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Proxy Wars

13 -19 May 2004
Issue No. 690

The Middle East is in chaos with Arab opinion split between opposing impotent and undemocratic regimes at home and hostile, occupying forces from abroad. Perhaps this how imperial powers want it, writes Galal Nassar.

The heat is on. A gauge of the rising temperature is the many terrorist operations that have struck Western and Arab targets in the region over the past two weeks. All the more so as there appears to be no ideological or tactical factors that link the groups that carried out these operations.

Damascus, Riyadh and Yanbu suffered terrorist bomb attacks days after a potentially more destructive operation was thwarted in Amman and within months of the explosions that rocked Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey. Southern and western Sudan are clamouring for secession and seething in unrest triggered by ongoing human rights violations. Conditions in the occupied territories in Palestine and occupied Iraq are moving from bad to worse amidst brutal repression by Israeli and US occupation forces. Waves of protest demonstrations in Arab capitals are causing a number of regimes to teeter, including those that are backed by Washington. The logical deduction is that there is a strategy that benefits from this climate, a certain order that gains impetus from chaos and disruption. By diverting attention from the central issues that preoccupy the peoples of this region and focussing on day-to-day upheavals, this order hopes to establish itself as a fait accompli, whereupon it will wreak further havoc, territorial occupation, dictatorship, backwardness and poverty.

Talk of the stability and security of the region and of the prosperity that is just around the corner has fallen mute in the face of rhetoric serving the American occupation of Iraq and the perpetuation of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. And this rhetoric is only the public face of Washington's so-called "post-11 September" strategy that unleashed its war against "terrorism" and the "axis of evil". This war, which opened with the equivalent of an enormous bomb dropped on Afghanistan, the fallout of which spread throughout the "Greater Middle East", from the Atlantic to the Gulf and from Pakistan to Iran and Turkey, not only failed to eliminate Al-Qaeda but bequeathed the cancerous spread of terrorist cells whose sole aim is to wreak more destruction.

It is a far cry from conspiracy theorising to realise that the chaos afflicting the region is the direct product of Washington's and Tel Aviv's attempts to implement policies that flagrantly fly in the face of Arab interests and the natural reactions to these policies. Against the strident rhetoric and belligerent practices that support these policies of territorial conquest and occupation, one cannot help but to be struck by the irony of Washington's pledges to promote political reforms, free trade zones and peace within ten years.

THE IMPERIAL PROJECT: None in the world but the Arabs was taken by surprise by the inauguration of the American imperial project in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nor was it surprising that this project should commence with the oil rich countries of the Gulf and Caspian Sea, the control of which would enable Washington to check Europe's bid to rival Washington in international affairs and stunt the rapid but stealthy growth of the Chinese economic dragon.

No one was surprised because indications of a US imperial drive had begun to manifest themselves at least two decades ago. The neoconservatives were on the rise and had succeeded in coming to power under Reagan and Bush Sr. Driven by an ideological blend of Christian fundamentalism, chauvinistic nationalism and laissez-faire economics, the neoconservatives believe that the US has title to global hegemony militated by international circumstance and historical imperative.

The "clash of civilisation" theories that began to surface at this time created the ideological underpinnings for the neoconservative agenda. It was no accident that these theories elevated the Islamic world to the antithesis of Western civilisation.

This period, too, was when the US began to reject, out of principle, internationally established channels for collective action, apart from those isolated exceptions in which Washington was able to ascertain its uncontested leadership and reap the lion's share of the bounty. Towards this end, Washington sought to transform the Security Council into a tool for furthering its global advantage, while wielding its veto to undermine UN performance in areas it deemed in conflict with its interests.

In tandem, Washington stepped up its campaign for the universal dissemination of so-called "American values" and, simultaneously, globalisation. Yet, as one American writer put it, "economic liberalism and transparency is for the world, not for us." Perhaps not coincidently, the same period witnessed a convergence between Zionist hawks and the American ultra-right.

It is not that the Arabs had not taken note of these developments. Rather, they failed to observe the organic connection between them. Consequently, when 11 September struck and the Bush administration began its countdown to the implementation of its imperial drive, we were sidetracked by all the commotion and did not see where it was headed. But, today at least, we can use this hindsight to probe the American and the Israeli projects and better understand what is happening in our region. For, even if some aspects of these projects are still in locked drawers, their overall designs continue to govern the minds of White House officials and the Israeli ultra right, who are silently working in concert towards the achievement of certain ends that can only be described as hostile from an Arab perspective.

