 11 southern Iraqi oil fields, capable of producing at least 3
million barrels a day, were being put up for tender to international investors,
to the tune of US$25 billion.
With oil prices possibly going to $100 a barrel in the not-too-distant future,
there could hardly be better news for the oil industry. There is always the
possibility that all those billions will never end up at Iraq's Oil Ministry,
to the benefit of the Iraqi people - but will fill the pockets of oil
barons, militias operating at Iraq's Interior Ministry and Bush
administration-supported middlemen ("Western contractors", "couriers",
"intelligence assets", brokers, even tribal leaders) in Baghdad.
That's exactly what happened to $8.8 billion of Iraqi money which simply
"disappeared" between October 2003 and July 2004 under the watch of former US
proconsul L Paul Bremer.
Moreover, the powerful oil plutocracy also does not have to worry about any
Iraqi legal matters, as President George W Bush's Executive Order 13303 -
which guarantees that any "judicial process" against any American corporate
interests involved in any way with Iraq's oil "shall be deemed null and
void" - was recently renewed. For global cynics, this is in fact the whole
point of the "war on terror".
Subsidizing Osama bin Laden
But that was before the destruction of New Orleans. An illegal war of
aggression against Iraq, decimation en masse of Iraqi civilians, the Abu Ghraib
torture chambers, the Pentagon incapable of occupying Baghdad or controlling
even the road from the airport to the Green Zone, impotent against a few
thousand guerrillas armed with Kalashnikovs and improvised explosive
devices - it is all graphically mixed with the scenario of a military
hyperpower abandoning one of its own greatest cities to catastrophe.
It was not supposed to be this way. But even before Katrina bared it all, there
was an uneasy feeling - not only in the Middle East - that the Bush
administration was in fact subsidizing Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri to
the tune of $300 billion, and counting, in American taxpayers' money, by
transforming Iraq into a preferred training ground for al-Qaeda. So what's with
this "war on terror?"
During the first part of 2005, the first Bush administration's "war on terror"
had been softly mutating into what it was supposed to mean in the first place:
the conquest of Eurasia, and in the near term, Southwest Asia. The contours of
the new religion were carefully spun by Washington.
Neo-conservative Robert Kagan, co-founder of the ultra-hawkish Project for the
New American Century (PNAC), was one of the first to admit it was all a
question of branding. Kagan was overjoyed that Bush had overtaken the very
narrow limits of the "war on terror" to dive into the limitless conceptual
ocean of a (paradoxical) "democracy by force". Kagan argued that this new
paradigm was more "realist" and stood a better chance of garnering global
Not really. Already six months ago, a poll in Germany, France, Britain, Spain
and Italy revealed that almost seven out of 10 Western Europeans (80% in
Germany, 84% in France) think Bush has no business whatsoever "spreading
freedom and democracy" to other countries. A poll by Germany's Die Welt
revealed that even Russian President Vladimir Putin is more trusted than Bush,
especially in eastern Germany. In Germany, France, Britain, Spain and Italy a
clear majority, by historical experience, knows that democracy cannot be
instituted as an ersatz of political religion.
Meanwhile, from Washington's perspective, there was no point anymore in waging
a "war on terror" in response to a perceived radical Islamist threat. The
(original) point is - what else? - messianic: the world has to be
bent and shaped so as to conform to America's beliefs. But eventually even
Americans - three in every four, according to the latest polls -
repudiated the new branding, heavily promoted by PNAC, the American Enterprise
Institute, the Hudson Institute, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy
and other rightwing think tanks. It was perceived that imposing democracy by
force - which is nothing but social engineering - never applied to
Washington allies, as distasteful as they might be, but only to Washington's
Whatever the mood in public opinion, the National Defense Strategy of the
United States - which explicitly endorses unilateral pre-emptive strikes -
remains very much in place. The Bush administration self-declares that it
retains a unique "right" to engage in a "pre-emptive/preventive" war against
anyone, anywhere, any time, even at a mere suspicion of being subjectively
threatened by the theoretical possibility that it might be "attacked" at some
undefined place in an indefinite future.
But even more crucial: any diplomatic or legal disagreement with the US under
international law is regarded as such an "attack", or as a form of "asymmetric
warfare". So to diplomatically attack the US may also be regarded as an act of
terrorism. Then there's the new Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)"license to
kill" any time, anywhere, all over the world, without any supervision - with
missile-armed drones having already conducted selected assassinations in
Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.
