After the terrorist attacks in the resort town of Sharm El Sheikh, George Bush made a visit to the Egyptian Embassy in Washington to sign the condolence book. He characterized the assailants who carried out the vicious assault as individuals who “have no heart, have no conscience and have no ideology.”
No ideology? Now, that’s a new twist –” one that should be welcomed as a sign of sobriety coming from an administration blinded by dogma.
Since 9/11, the entrenched neo-con operatives in government and mass media circles have insisted that the terrorists are a product of deviate ideologues who had ‘hijacked Islam’ along with a billion plus Muslims. The neo-cons have been very successful at marketing the notion that the United States is in this fight to confront worldwide Islamic fascist movement intent on “changing our way of life.”
Without minimizing the carnage inflicted by Al Qaeda and their fellow travelers –” the terrorists who assaulted American shores on 9/11 never presented a threat level even remotely close to the one posed by the Third Reich. At a very primal level, neo-cons –” whose roots can readily be traced to the Israeli lobby –” are still fighting Hitler in the eternal hope that they can stop the Nazis at the Polish border. For these Likudnik ideologues, any negotiation or flexibility is considered appeasement and anyone who attempts to rationally trace the roots of terrorism is an apologist for Bin Laden.
If the neo-cons are right, we should all be very afraid and we should prepare to nurse our paranoia for a long time to come. Because their dogma suggests that there are only two possible ways to deal with terrorism. We can either make drastic social and cultural changes –” starting with our skirt lines. Or, alternatively, we must defeat the enemy in an epic “war on terror’ against an infinite number of angry and irrational Middle Eastern young men who will stop at nothing short of covering American women with burkas.
Before one subscribes to the apocalyptic visions proposed by the likes of Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, we should first explore the nature and natural size of the monster we have to deal with. The truth about Al Qaeda and like-minded terrorists –” is much simpler than a neo-con mind can ever grasp. It is rage and vengeance that animate the young men who flock to their ranks. If they had an ideology –” they could best be described as anarchists. They don’t issue policy statements. They don’t have blue prints for the future. Their tactics are certainly not designed to attract anybody to their faith. And they are not particularly concerned with public relations in the sense that they don’t give a damn what Americans or Europeans or fellow Muslims think of them. All they want is to act out their anger.
In the Middle East, getting revenge is an end unto itself. If the response is more violence from the adversary –” so be it. If the enemy is ten times as strong, all the more reason to retaliate just to prove that being weak doesn’t mean you walk away from a fight. It’s a ‘don’t step on me or I will bite off your toes while you’re crushing me’ doctrine.
To understand these terrorists –” one doesn’t need a doctorate in cultural anthropology. It’s a Hatfield and McCoy thing we should all understand. In that part of the world –” blood feuds and revenge are called ‘Thar’ and can last for generations. ‘Thar’ is a code of retaliation –” a tribal thing in a very tribal region. In Arabic, it is summed up as “Aleya Wa Ala Adaai.” Which amounts to bringing down the house on your own head just so the roof caves in and the beams crush your adversary’s skull. “Aleya Wa Ala Adaai” is a sentiment as ancient and as tribal as the one that motivated Samson to take down the temple on the heads of the Philistines.
What we have here is not so much a clash of civilizations as a clash of clans –” a blood feud between Americans and radical natives from the oil plantations in the Gulf. The one thing common to all blood feuds is that they have a start date and a trigger. So, it is worth pondering the approximate date on the calendar when Bin Laden and his followers decided to engage Americans in this blood feud.
The start date for all this mayhem was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the first Gulf war. One distinct impression I have of that conflict was how much Americans enjoyed it as pure entertainment. For years after the last shot was fired, CNN and Time Warner were still hawking videos of the war to consumers eager to see additional footage of the carnage in the deserts of Kuwait. The swift victory was given credit for erasing the symptoms of the Vietnam syndrome –” a contagious ailment that induces the public to vomit every time Washington beats the war drums for a military misadventure abroad.
The aura of American truimphalism that followed the first Gulf War was not shared across the Arab world. Watching Arabs kill Arabs with the assistance of European and American troops was humiliating and deeply disturbing for the vast majority in the region. While the Arabs placed most of the blame for their misfortune on Saddam –” they deeply resented the intervention of outside intruders –” especially the Americans who had spent decades supporting and financing Israel’s repression of the Palestinians and propping up the dictators and absolute monarchs in the Middle East –” including Saddam.
From the perspective of the Arabs in the Gulf, their liberation from colonial rule came in 1971 when the British abandoned their last outposts in the region. Only two decades later, Americans were back in force building bases in every Gulf country –” except Iraq and Iran. By leaving a permanent footprint in Saudi Arabia, the policy makers in Washington convinced many Gulf nationals that a new era of colonialism had dawned under the cover of ‘liberating Kuwait.’