Still, the question begs to be answered: Why did the US single out the Arab and Muslim world to kick- start its project? Obviously, the US drew the link between the perpetrators of 11 September and their countries of origin. But this alone is not sufficient cause to turn the rudder of US foreign policy so firmly, and unrelentingly, towards this locale of the globe. It does not require a great leap of imagination to understand that when Washington identified the Arab- Islamic world as its foe in the war against terrorism this was not only because this world represented a cultural and moral rival to the ideas and values upon which Western civilisation is founded but also because Washington needed a guise behind which it could pursue its aims and interests in today's world.

However, the war on terrorism will not achieve many of the goals to which the advocates of the "go-it-alone" approach in the US aspire. Not only does that war, as it is being waged, rest on fragile and unconvincing pretexts, it is unrealistic and impractical. Regardless of its degree of might, the US ultimately lives in a world governed by rules and principles for interaction, which depend more on consensus than they do on compulsion. Even if the US does succeed in what it set out to do, this success would not be fated to last; not so much because of the emergence of rival powers as because of the difficulty of sustaining its accomplishments in the face of universal condemnation. The political and economic costs would simply be too high to bear. It is sufficient here to point to the bill Washington has had to foot in establishing new alliances -- with Pakistan, some of the Central Asian republics and the countries of Eastern Europe -- and in bolstering older alliances -- with, for example, Jordan, Egypt and other countries friendly to the US in the region.

THREE STRATEGIES: The "war against terrorism" helped shape a triangle of strategems for furthering US foreign policy objectives. These consist of preemptive war, independent action and shifting alliances, all of which have come into play in the case of Iraq.

Preemptive war, which constitutes the base of the triangle, is a synecdoche for a national security strategy that is so all embracive that some have referred to it as the new US constitution. The Bush administration issued its preamble of this strategy with its black and white division of the world into camps of "good" and "evil". The administration gave itself licence to resort to "preemptive war" against the latter, which, in terms of US behaviour and rhetoric, can be defined as all countries or groups that have the audacity to oppose the US or to disseminate anti-American ideas. On the basis of this definition there emerged a lengthy blacklist that included Iraq, Iran, North Korea, China, Cuba, Libya and, more recently, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. Soon, perhaps, it will include Egypt. Nor will the list necessary be restricted to Middle Eastern countries. France, Germany, Russia and other international powers who have voiced their opposition to US policies may be eventual candidates for the blacklist, even if Washington would inevitably handle such infractions entirely differently. The "preemptive war" stratagem was called into action against Iraq. Although it was demonstrably effective, this was in large measure due to the conditions that then prevailed in Iraq rather than to the practicality of the stratagem itself.

The second leg of the triangle signifies a core concept at the heart of the American dream and forms the engine of that drive, albeit obstructed by numerous factors, to declare America's universal hegemony and ultimate ideological authority. Helping to unleash Washington's go-it-alone approach was essentially a global caution not to step in the way of the American stampede; not only in acknowledgment of the impending force of that stampede but in recognition of the fact that no power, collectively or individually, stood a chance of checking its onrush. The butting of heads in the Security Council prior to America's declaration of war on Iraq testified to this reality, as did the war itself. Although this US stratagem proved effective during the war, it has since backfired, as is confirmed by Washington's turnabout on the role of the UN in Iraq.

In the pursuit of its agenda beneath the guise of the war on terrorism, Washington hastily reshuffled its network of alliances. The pragmatism with which it put into play this, the third leg of the triangle was evidenced in its rapid mending of fences with Pakistan, which was suddenly taken off Washington's blacklist of renegade states and transformed into a major ally in the war on Afghanistan. Similarly, as Moscow acquired an increasing role in American strategy, Washington's relations with its erstwhile adversary shifted within the space of two years at quadruple the speed of the changes in their relations prior to 1990. The same applies to the former countries of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, such as Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic. Meanwhile, US relations with long standing allies of a quarter of a century underwent unprecedented turnarounds, as can be seen, a least at present, in the cases of Germany, France and Turkey.

Over the next ten years the US proposes -- indeed, is determined -- to reshape this region into a "Greater Middle East" market. The project was originally Zionist in inspiration and first mooted in the Anglo-American talks on post-WWII arrangements in 1943. Its proposition is to make Palestine the industrial and financial centre of the broader Middle East that, in addition to the Arab countries, included Afghanistan, Turkey and Iran. These countries would furnish the raw materials to fuel industry and the markets for disposing production.

