The United States’ New Strategy in the Middle East
By NAVID FARNIA
In a seemingly inevitable development, U.S. President Barack Obama announced plans last week to expand military operations in Iraq, along with authorizing strikes on Syria. Since the Islamic State group (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS, and as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL) emerged in world headlines early this summer, U.S. rhetoric and action have gradually become more aggressive.
Given these events then, it’s no surprise Obama ordered military strikes. Nor is it surprising that other countries are now joining the foray. At a Paris conference that convened yesterday to coordinate a strategy against the Islamic State, French President Francois Hollande remarked, “[The threat] is global so the response must be global.” A “global response” means this war will continue to escalate, with no end in sight.
Obama outlined a four-pronged strategy for U.S. action in his September 10th speech:
Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.
First, we will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists… I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq.
Second, we will increase our support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground… As I have said before, [American soldiers] will not have a combat mission – we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq. But they are needed to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment…
Third, we will continue to draw on our substantial counterterrorism capabilities to prevent ISIL attacks. Working with our partners, we will redouble our efforts to cut off its funding; improve our intelligence; strengthen our defenses; counter its warped ideology; and stem the flow of foreign fighters into and out of the Middle East. And in two weeks, I will chair a meeting of the U.N. Security Council to further mobilize the international community around this effort.
Fourth, we will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians who have been displaced by this terrorist organization.
Notably, Obama used words like “comprehensive”, “sustained” and “systematic” to outline the U.S.’s military campaign. Although his rhetoric addressed the current situation, Obama’s speech more generally summarizes U.S. policy in the Middle East and its surrounding regions.
In fact, the inevitability of U.S. intervention predates the Islamic State’s brutally violent emergence. Last September, the Obama administration and U.S. officials were pushing for military action against Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria (eerily, Obama’s speech last year was also on September 10th). Had this happened, the U.S. would have supported a broad opposition campaign which at that point included the Islamic State. Tensions between the opposition groups in Syria only later led to a complete split between the Islamic State, the al-Nusra Front and Western-backed factions like the Syrian National Coalition.
Although a majority of the American public wasn’t ready to embrace another war then, it is now. Hence, the Obama administration moves forward. But how can we explain the sharp turn from targeting the Syrian establishment to now ordering strikes on its chief rival, especially when neither is a direct threat to the U.S.?
A Permanent Presence in the Middle East
Much has changed over the past year; the Middle Eastern landscape is far different from last September. And of course, the Syrian government and the Islamic State aren’t the only two actors in the country. Obama even noted that the U.S. won’t work with Assad’s government in the current invasion: “We cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its own people – a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost.”
Because neither Assad nor the Islamic State pose an immediate danger to the U.S., there’s something else at play here. Shifting military designs from the Syrian government to the government’s most powerful opponent suggests that the enemy actually matters little for the U.S. The country’s inconsistent position reveals a more important consistency: the desire to maintain a permanent military presence in the region. That U.S. involvement has already been comprehensive, sustained and systematic indicates this desire.
Moreover, the fact that U.S. officials can target two completely disparate actors shows the ease with which the superpower justifies military intervention. In effect, any group the U.S. classifies as an enemy or “terrorist organization” can be subjected to military aggression. The following comments reflect this conclusion: “I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are,” Obama stated. “This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”
The implications of Obama’s bold proclamation are broad and yet, incisively threatening. In theory, no state is safe from a potential U.S. invasion. More likely however, Obama is asserting that no Third World state is safe from such an incursion, which indicates a racial undertone in the way the U.S. conceptualizes opposition or “terror.” The U.S. would never define Russian opposition to American interests as terrorist activity, let alone invade Russia.
Conversely, the Middle East sits as a U.S. stomping ground. U.S. military intervention is so routinized that the word “intervention” may no longer sufficiently describe what’s happening. The U.S.’s presence in the Middle East more closely resembles an occupation where its level of involvement depends on specific regional circumstances. Still, even in periods when the U.S. is minimally involved, its military presence is permanent and as such, so is the threat of attack.
How is it achieving a permanent presence? With a “war-weary” public that’s vehemently against putting “boots on the ground”, long-range warfare is a more acceptable option. Because American soldiers aren’t put in any real danger, the public is more likely to approve of the United States’ new “war from afar” strategy. American military facilities and operation centers on Middle Eastern and African soil accommodate this strategy and make the threat of war immediate for any country that “acts up.”
War from afar is the new method of U.S. military power and domination. It enhances the country’s omnipresence around the globe. And by taking troops off the ground, war from afar makes U.S. military interventions more palatable, systematic and ultimately, more permanent.
Additionally, drone strikes are instrumental to this strategy. The Yemeni, Somali, Afghan and Pakistani people are already aware of the U.S.’s ruthless drone wars, which will now spread to Iraq and Syria as well. The Obama administration often employs the term “surgical” to describe drone strikes, however as people across these afflicted countries will attest, they are anything but.
Creating and Countering “Warped Ideology”
The U.S. has the military might to invade any country it so wishes, but that power can’t be put into practice without some kind of justification. As such, fabricated threats labelled as “terrorists” are often conjured to create public consent. Despite its inability to harm the U.S. and its people, the Islamic State is nevertheless the current example.
In his speech last week, Obama described the Islamic State as having a “warped ideology.” This was perhaps the most noteworthy part of his address.
The Islamic State is undoubtedly wreaking havoc upon people in Iraq and Syria, but for Obama to render its ideology as warped says something more. It implies that the Islamic State’s ideology is warped in relation to other more normal ideologies. More importantly, those words indicate that someone or something is responsible for warping the group’s ideology. So who and what caused the “warping”?