The rebranding of the "war on terror" meant that Bush would fashion his own
Greater Middle East, with the attribution of good grades to all identified good
pupils: these include Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain and most of all Hosni Mubarak's
Egypt. Palestine should be appeased by a fistfull of dollars. Saudi Arabia will
be kept in quarantine. The "bad" students are targets: Syria, Lebanon (to its
Hezbollah extent), and Iran. These will have to be integrated into the Greater
Middle East by hard, not soft power.
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) employed leading, independent
Arab scholars to draft its widely praised 2004 report on Arab human
development. The scholars stressed the absence of freedom in privileged
American allies like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as well as Washington's hypocrisy
in defining allies Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia as "democratic". The
Arabs interviewed by the UNDP scholars all stressed they want "liberation from
foreign occupation and the freedoms of opinion, expression and movement".
Arabs have all the reasons in the world to suspect Western pledges of
democracy. Both Britain and France are former colonizers. The Iraqi revolt
against British occupation in the early 1920s was repressed with poison gas.
France suppressed Syrian resistance against occupation twice, in 1925-27 and
again in 1945. The US fully approves the 38-year-old Israeli occupation of
Palestine. For the majority of Arab public opinion, the second Bush
administration's rhetoric of "democratization" just masks a neo-colonial
The problem for Washington was always how to implement its vision. The working
assumption in many chancelleries around the world is that the Pentagon would
not hesitate to attack both Syria and Iran. Diplomats scoff at the CIA's
assessment that regime change in both cases is possible without a military
operation. Both Iran and Syria cannot compare to an Iraq already destroyed by
two wars and 12 years of sanctions and embargo. Syria has no means to defend
itself against awesome American firepower; but it could attack Israel. Iran
holds strategic Russian missiles; it could blow up supertankers in the Persian
Gulf, block the Hormuz Strait and wreak havoc on the world economy.
Then there's the Lebanese case. Neo-cons widely praised the so-called "Cedar"
revolution, dubbed by cynics the Gucci Revolution. Before the latest elections,
a poll conducted by social science students from the Lebanese University in
Greater Beirut revealed that only 26% supported UN Resolution 1559 ? which
called for the withdrawal of Syrian troops - while a whopping 68% were against
it. And only 18% were in favor of disarming Hezbollah, while 72 % were against
This raises the question, why should the Syrians leave Lebanon when nobody says
the US must leave Iraq? This is even more nonsensical when one considers that
the majority of Iraqis want the US to leave, while only a relative minority of
Lebanese - according to the polls - wanted the Syrians to leave.
The results of the poll were not particularly striking when one considers that
the majority of Lebanese, from 55% to 60%, are Shi'ites. The two major Shi'ite
movements - Amal and Hezbollah - are still aligned with Syria, for many complex
reasons. Moreover, there is also a loose coalition of independents, Arab
nationalists, communists, socialists and Nasserists. Behind the Bush
administration's slogans - "freedom", "democracy" - Lebanese factionalism and
sectarianism remains extremely powerful.
There was one Syrian soldier in Lebanon for every 270 Lebanese. There is one US
occupation soldier in Iraq for every 170 Iraqis. The second Bush administration
insisted Syria must leave Lebanon, but it puts no pressure on Israel to leave
the Syrian Golan Heights, illegally occupied since 1967 and illegally settled
with 18,000 Israelis. This area of the Golan Heights is three times bigger than
The "franchised revolutions" engineered by organizations such as the National
Endowment for Democracy (NED) and an acronym tsunami of "democratic"
organizations staffed by neo-cons and proponents of neo-liberalism work, like
the "Orange" Ukrainian model, by taking over countries using a massive,
camera-friendly PR campaign manipulating calls for "democracy" and "freedom",
which always create the illusion that the whole population is united. The whole
population was not united in Ukraine, as it was not united behind the Gucci
revolution in Lebanon.
The ultimate aim of "franchised revolutions" and "democracy promotion" is to
replace the traditional elites in old American or Russian satrapies, as well as
former hostile regimes, with a new breed of genetically-programmed neo-liberal
politicians trained and educated in the US. But this may be just a facade. The
real important matters converge on running the American military bases that are
now planted in 138 countries all over the globe.
Fighting Arab nationalism
Imad Fawzi al-Shuaibi, head of the Strategic Studies Center in Damascus, told
al-Jazeera that former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, "did have
disagreements with Syria, but he did not call for the withdrawal of Syrian
forces from Lebanon, or stir up hostility towards Syria or demand an end to
Syria's role in Lebanon". Lebanese lawyer Bushra al-Khalil went one step ahead:
he told al-Jazeera that "Hariri's death is part of the plan to divide the
region into tiny helpless sectarian states. This plan has started in Iraq and
it will continue to hit all other Arab countries."