The idea resurfaced following Camp David I, and subsequent peace agreements signed between Israel and Egypt and then Jordan. In The New Middle East, Shimon Peres expounded at length on a common market and regional organisation for the Middle East led by Israel. Bush Jr's goal over the next ten years is to bring this Zionist project to fruition, after fragmenting Arab states into petty entities, even while portions of some are held together with feeble federal bonds and a Palestinian state of sorts comes into being.

Perhaps the crucial question at this juncture is whether this American-Zionist imperial project is the brainchild of the American ultra right or whether it reflects the thinking of the American public in general. A deep rift between public opinion and the policy orientations of its leaderships appears to be a constant in American history. If this applies here, then it is doubtful whether the Greater Middle East project will survive beyond the current administration, even given the profound impact of the events of 11 September on the American public's attitudes to the outside world and the fight against terrorism.

The war against terrorism as perceived by the neoconservatives in the US administration extends in means, scope and underlying premises well beyond what most other peoples and nations deem acceptable. Perhaps the foremost indication of this is that this administration has effectively branded resistance to foreign occupation an act of terrorism. However, more pertinent here is how that administration uses this war to achieve its aspirations. To fill in the detail is not as simple as it may appear, as it involves several interrelated points of departure.

Firstly, the war on terrorism furnishes Washington with a new platform for interacting with others, including the countries of the First World, namely Europe and Japan. Terrorism, it can hold, is a global peril that makes no distinction between America and Europe. Not only does this premise give Washington the manoeuvrability it lacked or hesitated in using since the end of the Cold War; it justifies its sole and virtually uncontested command of the eastern seaboard of the Atlantic.

Secondly, the largely intentional ambiguity of the term "terrorism" gives the US far greater leeway in the means it uses to combat this peril. As we have seen, it can invade specifically targeted countries, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, or eliminate certain organisations, as occurred to numerous civilian organisations, especially those of an Islamic character.

Thirdly, this administration needed an effective instrument to promote its expansionist, hegemonic designs abroad. The fight against terrorism provided that instrument. But also, in view of its failure to achieve tangible economic and social progress at home, the administration could capitalise on it to prolong its tenure.

It is not inconceivable that American "victories" in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and elsewhere in the Arab world could supply the essential fuel to the Republican Party's forthcoming electoral campaign.

The war against terrorism has furnished the US with the inroad to realise an aspiration that has guided its leaders for more than half a century, which is for the US to occupy its natural place at the pinnacle of the global order.

THE ISRAELI AGENDA: But there was another beneficiary from the spread of chaos and tension in the region. It is no secret that Israel has an agenda to implement, an agenda that has remained constant despite changes in government and shifting alliances, and that it finds the new climate ideal for its purposes.

The Israeli project is designed for implementation over short to long-range stages. Of paramount priority in its initial phases is the need to resolve questions of security, its solutions to which can be summed up in its proverbial "Ten No's". Israel is against the establishment of an independent, fully sovereign Palestinian state within pre-1967 borders. Israel also refuses to contemplate any serious discussion of the Palestinian question in international forums. Israel also refuses to consider halting settlement construction in occupied Palestinian territory. Neither does it accept a complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Israel does not recognise the right of return for Palestinian refugees. It is against any pan-Arab strategic alliance. It will not allow any Arab state to possess nuclear weapons. Nor would it accept a tilting of the current military balance of power in the region in favour of the Arabs. Moreover, Israel refuses to listen to any arguments against its demands for water from Arab rivers. And -- last but not least -- Israel does not yield to American pressures intended to compel it to compromise on its goals and demands.

Anyone who observes Israeli electoral campaigns will be struck by the fact that no political force, from the farthest right to the farthest left, will venture to transgress these red lines in Israeli security thinking, which, in fact, has governed the policies of Israeli governments since the establishment of that state. So as to safeguard the perpetuation of these red lines against unanticipated surprises or outside pressures, strategic planners in the Israeli National Security Council have devised a number of subsidiary strategies, which some analysts have subsumed into three categories. The first, which Arab peace advocates either choose to ignore or to eliminate as unlikely, is the "Balkanisation" of the region. By using its notorious intelligence capacities to aggravate the divisions and tensions between Arab countries, Israel hopes to fragment the Arab world into a multitude of petty states based on ethnic or denominational affiliation. Then, in the long range, these petty states would enter what the radical 1930s Zionist leader Vladamir Jabotinsky called the Hebrew Commonwealth -- his vision for the reshaping of the Middle East with Israel as its central, dominant power. The best candidates for this Balkanisation process from the Israeli perspective are Iraq (with its Shia-Sunni-Kurdish divides), Syria (Alawis versus Sunnis), Lebanon (with 19 religious denominations), Egypt (Muslims versus Copts), Jordan (Jordanians versus Palestinians) and Sudan (north versus south).