To be sure, the U.S.’s criminal invasion and occupation of Iraq caused the Islamic State’s creation and growth. The group didn’t exist before the U.S. systematically destroyed the country. In fact, every single nation the U.S. invaded this century has produced a resistance that American officials would label as having “warped ideologies.” That includes Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.
It’s no wonder then that al-Qaeda and the Taliban have grown exponentially and other groups like the Islamic State have materialized. Inevitably, more military involvement escalates regional violence and intensifies resentment among local populations, which then strengthens existing militant opposition groups or leads to new ones. Put simply, warped bodies and warped lands create “warped ideologies”, or ideologies that aren’t consistent with and subservient to U.S. interests.
Creating Calculated Chaos
Given the U.S.’s past actions and their horrible repercussions, some journalists like Al Jazeera’s Marwan Bishara question the U.S.’s approach, particularly since it comes merely days after Obama declared the White House doesn’t yet have a strategy. Says Bishara:
Why, I wondered, after 154 airstrikes; after meager support for the “moderate” Syrian opposition and the same towards the new Iraqi government, the US president declares a new strategy that comprises the same menu?
Didn’t he say only a few days ago that he had no strategy? Is one to conclude that the Commander-in-Chief has concocted a strategy out of the already tried, ad-hoc, piecemeal policies that clearly didn’t work?
But U.S. officials, and especially someone as calculated as Obama, must be aware of the historical precedent behind certain tactics. Thus, because the Obama administration and state officials understand the implications of past actions, the only logical conclusion is that the U.S. is making calculated efforts to maintain chaos.
The constant act of defining and redefining enemies (in this case, from Assad to the Islamic State) makes for an amorphous target, which rationalizes long-term military intervention. Furthermore, as the U.S. accumulates support for an “international coalition”, which is Secretary of State John Kerry’s current task, the prospects of an escalated war and sustained high-level involvement become increasingly inevitable. The U.S. can therefore justify its presence in the region by making and reproducing chaos.
Aligning Responsibilities and Interests
For U.S. officials, having a permanent presence in the Middle East is absolutely necessary in order to secure American interests. As Obama laid out the new military strategy, he also made a moral appeal to the American public. “America, our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden. But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead,” he said. Earlier in the speech he mentioned using “force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests” but also “[mobilizing] partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order.”
On one hand, Obama appeals to responsibility while on the other, he highlights core interests. Among these interests is protecting “American personnel and facilities” and undoubtedly, maintaining trade partners and keeping open lucrative markets. The U.S.’s interests are material – economic, political and military – while its responsibilities are more abstract – ideological. Responsibilities can thus, be fabricated to align with material interests. In other words, the U.S.’s interests determine its responsibilities.
There’s also a racial element that informs the relationship between interests and responsibilities. Obama commented how leading and protecting others is America’s “enduring burden.” He also declared, “Abroad, American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world.” This language is reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” in which Kipling calls on Europeans (specifically, white men) to “civilize” other societies. In this case, the burden falls upon America to civilize and bring democracy to the racialized and barbaric others.
Obama renders the country’s “responsibility” to protect others as an aspect of American “leadership” or exceptionalism. In reality, “leadership” is a proxy for U.S. imperialism. The need to “address broader challenges to international order” signifies this because it means protecting the U.S.’s place at the top of that order, or its imperial interests. Moreover, America’s responsibility to protect provides reason for going to war (but only from afar through long-range strikes) and consequently, enables ruling from afar – i.e., U.S. imperialism.
This is the racialized nature of U.S. imperialism; saving the “good” Arabs from the “bad” ones via aerial strikes the “good” ones requested. However, definitions of “good” and “bad” are predetermined by U.S. interests and as a result, are rigged. Only when it’s in the U.S.’s “core interests” to intervene does it also become a “responsibility.”
The United States has long established its presence and authority in the Middle East and the surrounding regions. However, its new strategy of war from afar makes that presence more sustained and permanent. Moving forward, the U.S. will be armed and ready at literally a moment’s notice to attack any country and people that express opposition to American interests, which perpetuates war or the threat of it. The war from afar strategy subsidizes U.S. imperial domination in Iraq, Syria, the broader Middle East and throughout the Third World.
The Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain and Glenn Greenwald reported Sunday that the U.S. concocted a new “terror threat”, a group they named Khorasan, to justify military strikes on Syria. Citing unnamed U.S. officials, the Associated Press first published this new (mis)information on September 13th, describing Khorasan as an offshoot of al-Qaeda. Despite the fact that the Islamic State was capturing most headlines, Khorasan was “considered the more immediate threat” according to the AP’s sources.
The writers explain, “But once it served its purpose of justifying the start of the bombing campaign in Syria, the Khorasan narrative simply evaporated as quickly as it materialized.” Hussain and Greenwald subsequently list a variety of unrelated sources that all dispute Khorasan’s existence.
By fabricating a terror threat and then spreading misinformation through the media, U.S. officials got what they wanted in bombing Syria. This was an invented ideological means to pursue a material end. The fiction that is Khorasan is not inconsistent with the broader U.S. foreign policy agenda; it’s part of a systematic process where the U.S. pursues its interests in the Middle East by producing and reproducing regional instability. Of course, the end result for Syrians and Iraqis is escalated war, followed by more death and destruction.
Navid Farnia is a doctoral student in African American and African Studies at Ohio State University. He received his Master of Arts degree from the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University and his bachelor’s at Cornell University. He is an Iranian American who was born and raised in Oklahoma.
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