It's clearly understood in vast swathes of the Middle East that the crucial
trait of Bush's Greater Middle East implies a coup de grace against Arab
nationalism - wherever it is manifested. It's always important to remember
that most borders in the Arab world are totally artificial, imposed above all
by British colonialism.
For Washington, the real enemy is not Islamic fundamentalism: it's Arab
nationalism. For decades the ultimate target of Israeli foreign policy has been
to sow disunion among Arabs. Secular Arab nationalism is the ultimate threat to
Israel, thus to the US, in neo-con thinking. The crux is not religious: it's
Historically, over the past 20 years, radical Islam has been the key channel
for expressing rage against Western exploitation - because every
progressive channel of expression failed, or was thwarted, by corrupt,
American-supported regimes. Radical Islam spent a long time fighting the rise
of progressive nationalist movements in the Arab world: it became anti-Western
only after the end of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and the first Gulf
Progressive, secular Arab intellectuals stress that Washington-Jerusalem will
never tolerate united Arab lands. They stress that the Greater Middle East
package is pure "strategic intimidation" designed to "eliminate any form of
Arab or Muslim unity considered as a threat to the US strategy, and that of its
strategic ally, Israel", as Mahua Daoudi, a Syrian intellectual and scholar at
the CNRS think tank in Geneva, put it.
As for the US, only the interfering methods diverge, not the objectives. The
neo-cons writing in the Weekly Standard keep assuring the faithful that the
only solution is total war in the Middle East, with more troops in Iraq and the
bombing of Syrian villages suspected of supporting the Iraqi resistance.
Francis "end of history" Fukuyama - a NED administrator - and former
secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, president of the Democrat branch of
NED, for their part promote more docile methods.
There may be a debate raging within the American elites between the gung-go,
armchair warrior neo-cons and the "exporting democracy" gang, but meanwhile the
Greater Middle East concept keeps accumulating facts on the ground. The
divisive project for the new Iraqi constitution, to be voted in the end of next
week, is a mechanism to soften the partition of Iraq.
But in the Arab world, as Asia Times Online has learned, the fear is that the
death of Iraq will mean in fact the death of Arab nationalism. That's the view,
among others, of Abdullah al-Ashaal, a former planner at the Egyptian Ministry
of Foreign Affairs: he sustains that de-Ba'athification is being
instrumentalized to blow up the foundation of the Iraqi state; Iraq's Arab
identity is being threatened so three statelets based on ethnic-religious
differences may be created.
The same analysis is shared by Paris-based Lebanese Antoine Basbous, director
of the Observatory of the Arab Countries. He confirms that pan-Arabism is a key
target of Bush's Greater Middle East and is convinced Iraq's break up is
inevitable, not so much because it was an initial American objective, but
because now, with extremism being unleashed on all fronts, Sunnis, Shi'ites and
Kurds are ready to go to battle to preserve their interests. More worringly,
Basbous predicts that this pattern will be repeated all over the Middle East.
The neo-con allegation that democracy is incompatible with Islam is rubbish:
Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Turkey, all Muslim countries, are democracies.
The specific - and crucial - problem of Arab lands is that the US cannot
possibly promote democracy beyond mere rhetoric; otherwise its satraps and
client states are in danger of being taken over by Islamist-leaning and
certainly anti-US regimes. That would certainly be the case in Egypt and Saudi
What is terror?
When the "war on terror" mantra was coined, it all boiled down to what are you
going to sell to American and world public opinion. It was much easier to
market a war against al-Qaeda - pictured as a cartoonish bunch of demented
Arab, Wahhabi freaks with no agenda except evil destruction of the American way
of life - than to tell the world about the real deal: as Arabs see it,
this is a war against Arab nationalists bearing a very long list of
widely-documented grievances and exploitation and a very clear, concrete set of
demands: self-determination in all its forms all over the Arab world and the
end of foreign occupation, domination and interference.
The key data in all this drama is what the people who live in the Middle East
themselves think. A very helpful guide is a study on Middle Eastern public
opinion - conducted in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine -
and released by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan.
The results are devastating. One of the most important findings is that the
Arab street does not identify a "clash of civilizations"; they identify their
woes as direct consequences of British colonialism and US foreign policy.
In the poll the qualifications most associated with the US and the UK were
"racist", "aggressive", "morally decadent" and "imperialistic". People were
always very careful to note that they admired Western societies for their open
atmosphere, individual liberties and technical progress, but they certainly
don't envy the West's social problems. People in the Middle East are proud of
their family and traditions. Their anger is fundamentally directed towards
Anglo-American foreign policy. A majority considers that the US is run by a
"Zionist lobby". Over 70% complain that the US and the UK try to dominate
countries through the offer of foreign aid. And crucially, less than 20% of
Egyptians, Syrians and Palestinians see the US as supporting democracy in the
American and British policy in Iraq and US bias in the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict are almost universally rejected. Distrust of America is even higher
among Middle Eastern youth. Only 15% to 20% of young people between the ages of
16 and 24 have anything good to say about the US. The majority supports Sharia
law as a source for legislation. But only a tiny minority said they wanted a
Taliban-like interpretation of Islamic law.