American bases in Saudi Arabia were built for the purpose enforcing the no-fly zones and the crippling sanctions against Iraq. They were also very skillfully used by Bin Laden to attract fanatical followers. It should be noted that when the British ruled the region, they thought it unwise to have an overt military presence in Saudi Arabia – if only to avoid stirring up trouble in the rest of the British Empire where their colonial subjects included hundreds of millions of Muslims.
This much is certain and verifiable. Until the first Gulf War, there is no record of any Saudi Arabians attacking American civilians or military installations. A few short years after the liberation of Kuwait, we see the birth of a very new and very lethal brand of suicidal terrorism that left hundreds of dead and wounded at the El Khober towers, at American embassies in Africa and at the World Trade Center in 1995. The Cole was nearly sunk in Yemen and Egypt struggled for years to subdue the followers of Ayman El Zawahri who targeted the tourist industry with indiscriminate attacks against foreigners.
Before launching the first Gulf war, Bush the elder made a promise to the American people: “This will not be Vietnam. This will not be a protracted war.” It has been fifteen years since he made that vow. Today, 135,000 American soldiers are still in Iraq, engaged in a war of attrition against insurgents who object to our military presence in the region.
Back in 1991, direct and massive military intervention in the Gulf seemed like a cost-free proposition –” at least for Americans. In the battle to liberate Kuwait, the Iraqi army was decimated after sustaining tens of thousands of casualties. Saddam was forced to give up his WMDs and the seasoned crooks at the United Nations took over management of Iraqi oil exports. The war destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure –” once the envy of the Arab world. To punish ordinary Iraqis for the sins of the Baathist regime in Baghdad, Madeline Albright thought it was ‘worth it’ to inflict genocidal sanctions against Iraqi kids. In the north of the country, the Kurds set up a self-governing entity which – for all practical purposes –” remains completely independent of Baghdad. By the time the Anglo-American invaders rolled into Baghdad, an emaciated Iraqi economy was crumbling while a delusional narcissistic Saddam kept himself busy by writing romance novels.
After evicting the Iraqi army from Kuwait, most of the coalition countries that participated in the venture packed up their gear and returned home. But the first Bush administration decided to maintain a massive military presence in the region –” at the invitation of the gracious Kuwaiti and Saudi monarchs who insisted on picking up the tab. It was a “petro-dollars for mercenaries” exchange.
In further consideration for services rendered in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia gutted OPEC and pumped up production of oil to the extent that a barrel of crude was fetching ten dollars in 1998. This had the salutary effect of depriving Iran of oxygen and containing the clerical regime in Tehran.
For the natives of the oil plantations, the American project in the Gulf quickly took on the familiar feel and texture of a colonial enterprise. What else can you call a foreign military presence combined with the rape of natural resources in a region of the world where oil is the single largest contributor to national income? Only fools believed that the United States military was over there for charitable reasons.
In response to the new colonial order, the fabled ‘Arab Street’ appeared to be taking a long nap. But soon enough, a vicious phenomenon reared its head –” terrorists wreaked mayhem in Egypt and started attacking American embassies and military installations around the world.
While these terrorist attacks did not go unnoticed, they failed to deter the Clinton administration from ‘staying the course’ set by Bush the elder. The American bases in Saudi Arabia remained intact, support for the kleptocratic absolute monarchs was undiminished, genocidal sanctions were more zealously enforced against Iraq and just to rub salt in the wound –” the Israelis were given a carte blanche and ample funds to pulverize the Palestinians. A political calculation was made in Washington that the costs of these policies were justifiable given the obvious benefits –” cheap oil, maintaining a lucrative currency-exporting racket and appeasing the Israeli lobby.
In making their best call on potential consequences, the Clinton and Bush policy makers never imagined blowback on the scale of the carnage on 9/11. Of the nineteen assailants, fifteen were young Saudis. That fact alone should have raised insistent and incessant inquiries about their motives. The primary focus of our attention should have been their country – not their religion. But we couldn’t go there –” because that would have required a critical re-analysis of our symbiotic economic relationships with the Saudis and Kuwaiti royal families.
The primary benefit of our military alliances with the kleptocratic Gulf monarchs is their willingness to price and sell oil in dollars. This cozy arrangement forces other countries –” which are far more dependent on Gulf oil – to maintain massive dollar reserves to buy oil from the shaky sheiks of Arabia. By accepting dollars and only dollars for their oil, the Saudis and Kuwaiti effectively issue America a license to generate massive trade deficits –” now running at two billion dollars each and every day of the year. The United States has become addicted to the lucrative business of exporting currency backed by Gulf oil.
In addition to helping us out with our trade imbalance, the Arab monarchs also purchase a significant percentage of our domestic debt, as do the many countries holding dollar reserves for future purchases of oil. They do this by buying up ten year notes –” which is the way the Federal Government borrows to finance the domestic budget deficit. Most recently, foreign holders of dollar reserves have gravitated to mortgage backed securities –” which helps fuel the real estate bubble. And, of course, it never hurts that the bulk of the money expropriated by the gluttonous sheiks of the Gulf ends up in Wall Street, managed by the Carlyle Group and other professional asset managers with White House connections.
A sober analysis of why we even have an imperial presence in that region of the world is of vital importance. Every American citizen should be encouraged to think through the link between our military misadventures in the region and our massive trade deficits. It wasn’t just Halliburton that got a slice of the cake. Consciously or unconsciously – we have all stuck our fingers in the pie. Between 1995 and 2004, we ran a cumulative trade deficit of three trillion dollars –” over ten thousand for every man, woman and child. That was made possible because the US dollar was backed by the black gold buried in the Saudi and Kuwaiti deserts.
The atrocities of 9/11 are no excuse to avoid an analysis of how and why we ended up entangled in the Gulf. Direct American military intervention in the region has a clearly delineated history that started fifteen years ago. Lethal suicidal terrorism committed by Saudis against Americans has an even shorter time span. Until the first Gulf War, there is no record of any Saudi Arabians attacking American civilians or military installations. Finally, annual trade deficits in the last fifteen years have gone from 31 billion in 1991 to 667 billion in 2004. Connect the dots and you have the ingredients for a volatile blood feud with the natives in the oil plantations.
Given the coincidence of timing, it is an entirely fair question to ask if the genie got out of the bottle as a result of our foreign and economic policies. After the recent bombings in London, Tony Blair came up with the lamest excuse to avoid linking the terrorist assaults to the war in Iraq. He said something to the effect that the atrocities of 9/11 pre-dated the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq and that therefore one couldn’t link the London bombings to the war in Iraq. He forgot to mention that 9/11 happened a decade after the United States and Britain set up permanent bases on Saudi soil and after sanctions had wasted hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi lives. Blair is well advised to revisit his calendar and pick another start date for the troubles in the Gulf –” all the way back to the ‘Liberation of Kuwait’.
An honest and intelligent debate about our policies in the region requires an accurate tally of the mounting cost of the empire in the Kingdom of oil. Hundreds of billions have been spent on the second Gulf War and Homeland Security. The economic damage from the 9/11 assaults was somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 Billion. Most of those expenses were piled on top of our already bloated national debt, which is around eight trillion and growing.
A few days ago, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that “The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have already cost taxpayers $314 billion, and the Congressional Budget Office projects additional expenses of perhaps $450 billion over the next 10 years.” Measured in human lives, both civilian and military, the cost is staggering. Over five thousand Americans, many of them innocent civilians have perished in acts of war and terrorist assaults since the first Gulf War. There are no reliable figures on Iraqi casualties –” if only because no one bothers to count them – but they dwarf the American loss in life and limb.
Terrorism worldwide is on the increase from Sharm el Sheikh to London, Bali, Madrid and Baghdad. El Qaeda’s shelf life has been extended by a new generation of angry young men enraged by Abu Ghraib, Fallujah and the uncounted thousands of Iraqis casualties we continue to identify as ‘collateral damage.’
There are additional costs that are hard to quantify. We squandered the international solidarity of people around the world who shared our pain and embraced us after 9/11. Even countries that participated in the United States mission to uproot Al Qaeda in Afghanistan were treated like treasonous cousins when they objected to the invasion of Iraq. Long-standing alliances in Old Europe were cast to the wind. International conventions on human rights and the conduct of war were ripped to shreds and American credibility went down the drain with the WMD hoax.
From a military standpoint, the United States gave up its aura of invincibility in Iraq. With the possible exception of Somalia, every military adventure since Grenada –” including the first Gulf War – ended in swift and decisive victories. The war in Iraq has proven that the cost of holding hostile terrain against a determined foe is still high and can’t be contained by air power.
As for the gains from this enterprise, they are becoming clearer by the day. Iraq will probably end up being an Islamic theocratic republic in the Iranian orbit of influence. That isn’t even close to the rosy expectations of the neo-con engineers who authored the WMD hoax and the ‘intelligence failure’ to pave the path to war. Which only goes to prove that unprovoked and illegal wars are unpredictable. You tend to wind up with real time scenarios that conflict with your dogma.
Zbigniew Brzezinski recently challenged Bush to answer a basic question. "Our nation deserves an honest explanation for how we ended up in Iraq.” Is that asking too much? Before we leave Iraq, we should understand why we invaded that distant land and we need to hold those responsible accountable. Was George Bush trying to fix his daddy’s legacy? Were the neo-cons driven by their pro-Israeli passions? If the administration had good reasons to launch this venture, why did they bamboozle the public with the elaborate WMD hoax and then cover up their tracks with the ‘intelligence failure’ scam? When will this administration recognize that honesty is the best foreign policy?
If we remember how this blood feud started –” we will have a much better chance of ending it. Direct American military intervention in the Gulf was a crazy idea in 1991 and is a more insane idea in 2005. Permanent bases in the region are a permanent provocation. We didn’t invade Iraq for WMDs, we went to war to close the Saudi bases and remove the sanctions. One Gulf War led to another. As things now stand, we are forced to leave Iraq in Tehran’s custody. So be it. The outcome will be no different next year –” only more expensive.