The second strategy, which Israelis call "pulling at the corners", entails propelling Arab states at the periphery of the Arab world into protracted military conflicts with their neighbours. Examples of this strategy in effect are the conflicts or flare-ups between Iraq and Iran, Syria and Turkey, Sudan and Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda, the Gulf states and Iran, and Mauritania and Senegal. These diversions naturally work to alleviate pressures on Israel.

Thirdly comes the imposition of de facto realities or, "stepping up settlement construction" as Israelis call it. Increasing the number of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, or expanding those that already exist, linking them with a network of heavily guarded ring roads, serves both to cantonise the occupied territories and eventually absorb new Jewish immigrants. A corollary to this strategy is the policy of "transfer", a euphemism for the systematic expulsion of Arabs from the occupied territories, whether voluntarily through the sale of their property or under compulsion. In addition to making such areas available for Judification, the policy aims to regulate the demographic balances inside Israel and the occupied territories so as to alleviate the pressures of population concentration in northern and central Israel and, simultaneously, promote a better exploitation of land and resources in such areas as the Negev, Galilee, the West Bank and Golan. Israelis hope that such demographic restructuring will help it offset the pressures of international market forces and reduce its dependency on foreign aid.

VULNERABILITY TO COLONISATION: Sadly, the Arab world has always furnished fertile ground for US and Israeli strategies. Not only has it given them greater impetus but, in a sense, it also lent them justification in the absence of a comprehensive Arab development project and a collective security strategy. Unwittingly, the Arabs helped to create a climate that paved the way for a new form of colonialism. Indicative of the Arabs' plight is that some Arab intellectuals, whether consciously or not, have promoted aspects of the American imperial project while reactions of Arab governments betrayed their lack of awareness of the full significance of changes in the international theatre. Arab governments have long been obsessed with their own national security to the detriment of the formulation of a collective system. Indeed, for many, national security was abbreviated to the security of the ruling regime, just as the nation was reduced to the person of the ruler.

In addition, despite the wealth at the disposal of the Arab world, the combined GDP of the 22 Arab League countries is lower than that of Spain. The most salient causes of this dismal economic performance is lack of planning, the readiness to succumb to pressures to follow the prescriptions of international monetary agencies and rampant corruption. The combined effect of these factors has been to sap the resources and energies needed to fuel sustained growth, and to entrench conditions of underdevelopment and dependency.

A third vulnerability factor is poor standards of general education and technical research specifically. In a world in which nations stake their claim by virtue of their technological prowess, our condition in this domain is pitiful, especially when compared to countries that began their development processes decades after us and now surpass us -- India being a prime example. Particularly deplorable are the continued high rates of illiteracy, amongst females especially, across the board in the Arab world.

The legitimacy crisis of Arab ruling regimes compounds our vulnerability. For the most part, Arab regimes base their legitimacy not on the will of the people -- except rhetorically -- but on contrived historical grounds. Once entrenched in power, the rule of a particular coterie becomes as hereditary as any other type of property; constitutions, if they exist, are manipulated to mask autocracy or oligarchy, and electoral processes are a stock-in-trade of popular humour. In all events, the imposition of emergency or martial law has suspended the operation of most constitutions in the Arab world, giving regimes full rein to suppress all freedoms these constitutions uphold, again in the name of "national security".

Directly or indirectly, these regimes contributed to fostering militant groups that often adopt a religious mantle. Some of these have evolved into the terrorist organisations we know today, and of these several were supported, trained and armed by the West for deployment in such theatres of operation as Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya.

The activities of these armed or "splinter" groups serve to fuel the tensions and violence in the region and play directly into the hands of the US and Israel. That these two powers' long-term strategies capitalise on the violence and instability that such groups help to foster brings to mind the "proxy wars" of the Cold War era. One cannot, therefore, help but to wonder whether at least some of those groups are consciously lending themselves to US and Israeli objectives. Whether or not this is the case, certainly this factor renders it all the more imperative to check the cancerous growth of these terrorist cells before their malignancy burgeons out of control.