How is "terrorism" defined in the Middle East? For over 85% of the population
in four of the five countries polled (64% in Lebanon), the US war on Iraq was
an act of terrorism. Ninety percent in all countries polled say that Israel's
killing of Palestinian civilians is terrorism. Hamas and Hezbollah are not
terrorist groups: they are regarded as legitimate resistance organizations. For
a majority of Jordanians and Palestinians, even al-Qaeda's fight is legitimate.
And to top it all, the US is also seen as a major violator of human rights. The
majority of people polled had just a simple wish: if only the Americans would
leave us alone.
It won't happen, especially because the neo-con narrative remains the same:
it's all about the conquest of Southwest Asia. But the former incarnation of
the "war on terror" can always be exhumed - especially after the London
bombings, or to compound the hysteria preceding attacks against Syria or Iran.
The techniques are always the same: manipulation of public opinion; a
widespread disinformation campaign; selected paid agents infiltrated in the
media; paranoia campaign through color-coded terror alerts; alarmist
announcements of another "inevitable" September 11. As Vice President Dick
Cheney himself has announced, just like the war against communism the "war on
terror" will go on for decades.
It works. Only a few months ago, according to a Washington Post-ABC News
poll - before the Iraq quagmire led Bush's number to collapse - 56%
of Americans still believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the
start of the war, while 60% believed Iraq was connected to al-Qaeda.
The road to Damascus
An iron link is being slowly and carefully constructed by Washington hawks, by
the use of the same techniques, between Syria, Iran (under its new "hardline"
president), the Sunni Iraqi resistance and Palestinian nationalism, all
depicted as "terrorist". In the case of Iran, there is the inevitable link with
weapons of mass destruction, as it was constructed in the case of Iraq.
Things that really matter remain in the shade. Like the crucial, recent visit
by Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld to both Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan. There was
no leak about the agenda. But immediately afterwards the commander of North
Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in Europe, General James Jones, announced
that the US planned to build military bases in the Azerbaijani portion of the
Caspian Sea. Any geostrategist knows that Azerbaijan is the most convenient
base in case of an American attack on Iran. Russian websites widely speculated
on the probability of a lethal US-Russian confrontation, as Russia is allied
with Iran and considers the Caspian its own "lake".
Syria, the weak link, is the next Washington target for destabilization in the
next few months. The reason is simple: Syria is still committed to
non-sectarian Arab nationalism, apart from being the only country in the region
which has not yet succumbed to US-Israel pressure. At the same time, Washington
will dramatically step up the pressure on Iran at the International Atomic
Energy Agency (IAEA) before the end of 2005; the process might lead to a
pre-emptive attack on Iran's nuclear facilities before the end of Bush's term.
"Non-compliance" is the magic excuse - which Washington wants the IAEA to
tell the UN Security Council - capable of justifying a pre-emptive attack.
It's still a case of "falling dominoes": first Iraq, then Syria and Iran,
finally the Palestinians; the end result would be American domination of the
whole Middle East, as far as neo-con doctrine goes. There are no doubts in this
case on the axis which stands to profit: the fundamentalist Christian right,
the powerful Jewish-American lobby and most of all the industrial-military
complex. This "new", Greater Middle East would represent, in their worldview,
the supreme victory of Judeo-Christianity over Islam. More than ever the "clash
of civilizations" fallacy seems to be alive and kicking.
The scenario has been immensely complicated by the election of Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei-blessed Mahmud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran - which means,
among other things, that Iran's nuclear program won't be shelved - and a
simultaneous Iranian victory in Iraq in terms of strategic influence.
Both of these developments, in different levels, are repercussions of America's
Iraq adventure. In real life, they also suggest that an invasion of Iran is
totally impossible. An attack on Iran would bring immediate retaliation inside
Iraq. Among the vast Iranian diaspora there is a certainty: Iran will
inevitably become a nuclear power, no matter what the Americans do. And
diplomats concur that its strategic influence over a Shi'ite-dominated Iraq
won't go away. Saudi Arabia has made it clear that in the event of Iran going
nuclear, it will do the same. Al-Qaeda and the jihadi nebula could do worse
than bide their time and try to take over a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia.